Operational Secrets of Top Creative Studios with Joel Pilger, Consultant at REVthink


By Assemble

November 9, 2022

Joel Pilger is a former studio owner and now global consultant for REVthink, where he helps top creative companies unlock their potential through strategic positioning, pricing and operations. In this episode, we talk about his experiences running and selling a creative studio, how to deliver a memorable client experience, and why he believes in getting rid of the line item bid forever.

Find this episode on Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Also available at Creatives Offscript.

Nate Watkin: The year is sometime around 2010. I am a young kid, fresh outta college dreams to be a producer director, and I had just landed a summer job at Crisp Porter Baki in Boulder, Colorado, which was the hottest, most in Vogue agency at the time, maybe in the world. And I was off on my career as a creative and sitting at my desk one day, an email pops up on my computer, a mysterious invitation from Impossible Pictures for a party. And of course I knew Impossible, biggest production company and visual effects shop in Denver at the time. So I had to go check it out. So late one Friday night, I show up at this ritzy downtown office with pool tables and edit suites and all the fancy things you can think of. And this party was amazing. I'm talking DJs, models, bartender, fully stocked bar, which I think ran out a couple times.

And they had to make emergency runs to the liquor store to keep the party going. And this would've been the first time I believe I would have Brush should with Joel Pilger, who the, or was the owner and founder of Impossible Pictures. Joel started Impossible Pictures, ran it for 20 years and eventually sold it. And since then he has taken his incredible knowledge and experience to Rev Think, where he's a global consultant, helping the world's top creative studio owners unlock their company's potential, operate their business, and create the life that they want. So if you run a production company or creative agency, I think this interview is going to be especially interesting to you as Joel's gonna take us through some of the secrets and strategies he uses to advise his clients in creating industry leading companies. Welcome to our show, Joel.

Joel Pilger: Wow, dude, that intro <laugh>. That was great. Thank you so much. I'm, I'm laughing, I'm tickled, I'm humbled. That was awesome.

Nate Watkin: Yeah, I was researching a little bit for this episode and I saw that you still have an Impossible Pictures website up with a bunch of photos and it even struck me with a bit of nostalgia. Took me back to the Denver days. Very cool. Just remembering those times.

Joel Pilger: Well, it's especially cool hearing your perspective of that party. I remember that of course that was our grand opening party when we had just built out a new space right in the heart of lower downtown Denver, and we were like the coolest address and all the bells and whistles. Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I guess I always had this crazy idea as did my business partner Steve, that could we just play at the highest levels in the industry, in the business, do the best work, charge the highest prices, all these kinds of things. And in a way it was like, well, until somebody says no, we're gonna go for it. And I think that's part of what you witnessed <laugh> that night at that opening grand opening open house party.

Nate Watkin: Yeah, it was great to witness. It was great to see especially as somebody that was just starting my career at that time. So I wanna spend the first half of this podcast learning about your personal journey and then we'll spend the second half really going deep into your mind and learning how you help creative companies scale. So as mentioned the intro, you ran Impossible for 20 years, which is amazing but would love to know how you got into that. I believe your story is similar to me and that you actually started the company while you were still in college or right when you graduated?

Joel Pilger: Yeah, shortly after I graduated. So I was at Georgia Tech and I was in the industrial design program, started using 3D back in the days when this is pre Jurassic Park was using it to 3D to visualize product design and things like that. But I just got into the animation side of things, started learning some tools. This was all in the early days of the Mac and Photoshop 1.2 and all this kind of stuff. But I started freelancing as an animator in Atlanta, Georgia and just said, Man, I love this. I think I'm gonna start a company. So I went to my dad and said, Hey, can you help me? I wanna borrow $50,000 to buy a Silicon Graphics workstation and cause I'm compositing software. And off I was off. I was going within a few years of being out of college.

Nate Watkin: And you started that, was that in Atlanta or where did that originally start?

Joel Pilger: Strangely, it was Charlotte, North Carolina. And the very first job I ever landed was I went and pitched the Charlotte Hornets, the NBA team there on a televised show opener that was all 3D and super awesome. And they were like, Yes, you win, take do it. And it was one of these classic, wow, just right outta the gate I had this showpiece tent pole project that I could show the world, this is what I can do. And that's how I started the company. And then within a year and a half I had this dream called, I've always wanted to live in Colorado, so wagons west. And that's how impossible spent the rest of its years in Colorado.

Nate Watkin: And I actually, I had no idea. And in fact that you ran impossible for 20 years. I think when I came and first arrived in Denver, that was towards the very end. Because you would sell it, I believe, in 2014? Correct. How long did it take you running impossible before you felt like I arrived? I think a lot of people in the early days, it's just them, maybe 1, 2, 3 people. And by the time you sold it, as mentioned, it was the biggest production creative shop in Denver and obviously a big staff and amazing offices. But how long were you really working on that before you started to arrive?

