A Letter from Michael Wolff: Money

Dear Reader,

“Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay and you’re OK.
Money, it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash a
New car, caviar, four-star daydream,
Think I’ll buy me a football team.”

“Money, get back I’m all right
Jack keep your hands off my stack.
Money, it’s a hit
Don’t give me that do goody good bullshit
I’m in the hi-fidelity first class travelling set
And I think I need a Lear jet.”

“Money, it’s a crime
Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie
Money, so they say
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a rise it’s no surprise
that they’re giving none away.”

When I hear the sound of the cash register at the beginning of The Pink Floyd’s “The Dark side of the Moon” album, it encourages me never to take money too seriously but, at the same time, to be absolutely clear how to deal with it. Especially when I’m explaining to my clients what they’ll need and want to pay me, and why I feel we’ll be successful working together.

Listen to it, listen to the whole album any way you can. It’s extraordinary. Little design work today has this originality, depth, richness and precision. Find a quiet space and let it flood through your mind and inspire you. And then consider that all you pay for this wondrous experience is just a few dollars.

Now to the point of this letter — what do you think you’re worth? What do you think your value is to your clients? Do your clients see eye to eye with you on what you want to charge them? And even if they do at the start of a project, do you know how they feel about what they paid you when the project’s been completed?

First, some background:
I want to share something of my journey with these issues and how my attitude has evolved over time. Maybe you’ll be able to see some short cuts and ways to avoid some of the doubts and barriers that I’ve had to overcome over many years. For many of us, especially me in the early days of my work, money was never an easy topic. I flattered myself that I could have come up with the concept of the Red Cross in ten minutes and then spent just a few hours refining it conceptually, so why should ten minutes of my time ever cost anyone a small fortune?

This sense of cautious guilt probably came from my childhood because, until my late teens, I’d never thought about how my parents earned money, how much they earned, how they budgeted, how they lived their complicated lives or paid for me and my adolescent antics. It was only as a student of architecture, having to walk up the stairs of the deepest underground station in London (20 giddying minutes) to avoid paying the fare, that I found time to ponder about money, my life and me. It was the staircase on which I started to face reality.

I lived at home, so no real costs there, and somehow I always had nearly enough money to do what I needed to do — having the liberty of living away from home, and running my own financial life, was still something I managed to postpone. I moved from having poorly paid jobs to becoming a freelance and nascent brand — or, a variety of pictures in other people’s minds based on my limited reputation, their expectations, and gossip. Being without wages or a salary, it was time to invent my own fees and my own business.

By this time, people had become more familiar with the range of prices designers charged, and yet I still felt a familiar sense of doubt and even apprehension. At the same time as feeling doubts,I used to ask myself, why, since I was fortunate enough to be able to see how an organisation could best express itself, should I give my ideas away, or simply accept what my clients were willing to offer. And yet I still sometimes felt that I shouldn’t expect to be paid much for something that seemed to come so naturally to my mind, and I had little idea of my worth or the value of my work to my clients. It was the same for my clients. Few had much feeling for the value of design.

I remember noticing how a client paid many thousands of pounds for a car and even tens of thousands for a watch, and yet the possibility of building a valuable brand was not on their menu of desire. I failed to understand this absurdity. There weren’t so many design businesses in those days, and so it was natural that few people, neither designers nor their clients, had much idea of the value of design and what they should pay for it. It was up to the very few, courageous and commercially minded of us, to start to create markers and standards for what more serious clients would expect to pay.

This came with the birth of new companies and brands in the design world. Gradually some more ambitious individuals like FHK Henrion and some US firms, like Landor, Lippincott and Margulies, and after them, Wolff Olins in London and others, began to realise that design was a serious subject and so, a serious business.

Many, fearful that raw creativity would seem irrational and even amateur to clients, started to present themselves as business people wearing business suits, making business presentations and talking about business strategy, consultancy and marketing. This masquerade continues today and, in my experience, diminishes the likelihood of mutual trust, openness and the risk-taking that enables good design.

People can smell inauthenticity.

Interestingly, when you look at the advertising business and TV shows like Mad Men, you see how this mannerism of wanting to seem business-like to their clients, while at the same time despising them, diminishes the quality of both advertising and design. This results in much of the egregious and shameful stuff that wastes billions of clients’ marketing budgets today. Nowadays, the domination of hierarchy, corporate style and titles, specious rationality, persuasive people with convincing presentations (unable to step past what they know) are all producing expensive mediocrity on a huge and global scale.

