Frank Lloyd Wright: How being too famous can hurt your sales

Written by: Karl Sakas

Frank Lloyd Wright complained that after he got famous, “normal” people wouldn’t approach him with design commissions—they assumed they could never afford his help, which wasn’t quite true.

For a creative studio, this proved to be an unexpected sales problem—otherwise qualified prospects assumed that because he was famous, he’d never design for them. But 10% on a mid-sized project was better than nothing for covering payroll at Taliesin.

Be exclusive. But not too exclusive.

What can you learn from this as an agency owner? Being exclusive is good. But don’t come across as so exclusive that no one thinks they could ever hire you.

Brains on Fire’s application process

Brains on Fire, the word of mouth marketing agency, takes just four brand identity development projects a year. To manage this (and build a backlog of eager, perfect-fit clients), they have an in-depth application process. From a previous version (February 2014):

Just as we believe in being marketing matchmakers who connect companies and causes to the right customers, we employ the same philosophy to our own business. When we are able to take on new work, we want to be certain we’re partnering with organizations we can help meaningfully succeed—and can have fun with along the way. In order to do just that, we’ve developed a process that helps us determine that you + us will equal a match made in marketing heaven.

Improving your agency’s sales-qualification process

Their application form is a model for qualifying prospects, in part because it forces the prospective client to think about what they really need before they contact you. This saves you a ton of time.

And I’m all for qualifying your prospects, to avoid wasting your time during sales and business development. If you’re deluged with no-budget looky-loos, it’s time to finally start publishing price ranges on your website.

But that isn’t the case for most agencies. Or they hear from a lot of people, but they’re not quite the right match. Be sure your positioning and intake process isn’t scaring away qualified prospects.

‘Til you’re famous, too, don’t rely solely on the bold

Frank Lloyd Wright found that eccentric rich people were glad to contact him. And indeed, most middle class Americans weren’t a match for the different kind of lifestyle his houses prescribed.

But there were plenty of middle class Americans who’d be a match for what became his five-dozen Usonian houses. Most were afraid to contact him.

That wasn’t the case with newspaper copy editor Loren Pope, who was making $50/week when he wrote the famous architect in 1939:

“There are certain things a man wants during life, and, of life. Material things and things of the spirit. The writer has one fervent wish that includes both. It is for a house created by you.”

Wright replied:

“Dear Loren Pope: Of course I am ready to give you a house.”

The Pope-Leighey House turned out to be a great middle-class home, but it’d never have happened if its owner hadn’t taken a risk.

Where does your digital agency fall on the continuum?

How many qualified prospective clients are contacting you now? Too many? Or too few? The right solution for fixing that varies, but I’m glad to help you either way.

Thanks to George Smart, executive director of North Carolina Modernist Houses, for sharing the original “too famous” story about Frank Lloyd Wright during NCMH’s trip to Fallingwater in 2011.

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