Joel Pilger: Ooh, well, I'm gonna say a minute, <laugh>, because I really think of my first seven years as this era when I was just struggling. It was me and maybe one employee and we were doing some really cool work, but that was just two people. We weren't really making a lot of money. I was working like crazy. It was unhealthy, unsustainable. And then around year seven, I went through a series of shifts and that's when I really started to grow and started to build a base in the Denver community. Started, I don't know, maybe within a few years beyond that, we started doing network TV work. We started bringing in work from New York, from the DC area, from Atlanta, from la. So there were several inflection points. I would say <laugh> weird for me to even say the phrase though. Oh, I felt like I had arrived. I would rather say that I feel like when the company was doing what I knew it was capable of when I felt like I was being, I don't know, tapped or utilized for all that I was capable of, it was probably around 20, the years of my 2000 9, 10, 11, maybe 12. That was really the pinnacle. We were doing our best work, we were making the most money we were building the strongest reputation for the impact that we were having in the industry and the community. So is that answering your question?

Nate Watkin: Question? Yeah, no, absolutely. I think it's really interesting because I think your career path is similar to a lot of creative entrepreneurs, including myself that kind of originally started out maybe as freelancers or creatives, and then they open a business, but they're still kind of working in a sense as maybe a group of freelancers or creatives. And a lot of people, I think, struggle to break out and get to that next level of when does this become, I don't know what I would call a major operation. And so I'm curious, looking back and reflecting, is there any specific inflection point where there was something that you learned where you said, This has taken me to a place where I can now scale the business much further than I was before? Just as this creative doing jobs?

Joel Pilger: Well, I'm thinking of two inflection points. One of them would be around 2001. This is right around the time my daughter was born. I went through entrepreneurial coaching. So I went through a program called the Strategic Coach was mentored by Dan Sullivan. He's a legend. And it was this three year coaching program where once a quarter I would go out to Santa Monica, hang out with a bunch of other entrepreneurs and learn. And it was so interesting because those three years, it felt like my mba, but it was like my MBA in being me, being the entrepreneur, the creative that I wanted to be. And it was so energizing, focusing, empowering, even though it wasn't specific to our industry. These were all kinds of businesses. And then I think my next inflection point was I worked with a consultant who was a small business consultant, not focused on creative industry or anything, but working with somebody directly who just brought perspective, particularly in the areas where I was weak. So finances, operation operations entrepreneurship, even production to a certain extent was also when I started realizing, wow, I have strengths, I have gifts. And to the extent that I can focus on those and delegate everything else to people who have those gifts, this is now I've got something that can scale. Now I have something that's a lot more satisfying because I'm getting to do what I love and I'm building a team that's doing what they love. And the combination is lethal.

Nate Watkin: And I think also there's a lot of determination there as well. I mean, 20 years, I mean, that's incredible. <laugh>

Joel Pilger: I marvel too. I'm like, was it really 20 years <laugh>?

Nate Watkin: Yeah. How do you stay interested for that long? How do you stay committed to the goal for that long?

Joel Pilger: Well, one thing I would say, just something the way I'm wired, I was raised by two parents that were very inquisitive and intellectual people. My dad was an airline pilot, so travel and experience in the world was always part of that curiosity that they built into me. So I've always had this appetite for learning. I've always enjoyed learning. I view being a creative entrepreneur as you are signing up for a lifelong school, you're the job. You never stop learning. So if you love learning, you're gonna thrive. If you don't love learning, you're not gonna make it. So for me, that was just something I've always enjoyed. And to this day, I still have this curiosity of why does any of this stuff work? Any of these ideas? Why does this thing in business, why does that work? Or why doesn't it work? And that curiosity still, it drives me.

Nate Watkin: So eventually you grow this company to a point where you're actually able to sell it which I think is a great outcome for creative in a creative shop that not often that creative shops are purchased. So I'd love to learn a little bit more about that. How did the selling process go and what did that look like?

Joel Pilger: Sure. Well, the, I'll say this, right? There's the glamorous veneer of exiting and selling, and then there's also just the ugly underbelly of what those realities look like. So on the one hand, I would say the real story was I was approaching year 20 and I was starting to just not know what I wanted to do next. Do I continue to pivot this company and evolve and change? And it was a good friend of mine my buddy Ryan, who was one of the founders at Spillt, which is now one of Denver's great shops that's still in operation today.

Nate Watkin: Yeah, I know Ryan as well.

