Lessons to be learned – Martin Hill

June often mocks me because over the last 25 years I’ve yo-yoed between ‘working for the man’ as a digital creative (in advertising, e-commerce, interactive design and innovation), and working for myself – including setting up and growing successful web design business for 8 years in the 2000s (having said that, my version of ‘success’ is probably different to most – I spent 8 years with my team making really cool stuff and not really worrying too much about getting rich, but hey ho – it was fun).

But whichever side of the fence I’ve been, most of my career I’ve been using creativity to help clients sell more stuff – ie marketing. Whether it’s innovating a new product, coming up with a cool advert, making a web site easier to use, or even programming a game that raises your brand awareness, it’s all effectively been good old ‘marketing’.

Strictly speaking marketing is actually a management process (basically organising the journey of a service or product from concept to the customer), but it is probably one of the few industries creative people can actually make a decent living (thank goodness!)

But the curse of the creative mind (at least my creative mind) is that a creative person does’t really like doing business, and especially doesn’t feel comfortable the corporate world. We just like, well, creating things.

And so, at the end of last year I decided to leave the digital corporate world behind. I had a longing to explore more ‘analogue’ and artisan creative options and kept coming back to glass. Not quite as mad as it seemed – after art college I had worked in a glass shop for a while, cutting glass and creating leaded lights. It seemed to make sense as it was a craft as well as an art, so it would stand more chance of being a viable business.

The core of the business is designing and making leaded lights for architecture (think Edwardian front doors and fan lights etc) and garden ornaments. I knew it would take a while to build up a reputation with this, so a shorter term goal was to gain experience making fused glass objects fired in a kiln – lots of opportunity to be creative, and pretty saleable online to get some income started relatively quickly. I also had a yearning to sell at artisan markets, which I had a hunch would be a great way of researching the market and getting my name out there.

There was, of course, a problem – Lockdown! Non-essential markets were closed, but on the other hand I had nothing to do but hole up in my workshop reviving old skills, learning new techniques, and getting creative. By the time artisan markets opened again in April, I was raring to go, and eagerly set off for my first market.

In a way, a market stall is an ecosystem of the marketing process, so my 25 years in marketing would be really useful, right? We I’ve no doubt it helped me, but what I learnt that first market day surprised me in many ways – and I think there are lessons to be learned for any business.

  1. You really cannot beat talking directly to your customers face to face. In the flow of natural conversation, you learn things that you wouldn’t think to ask.
    Lesson: Make sure your market research includes real people and real conversations – not just surveys or desktop research
  2. I’m not a naturally chatty person, so I was quite apprehensive about spending 5 hours talking to strangers. But I loved it – just chatting to people about my work (which I’m obviously very enthusiastic about) came easily.
    Lesson: Marketing is a whole lot easier of you believe in your product. Most business owners do – but make sure whoever is doing your marketing for you genuinely does too…
  3. Just by chatting, I learned a hell of a lot from people who didn’t buy – and might never buy. I got bang-up-to date insight into the minds of people and what they want to buy.
    Lesson. This is something I really think modern marketing methods miss. Being face to face allows you to really understand the reasons people don’t buy – and it’s ever changing (no more so than now). It’s also a 2 way street – I had great input for ideas for new pieces, but even if people are never going to buy from you, they can give you great insight to help improve the experience of those who do.
  4. There seemed to a big difference in taste with different markets. In my first market, I sold out of a particular item within an hour, so I quickly made another batch in time for my second market – and sold none!
    Lesson: Understanding demographics nuances is really important. Be prepared to try different things in different markets and adapt.
  5. Positive feedback and compliments are the most energising thing.
    Lesson – we all have our down days, and in this world of online reviews being so ubiquitous, holding so much weight, yet somehow not quite trustworthy, genuine unsolicited face to face compliments really do lift moral – make sure they are shared within your company.

In todays digitally transformed business world, there are so many amazing tools to help you sell. Incredible market research and insight tools, CRM tools – you can profile customers, target customers, see exactly how much ROI you are getting from advertising, measure creative effectiveness etc etc – the digital world is your oyster, and it all works superbly.

But there is massive part of me that thinks we have left the human, less measurable, emotion based understanding of our customers behind.

I’d bet a chief marketing officer of a retail chain would learn more if he spent a week on the shop floor serving customers than he would from a £100k consulting project. A CEO of an insurance company likewise if he manned the call centre for a week. Or perhaps asking too much, but the CFO of a bank live with a family relying on food banks for a week?

The past year seems to have supercharged our acceleration to the digital future, but I still think there is a huge part to play for the human, more analogue, more emotional side of marketing – and those who get the blend right will have the edge.

Right – enough of this staring at a computer screen writing waffle lark – I’m off into the rain to stand under a gazebo and talk to random people about glass….

Martin Hill

Roughwood Glassworks