Andy J. Miller to Creative Professionals: Don’t Undersell Yourself
May 25, 2016
In society, artists and creative professionals are sometimes treated like they’re winning an award just for being able to do creative work. This can create a false narrative that causes creatives to have low self-esteem and place low value on what they produce. Now, I don’t want to discredit this idea of being grateful for your privilege and life. But I see creative professionals grinding, working long hours with tough problems and then delivering amazing value only to be treated like “aren’t you lucky we’re paying you to color?”
The return on investment of creative work in the marketplace is gigantic. It can make-or-break how people perceive a brand or company. And I actually believe businesses know this and understand the value of creatives. But perhaps creative people don’t always understand their own value.
The Antiques Roadshow Approach to Valuing Your Art
On the Antiques Roadshow, you’ll often see somebody say “I bought this from my neighbour for $5 but suspected it was worth more”. Then, it’ll appraise for like $200K. And I think: No! You owe your neighbour money, because they didn’t know what they had; they didn’t understand the value of what they had.
As creative professionals, we often undervalue ourselves. So I want to talk about selling your work for what it’s worth, coming to the marketplace with the kind of confident posture that speaks to the value that you bring. Let’s use the analogy of the Antiques Roadshow to guide us through these points.
1. Unearth Your Antique: Discover That Thing You Do That Holds Value
I subscribe to the idea that everybody has unique value that emerges when they lean into their natural talents and abilities. I also go back to the thought that the whole point of business is to provide value. If you’re not clear about what value you’re providing, you’re not in business. Why? Because all businesses do is trade value for money. So you need to be crystal clear when communicating the value you’re selling.
One of the biggest breakthroughs for me was realizing that the ways I provide value in relationships can be applied to art. A lot of my friends seek me out for creative advice. I realized I love bringing clarity to a complex subject; it actually makes me kind of euphoric. So I put that into illustration. I thought “How do I make those moments of clarity happen within my illustration? And what market can I bring that to?”.
Think about the times in your life when people have sought you out for things that you’re naturally good at—the kind of deeper why you exist stuff—and put that into what you actually make. This is Simon Sinek’s idea of Start With Why: Why do people come to you? What value are you really providing people in your real life? And then how can you apply those skills to your creative output?
At the same time, have the humility to understand you’re just one person and your contribution can be very small. But if you really own that contribution, it can be truly delightful. Frank Chimero talks about delighting people with creativity and giving small things lots of time and energy. The more that I own my own calling, my little plot of land, the more I’m blown away by the delight and significance of giving myself to that thing.
2. Restore Your Antique: Hone and Improve Its Value
Once you identify your value, develop some practices to make it even better; take that antique and polish it! Show up every day and put it to the test, develop some projects so you’re regularly exercising that muscle.
Jean Julian—an illustrator best known for making the Peace Symbol out of the Eiffel Tower after the Paris Attacks—makes constantly. His illustrations are often based on relevant news and he has the discipline to quickly make things based on what’s happening at that moment. And he does that in public so that it’s visible to others. In that way, he’s not only practicing creativity, but also reaching people who can hire him.
So think about this: What kinds of projects can you develop where you get to regularly exercise this value you bring and get it into tip-top shape?
3. Take It to the Appraiser: Good Feedback Can Be a Game-Changer
One of the big turning points in my career was meeting my wife, Sophie Miller, because she gives me brutal, honest feedback. We all need to get an “Art Spouse”— someone who can tell you when you have food in your teeth, who can say, “Hey that thing that you’re trying out, it’s not working yet”. Or, “It’s got this giant issue going on, it’s got no momentum, the content is lacklustre”.
I encourage you to really invest in this: If there are people out there who you’d love to get feedback from, don’t be afraid to ask what their hourly rate is and pay them to look over your work. Ask questions like: What do you think is missing in my portfolio? What’s off-putting? What’s not working? What can’t I see? Where is the food in the teeth of my portfolio?
Be obsessed with getting feedback. Go to workshops and conferences, get facetime with people who know their stuff and prod them into telling you the bad stuff. Develop a thick skin so you’re comfortable hearing what’s not working. Appraisal is important to growing and improving; it helps you see where you’re not firing. But it will also help you believe in the value you provide.
4. Finally, Take it to Auction: Now Sell That Bad Boy!
I believe the topic of selling is really misunderstood in creativity; we have this negative view of what selling is. One of Zig Ziglar’s ideas is that selling is human and you need to be good at it no matter what you do. Remember the teachers who really sold a subject to you and what a crazy difference that made? Some of those teachers can alter the trajectory of lives!
Ziglar also believed in getting people to buy what they were selling. He had a friend struggling to sell dishware and Ziglar advised him to take his next paycheck and buy the dishware. If the purchase was worth it, it would change the way he sold the product. And if it wasn’t worth it, he needed to get out of the business.
The best way to really believe in your creativity is to sell it to yourself; use your creativity for your own business advantage. Take that value you unearthed and prove its worth. Early on, I realized I could do editorial illustration and so I thought I’m going to write my own articles and illustrate them, and that eventually turned into the podcast.
How can you take your value and use it for yourself? You’ve got all the resources now! There’s nothing stopping you from being your own little media company or your own small business. Businesses out there know the power of your creativity; they know the impact it can have. But you need to know that for yourself too. So instead of just making bricks for Pharaoh—build your own pyramid.
I believe that everybody has amazing, innate talents and values specific to them. And if there’s anything different in me, it’s only that I’ve spend tonnes of time and energy identifying this value, developing it, getting feedback, and then learning how to sell it.
So I encourage you to dig down deep, figure out your value, hone it, discipline it. Find people who will give you honest feedback. Then sell your value to yourself. Instead of doing it for some Joe Schmo business down the street, do it for yourself. The great thing is that when you do that, you won’t have to sell at all. They’ll come to you and try to woo you. More importantly, they’ll see they’re lucky to work with you.
Listen to the full original podcast this post was based on:
about the author
Andy J. Miller is a commercial artist who breathes life and weirdness into simple shapes. He specializes in brand collaborations, advertising illustration, kids market illustration, editorial illustration, gig posters, album art, hand lettering, mural design, visual development for animation and book design. Listen to his podcast, Creative Pep Talk.