Joel Pilger: Well. Yeah. And it's still, yeah, it's a great company. They're thriving today and I love those guys and work with them. But Ryan said to me, Joel, I think you've accomplished everything you set out to do and you just don't know what to do next. And that for me was this light bulb moment of, oh, right. I don't know. I didn't think there would ever come a day when I didn't love whatever get ramping up to do the next promo for a discovery channel or the next commercial for Starbucks or something. But guess what? That day did come around year 19, I found myself saying, I have always loved this, but I don't anymore. I don't care. And that was the moment I got approached by a client of mine that I had worked with for many years, and I was talking with him and saying, I'm kind of looking for my next thing.

And he said, Dude, I have this startup. We're raising capital. I would love for you to be a part of it. I know that I can't just hire you, but what if I inquired what's left of impossible and you as a package deal, let's do this. And I said, You know what? That sounds like a good reason to close this chapter. I'm coming up on 20 years, Let's do this. And did that deal, which was essentially what I would call a classic buyout, but earnout, right? So there was a three year earnout type of a deal. And what actually transpired over the next six to nine months was me realizing, okay, wow, this is a really difficult transition. First of all, I am the world's worst employee. I'm also on this earn out and realizing there's no way I'm gonna last three years. So even though I realize about six months in this isn't gonna work, this isn't gonna last.

And I'm thinking, Well, what am I walking away from financially? Because three years I'm set to make all of this money and stuff from that transaction. As it actually panned out, I left because I said, This isn't my future. And the sooner I make this decision and go down the future that I'm destined to do or called to do the better. And that was how I joined Rev think and started doing or started working with Tim Thompson and doing what I'm doing now. It was the right decision because guess what? That company was, well, shall we say, the reason I left was the same reason that within six or nine months later after that, it folded. So all of that potential money that I would've received just went down the tubes anyways, so it ended up being the right choice. That said, yes, I learned a lot. Now, of course, anyone that says, Hey, I wanna sell my company someday, I would say, You can totally do it. But just I learned some hard lessons, don't make the same mistakes I made.

Nate Watkin: Yeah, I'm sure you'd have a lot of advice to give somebody going through that process, <affirmative>. And tell me about how you got into consulting. Obviously coaches and consultants had such a big impact on you and your career, and I believe you were actually working with Tim prior to joining Rev. Think we'd love to hear more about how that relationship started and what took you to Rev think?

Joel Pilger: Well, the beginning of the story was I was talking to a sales rep, and as I was describing some of my challenges to her, she said, Do you know Tim Thompson? I think you don't really have so much a sales problem. You have a different kind of problem. Who is Tim? Well, he's was one of the founders back in the day of days of imaginary forces, and he's a consultant and he's really smart, blah, blah, blah. And I remember thinking, You know what? I don't like the sound of this guy. I don't like the sound of this rep, but I'll talk to these people. We have this conversation. And about two hours later I'm like, Wow, I hate to say it, but I really like what both of these people had to say, especially this Tim guy. So I hired him as my consultant, and I immediately realized, holy crap, this is the guy I wish I had met so many years ago because he had been under the hood of all of these great shops behind the scenes.

Now granted, he wasn't able to share everything because a lot of that's confidential, but in terms of overall process, method, standards systems, routines, I just felt like, Oh my gosh, I, there's so much I have to learn here. And then that transition came and I realized, You know what? I'm gonna shut this company down. I'm gonna sell what's left. I go to work for that buyer. I'm on that three year earn out, and six months in I call Tim and I go, Tim, I'm not gonna make it. I'm not gonna last three years. I'm not gonna last nine months. And he says this really interesting thing to me, which is very insightful. He said, Don't go start another production company. And of course I'm like, How? Wait, Huh? How did you know <laugh>? Like, Look, I get you, Joel, I know you think that's how the industry knows you.

That's where all of your connections are. Like you know how to do that. And I was like, Yeah, wait, why would I not do that? He said, Because if you do that, all of your knowledge, your experience, your wisdom is gonna go and help that one company. And that's good. He said, If you came over here though and worked with me, you could help a hundred companies. You could help the entire industry <laugh>. And it's like, even as I tell that story now, I still get goosebumps because Tim recognized something in me that I didn't recognize in myself. And when he painted that picture, I was like, Dude, that's a really cool story. I would love to play a part in that story. And he was like, Okay, then come be a consultant with me and <laugh> like, I'm like, What's the scene from going with the wind? I don't know nothing about birth and babies. I was like, I don't know anything about consulting. What does that even mean? He was like, Trust me, you've got everything you need. I have this client in New York, they're, I'm just too busy. So you're gonna go there. You're gonna walk into their office and you'll know exactly what to do. Which sounded totally insane. It was insane, but he was right.