The days of the dominance of people of Bill Bernbach’s calibre have slipped behind us. At Doyle Dane Bernbach the quality of work was taken far more seriously than the various processes involved.

Two Bernbach quotes:
“In communications, familiarity breeds apathy.”
“An idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it.”

The same dominant creativity is true of designers like Elliot Noyes, Steve Jobs, Paul Rand, Ivan Chermayeff, Alan Fletcher, Milton Glaser and Issey Miyake, to name just a few.

Today advocacy, justification, risk avoidance and above all, apparent reason and rationality seem to be the way to justify high fees. These behavioural clichés are considered more sound than, brilliance, originality, aptness and the ability to evoke authentic emotional responses.

I hope you and the next generation of creative people will bring back those great days, and that the potential success which comes from raw intuition, empathy, honesty, artistry, unrestricted imagination and risk will be seen again as more valuable than the reassuring and comforting process-driven management of today.

Now, to the meat:
Authenticity is the quality that has the most value for me looking back through the whole of my life and my career. Authenticity is the guide. Authenticity will show you how to make money work best for both you and your clients so both feel expressed, fulfilled and enriched. Sometimes I used to feel that competing for work was a necessary process of seduction, but soon I realised that most seductions contain the seeds of destruction and that relationships built on seduction rarely endure.

I try, when setting my price, to see it from a client’s perspective, especially if competition is involved. What’s most likely to be going on in a client’s head? Is it: who can do the best for me and take me beyond my expectations? Or is it: who’s the cheapest? If the person buying already has a price in their head, they probably also have an idea of what they’re expecting and what they feel the value is. Many people like this have an insufficient grasp of the value of design. Stay away from them.

Today, if ‘design blind’ companies, small or large, haven’t learnt from Apple, IKEA and all the others who’ve worked hard and invested in design to achieve great brands (take a look at the website of bestmadeco.com) they’ll be a waste of your time. Leave them to the piranhas or blatantly commercial designers who claim to bring effective design solutions that are ‘ready-made’ and creatively disengaged. ‘Conformist design’ cannot be creative.

When, in Wolff Olins, we knew we were being compared to others, there were nine clear principles that I discovered, which we used and which have always guided me.

1. Never second-guess what our competitors might do as a basis for our competitive strategy. Pentagram will ‘Pentagram’, Landor will ‘Landor’ and a competing individual will ‘individual’. All we can do is to ‘Wolff Olins’. Our only competitor is our own past performance.

2. Don’t base your fees on time, base them on value and on the truth. You may need six hours, six days, six weeks or six months to find out what you need to know to start thinking, creating and constructing a programme, but the most valuable part of that, to both you and your client, will be the few minutes of inspired creativity.

3. Share all your ideas and co-create, but only make one recommendation. Never say, “it could be one of three.” (Why not three hundred?) Recommend from single-minded conviction and, if you’ve read some of my previous letters, go back and see the one on handling rejection — it was my letter in Kyoorius 15 and it was called “The Four Gateways to diminish rejection”.

4. Humility is a good friend and arrogance a pitfall.

5. Never bad-mouth a competitor.

6. Remember that it’s the client who chooses. Respect that.

7. Be as thoroughly yourself, or your brand, as you can. Be open and honest, be willing not to know, be confident about your own value and the value you intend to bring to your client.

8. Don’t obsess about winning or losing. You can’t win them all. Losing can be useful.

9. Never blame, always learn.

How to decide what to charge:
First bear in mind what you or your business needs to maintain a reasonable profitability — what needs to be earned each month. You can’t afford to forget you’re a business. Then think intelligently and honestly about the value of what you intend to bring to your clients. Don’t be bashful.

If you can create empathy and straightforward feelings of mutual trust as soon as you meet, you can even discuss this with your clients. Then, as you fluctuate from low to high figures and oscillate back and forth with all sorts of justifications, a figure will appear in your mind. Trust it!

In the end your success depends on your talents, your sense of self-worth, your confidence, how you gauge the value of your brand, big or small, taking care of the quality of your relationships with your clients, and, in my view, your spirit, your integrity and the scale and meaning of what drives your ambitions.

My best wishes to you and a happy holiday, whatever your beliefs,


Recognised as one of the world’s most experienced practitioners in establishing corporate identities, Michael’s body of work has spanned more than 30 years. He enjoys encountering situations where he doesn’t know what to do or think. That’s when he needs, and so far, can count on, his creativity. Most of all, he enjoys old friends and new ideas.

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