Nate Watkin: So tell me, what does your life look like today? What is the life of Joel Rev Think Consulting? What are you doing these days?

Joel Pilger: Oh man, that's a great, I love that question. Well, first of all, I've recently gone full time nomad, so I am basically in some form of constant travel mostly in the us. I spent a lot of time in LA and New York, still in Denver a good bit, Atlanta, Savannah. But I am also traveling more and more to Europe these days. I'm basically on this constant journey of well mixing business and pleasure. Wherever I go, there is a client, there's a studio owner, there's somebody that might need help, or there's alumni that have been through my accelerator program, what have you. I love hosting dinners, which of course you know about that. <affirmative>, you recently attended one of those. So that's like mechanically what's going on. But if I was gonna say from maybe listener's perspective, what I'm really doing is helping foster a movement. What we're doing at Rev think it's like, sure, we're a consultancy, meaning a group of consultants and advisors and some people behind the scenes that work with owners of studios of production companies, creative agencies, help them run the business side.

That's really what we do at the end of the day, is come alongside owners and help them run their business and thrive mostly so that they can focus on doing what they love doing and get out of all of the mess of running a business. But I would say we're fostering a movement because what we know is there's this revolutionary way to run a creative company. It's just different than running some other kind of business. You're running a software business and I bet now, hey, this is not running a production company. It's a different beast. And this way of running a company just leads to enormous freedom and results and satisfaction. And so we're on this mission to help every creative company on the planet first in motion and in production and in animation and sound, but we see it reaching into other areas of the creative world.

And that means we run a community. So I have a community of about 420 or so owners as of this week that are all in a private space, hanging out, sharing, asking questions, challenging each other. I also run a accelerator that is a group coaching program called Jumpstart, that's for young and emerging studios that are trying to reach that next level. And then at any one time, I also have probably 5, 6, 8, 10 clients. I'm working with one on one. So as I travel, I'm connecting with them, working with their teams, working remotely, putting the pieces in place, helping them on a very in individualized basis. And then there's some other bells and whistles. I have a podcast or two <laugh>, and there's other accelerators and classes and things that Rev think offers that I contribute. But yeah, I think that would be not quite the short version.

Nate Watkin: <laugh> <laugh>. Yeah, No, I love it. Love it. And excited to go deep on that and learn a lot more about your work at Rev think. But want to talk real quickly about the nomad stuff, cuz that's something I'm obviously familiar with myself. Luckily, what was it, two weeks ago we were in the same part of the world, able to catch up for one of your amazing dinners that you host in Los Angeles with, what was it? Maybe like 20 people? Yes, all production company owners. Great dinner amazing dinner to be at. But I'm curious in terms of, and now you're in Barcelona dialing in. That's right. Love Barcelona. But curious how you see being a nomad, how that not only fits into your business and what you're doing, but is a competitive advantage or how does that benefit your business and what you do?

Joel Pilger: One word perspective. I learned pretty early on when I started consulting. The more that I travel, the more that I connect with people, the more that I am a super connector myself, the more that I'm basically just out there helping people, the better. And then of course the more I started to travel, I even started to gain the perspective of what's it like to run a studio or production company in London or Moldova or Brazil. I mean, it's been incredible to get this breadth of experience and travel. Of course it feeds me personally because I have that curiosity and that desire to just see the world and meet everybody in it. And then business wise, it's like, gosh, the more I travel, the more people I connect with, the more people I help, the more valuable I become to my network in effect. So yeah, it's kind of a beautiful thing. I feel super lucky because I get to do what I love professionally and personally. And the combination of the two creates this very really cool synergy.

Nate Watkin: That's great. Favorite travel spot? Favorite city?

Joel Pilger: Oh man. Like I, I'm gonna pick one of course, but I can't just pick one. I mean right now Barcelona is probably my current favorite because I'm just really digging the fact that it's such a creative capital of Europe. But I gotta admit LA is going on me every time I go to LA I'm like, I kind of like it here more and more every time I visit <laugh>. But it's really tough to pick favorites cuz I just went to Japan for the first time a few months ago to work with a client in Tokyo at his studio and I was like, wow, Japan was amazing. And Tokyo is just, I just can't believe it. I can't wait to go back.

Nate Watkin: I have yet to visit Tokyo. I need to get out there. So let's dive in. I wanna talk about a little more about what you do and how you help creative companies. I think one of the key things I want to touch on, which I think is gonna be super interesting to the people listening to this podcast is around pricing and how you advise companies to price their services. I think many young or growing companies struggle with this because they don't know what they're truly worth or worse, they're underpricing themselves because they think that's how they're gonna win a job job and they're afraid to let the job get away. Would love to just go deep on that and hear your insights on that.

Joel Pilger: Well, so fair warning, this could be an hour or two podcast in and of itself, but if I was going to keep it manageable here, I would first of all say that I think it makes sense. Everyone listening knows that when you start in your career, you charge for your time. That's really what a salary is. And then someday we go, Oh, I'm gonna go Lance, and what do we do? We charge for our time. What happens then is when you're a freelancer who starts a company, you say, Oh well I'm gonna figure out what I should charge per hour and start doing that for my clients and I'll spare the sort of the story. But then there becomes a point in the future when that starts to break and you start learning that, gosh, charging for my time actually doesn't lead to the best results, the best outcomes for a host of reasons.

Here's one example, When you charge for your time, you are penalized for working quickly, right? Actually, you have this weird situation of like, Well gosh, if I give you a hundred thousand dollars Nate to do my commercial for me and you're charging me by the hour, if you get it done faster, then you're gonna charge me less. I could argue it's actually the opposite. It's more valuable if I get it faster and sooner. So that's just one example. There's a whole bunch of other reasons why charging for your time breaks down. The big idea here is there's really three ways that we can charge When we're a creative services company, we're gonna either charge for inputs, we're gonna charge for outputs, or we're gonna charge for value. Let's call it inputs are things like time and rates. Outputs are when you charge for a project, you're gonna do a 32nd commercial.

For me, that's a deliverable charge for outputs, fixed price, go get it done. Value is where I might say Hey Nate, I'm gonna produce a commercial for me. And you go tell you what, I'll take a dollar for every widget I help you sell. And I go, Whoa, okay. Very few people charge for value. Very, very few. But if I could just get the world to take the hour, the billable hour, the day rate outback and shoot it forever, and I mean for freaking ever and just charge for outputs, the world would be such a better place because when you charge for outputs, granted you're taking on a lot of risk. Now this is the shift from freelancer to studio or to production company and this journey because you ran a production company of your own. When you charge for an output, like a commercial, a spot for a big round number, there's a lot.

The promise there is I'm going to deliver no matter what. So the buyer is actually saying, Wow, I'll pay a huge premium because you're helping me mitigate risk. I'm gonna give you a much larger sum of money because you are promising you won't fail. Now as we manage that client, we manage scope creep and we manage expectations and all that and get through that process. And we'll probably get into more of that as we go. That's a lot. It's a to be figured out there. But suffice it to say overall charging for outputs produces better outcomes. It's much more satisfying. The process is smoother, the experience of the clients is way better. I mean there's just all these benefits. So that's why I have this stated goal. Me and this other guy named Jonathan Stark, we're like, we're both on this mission to just eradicate the billable hour in the world because it doesn't serve anyone well. And in effect the fact that some people in our industry are still charging for their time and for their rates, I think it's actually hurting everyone. It's sort of holding back the industry from moving beyond that model into a better way.

Nate Watkin: This stuff is fascinating to me, especially just coming from this industry and experiencing it. And you say that you're trying to get rid of the billable hour in the industry mean, does this mean you think that you should get rid of line item bids? I mean, what does the ideal way to price a project and present that to a client look like to you?

Joel Pilger: The short answer is yes, because I have done umpteen AIC P bids in my career. And I'm gonna say, first of all, love AIC P what an amazing organization. They are an advocate for the production companies and they've established a set of best practices that are completely awesome. With that said, I low key hate the a i p bid form <laugh> because in effect, what a bid form does that has hours and rates, it's like if I came to you, Nate, and I said, I need to solve a giant problem called I'm gonna launch this new product. And you say, Wow, I have a solution called we're gonna do a whole video campaign and all these, this, that and the other, and we're gonna do a shoot and we're gonna do an edit. And then I said to you, Wow, that sounds amazing. And you give me an AIC P bid form.

What you've done is you've dissected this thing that used to be magical and amazing and you've just said, and that's actually just a bunch of lines. It's just a bunch of people and titles and time. There's really no magic here. There's no real value here. It's just time. And somebody called a gaffer and somebody called craft services. And so I think there's just, there's this essence, this magic, this beauty and this value that's lost when we, There's this reductionist very western way of thinking called, Well if you just break it down for me, I'm gonna sit here and argue with you over whether or not craft services should be X versus Y. As if that's the whole result that we're trying to produce here. The result we're trying to produce is freaking launch my product and help me change the world with my new widget. And here we are arguing over how much craft services should cost.

Nate Watkin: Yeah, that's super interesting. And I think it's true because at the end of the day, what you're selling the client on is their emotional response to your talent. I've worked in recent years, not as a producer and content creator myself, but almost as a defacto rep and have had the opportunity to work with some of the best shops in the world helping them connect jobs. And I've seen some fascinating ways that they've won jobs. And at the end of the day, I think it all came back to the emotion of that client said, Yes, I want that person their work, their creative talent to represent my brand. And that was what they paid for. So I think what you're talking about is getting away from delivering them a spreadsheet where they can then analyze every little thing and bring in cost consultants and try to compare you apples to apples to whoever else and just focusing on the talent and do you want this to represent your brand? And I think that's where the magic lies. But we'd love to hear your perspective on that.

Joel Pilger: Well, I'm gonna use, maybe this analogy is a bit of a stretch here, but if I was to ask you what is a kiss And you approached it from a western dissection point of view like a biologist or something, you would be like, Well there are this anatomy called lips and when two creatures are interested in mating, they touch these things together and there's perhaps some exchange of bodily fluids. I mean you could go down the whole thing, but you've missed the whole point. The whole point of a kiss is something very subjective, it's very emotional, it's obviously very meaningful and so forth. And in the same way when a creative companies comes to a client and says, Hey, we have this shared vision and values and you're working on solving this problem and we're incredibly well suited because we're on a similar mission to solve that problem and we're gonna develop this amazing solution called a kiss.

It's like, don't ask me for the breakdown and the biology and the line by line of this solution because it doesn't adequately express what we're doing. It doesn't adequately express the true value of what we're producing here. And I know you're a big believer in this as well. It also doesn't express the process that we're gonna go through and the experience that you're gonna have. Because guess what? We're on a journey together and we're gonna go discover the problem and the better questions. And we don't know everything right now we're leaving for the new world. We don't know are we packing parkas cuz we're gonna end up in some place called Nova Scotia or are we packing stuff to build a tiki hut cuz we're gonna land in Miami and serve rum cocktails. I don't know. Right? There's a lot more going on here. <laugh>,

Nate Watkin: Just to get even more specific here, what's your thoughts on companies that will say, Okay, I'm gonna give you a high bid and a low bid <affirmative> to try to protect the downside I guess, and give the client two options?

Joel Pilger: Well, I'm a big fan of presenting options but there's a whole strategy to, So if I'm a production company and I'm presenting to my client the buyer, that's the context we're talking about, right? I'm actually am a big fan of presenting options. It's not so much though of the mindset you described of protecting your downside. It's more the thinking called, Well first of all, I am going to present to you options. One of them is probably gonna blow your mind and I'm gonna present an option that's way beyond your budget. Sorry, I know you told me this is your budget, but I'm gonna blow your mind because I wanna show you what's possible and what I'm capable of doing for you. Cuz until now, you didn't even know who I am. You don't know what's possible. Cuz you know what clients don't know. This is the big thing you learn in this business is clients for the most part don't actually know what good is.

They don't know what a solution looks like. They don't even really know the problems most of the time. But then I'm gonna present another option and it's because of scope or scale or complexity or whatever, it's gonna be a different number and I'll call that my middle number. And then I have another solution that's really cool and amazing and for some reason it costs a little bit less than that. So here are my three options. The reason I'm really doing that is I want to give my clients a basis for comparison. They need to just have some sense of, oh, it could be this, but it could also be that, but it could be this other thing. And they start to understand the trade offs and it it's overall, it's this journey of I'm really on a mission to just get every dollar out of their pocket <laugh>.

And I know that sounds like to for people that maybe don't come from the background of being a business owner, they hear that and they think that is opportunistic. They think it's greedy. And here's my pushback. The reason you're gonna get every dollar out of the client's pocket is because you wanna produce the most freaking awesome result possible for them. You wanna help them as much as possible. So give me every dollar you have and I will go use every one of those dollars wisely and make something incredible that you could never have done on your own. But now that I'm here, let's do this. But I'm using that comparison, that pricing psychology and method to simply help them arrive at a number <affirmative> called How much you got, and now let's go produce the most awesome result.

Nate Watkin: Yeah, I've seen that strategy used effectively, but I think it, it's like you said, it's totally up to how you present it to the customer. Now I'm curious to flip the script a little bit and go to maybe a younger company that's growing. I think it's easy to talk about these big companies that have incredible portfolios and incredible client lists and just incredible work that obviously they can walk into the room with a little more swagger and say, Hey, this costs what it costs, take it or leave it. But if you are one of these up and coming studios, companies that yes has good work, yes, has maybe a few good logos, but maybe not the top 1%, how do you walk in and have that kind of swagger to say, Hey, yes, this is far more than what you budgeted for, or do you do that? What do you advise companies to do in that stage?

Joel Pilger: I'm gonna, I'll have to peel back one layer, one layer of the onion here to answer that question because first of all, I will say I think it actually is possible, and I've seen a lot of companies do it as I've helped them or someone else has helped them recognize, hey, you have what it takes. You have the goods. You may not have the complete portfolio that the other guy has, but still you have this deep expertise and you can go in there with a straight face, put these kinds of prices in front of people. If I peel back that onion, what I would say beneath that is positioning it is being really clear about who are you and what do you do? How do you express that? Cuz what I will tell you is most people, I'm gonna say this, most young companies, they think they have a sales problem called, Oh, we got in the room and we put the proposal in front of them and they turned us down.

We don't know how to close. What I would tell them instead is, if you go back, you look at when the client first met you and you told them we're a production company. And they go, Huh, what is that? You go, Well, we're a collaborative, creative, award-winning, integrated, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And what the client really hears is, Oh, you're a service company, so you're a vendor, Okay, we'll play this game. And they start going through the process. You're acting like a servant, you're acting like an order taker. And then one day there's now this project, you're starting to do a bid, you put a proposal in front of them and they see this giant number and they go no freaking way, because they don't perceive you as an expert. They perceive you as the order taker. And here's the problem, they can find 10 other order takers that will do it for a third of that price.

So you have no leg to stand on. And they're just gonna look at the other bids and go, Yeah, we'll go with these guys because this other company over here is one third the price and you guys are all the same. Why would I pay more? Right? It's like you're selling a commodity. But if you go in from the very start back when you first met that client and you say, We are this studio with this point of view, we do these, solve these kinds of problems. There's a number of examples I could point to. And then your work backs it up. You're very clear about your why and you're also positioning yourself as an expert. You're saying, I'm not an order taker. We're super busy, We're super expensive, but we'd love to work with you. You're totally changing the positioning in that client's brain so that later when you finally start getting to a proposal and you put a big number in front of somebody, they instead are reacting in a way called, Huh, yep, these guys are really freaking good. And that's why this costs what it costs. We're obviously talking to the best in this niche, in this category, in this expertise.

Nate Watkin: And I think in one of your talks, you talked about this, you offered an anecdote where you met with a big potential client and essentially the lesson you learned was that he had said, All these creative companies are terrible at marketing themselves. So why would I trust them to market me? And I think that's what you're alluding here with this is that positioning is also marketing. And as a creative company, you need to figure out how do you gain mind share in your client's mind and how do you become memorable to them and they see you as the pro so that you are the one that they rely on to win to take that job

Joel Pilger: On. Yeah, the way. So yes, that story was absolutely foundational to my career, my trajectory, because that was the senior vice president of creative at DirecTV who just like to my face said, You guys suck at marketing. Why I, you know, can't distinguish yourself from 12 other people I met today. Why would I hire you to market my brand? And what the answer I had was none. I don't have an answer to you because clearly I do suck at marketing. But what I would other say, also say is to me the gold standard is imagine a client out there, we'll call her Susie, And Susie is super busy. She met you a few weeks ago. She met a couple other production companies, couple other studios, and then all of a sudden she gets handed this big assignment plans on her desk and she sees it. And the thing she thinks is, I should totally call Nate right now. Why? It's because you occupied a certain space in her brain relative to all these other competing shops where when that thing lands, she's like, I gotta call Nate. How do you get that position in her brain? That's really like part of the goal and aim of positioning, which as you properly stated, is a subset of marketing

Nate Watkin: Tell me a little bit, I mean obviously aside from all this, which is incredible advice and I know you have so much more to offer through your coaching, but I also wanna talk a little bit about process. I know that, you know, have historically said you can't just focus on producing great work and that process is actually sometimes more important than the actual product. Curious, hear your thoughts on that?

Joel Pilger: Well, I'll give a quick anecdote because I learned this lesson the hard way. This is where we <laugh> really learn much when we win as humans, we're just wired to, when we lose, man, we learn that lesson, we lock it in. I was producing a spot for jwt, okay? The agency that has the Ford account, this is many, many years ago before I had a producer on staff, it was me, small army of animators. And we were animating this incredibly ambitious thing with Maya and pain effects. It was like a car driving through a forest that was springing to life out of nothingness. It was hard as hell and late nights and all night renders and all this stuff for weeks and weeks and weeks. We finally get the spot done and I'm talking to the producer or someone in the Detroit office cuz this was the first time we had worked for the big office. And he says to me, Man, Joel, the spot turned out great. It looks awesome. I was like, Yeah, I know, I'm so proud. And he's like, Yeah, unfortunately we're never gonna be able to work with you again.

Excuse me. He said, Yeah, I think it about killed me getting it done. The worry, the sleepless nights, I have gray hair, I have whatever. He basically just said, I would've been happy if the spot wasn't quite as awesome, but you took me through a great process. But the experience of working with you was so stressful, so uncomfortable, so uncertain that yeah, we're never gonna work with you again. And I'm not kidding, we never even got a shot with that office again. They wrote us off, they were like, Nope, those guys do great work, but their process sucks. Do not apply.

Nate Watkin: And I mean that goes back to positioning, but it's the wrong kind of positioning because now you occupy a space in their brain that you don't wanna occupy

Joel Pilger: <laugh>. And trust me, trying to change that perception. Yeah, good luck. Yeah, maybe give yourself 10 or 20 years, maybe you can overcome that. But what I learned there, and this was something my former partner and I, Steve, fully embraced after that experience was the process is every bit equally as important as the creative. And that was a cultural value that we had at impossible. It's why we hired top producers. We just did not mess around. We were gonna make sure that those clients had an awesome experience working with us. And this is a big thing that I know you're passionate about as well. And yeah, we did over the years, we had some clients say to us, me, the process is more important than the end result. And as a creative, we get all been outta shape. Oh, how could you say that? But you just have to realize we all live in a real world and for some clients they're like, I have way too much going on. If you can just take care of me and take me through a good experience that's bulletproof and smooth and all that, sure, I hope the creative turns out awesome. But even the times when it doesn't turn out awesome, it's okay because you've helped me live a sane life amidst all this chaos I otherwise deal with.

Nate Watkin: And so as somebody who has employed those producers, what is a good producer? Or I guess what is a great producer? How do you hire them? How do you become one? What do you look for based on your experience?

Joel Pilger: Well first let's, let me get to the first part of the question because the answer to what distinguishes a good producer from a great producer, I love this word anticipation. And this was one, I think I was even taught this from a creative director of mine Brian elo, who was on my team for many years. And he really nailed it when he said, great producers anticipate, anticipate, anticipate, meaning they're always several steps ahead of you, of the client, of the team. They see it coming way before it's coming and they're communicating it, they're managing it, they're getting out ahead of it. So what I learned with, the other obvious thing I'll say is once I realized that I sucked being a producer on that JWT job, I was like, Okay, never again, this is not my genius. I am going to hire somebody that has this ability of whatever this thing is called producing.

And I hired Julie, and Julie was worked with me for I think 12 years or something, best freaking producer I, I got super lucky cuz I found somebody who really had that as her genius and her ability to manage all of the logistical aspects of a job, be the intermediary or interface between the client and my teams so that I could focus on the creative. We would create these teams. There's a producer lead and then there's a creative lead on every job and they would march those projects through. But the producers are the ones that are just constantly managing the schedule, the resources, the feedback and approvals. The clients love them because they have total access. The producer always has an answer or says, I'll get right back to you and makes that process smooth and predictable and organized. And then in terms of maybe one other thing I'll say about what differentiates good producers from the great ones, The great ones practice what I call the art of diplomacy, which I define as telling somebody to go to hell in such a way that they're looking forward to the trip.

<laugh>, a great producer is gonna tell you always, here's where we've been, here's where we are and here's where we're going. And by the way, when we get there, here's what's probably gonna happen. Here's what's gonna go right. Here's what's gonna go wrong when things go wrong. I'm gonna give you this option or that option. It's gonna be like more money, more time, more, less this, less that. And they tell it to you in a way where they're basically saying, following my lead and I will get you there and this will be amazing vere off course and deviate from this plan and you're not gonna like your choices, but you will thank me as I manage those decisions with you, even though it's gonna cost you a whole lot more money because you couldn't make up your mind or you did your scope creep or you did your whatever. So that, those are some of the qualities I look for in great producers

Nate Watkin: And so many topics here, so much that we could go deep on. But I don't want to take up too much of your time, but I know that if any of our listeners want to hear more, Joel has a great podcast. Would love to just hear a little bit more about the podcast and what you're covering on that.

Joel Pilger: Yes, so the podcast is called Rev Thinking and you can get it pretty much all the major podcast places, but I call that one the conversation between creative entrepreneurs who know the best way to deal with the future is to create it. So it's an optimistic point of view that just says, Hey, we're creators, so if we wanna create something called a really great future, let's go do that. So that podcast it also has a subset podcast within it called Rev Thoughts where Tim and I sometimes just share a concept or an idea or something, some news from the industry. I'm also about to announce and release a new podcast coming out called The Fabulous, which is not yet dropped, but it will soon. And I won't say anything more about it other than it's gonna be awesome. And then also Tim and I do a weekly briefing every week on Thursdays at five o'clock New York time. It's free, it's open to everyone in, We do a 30 minute like, what's going on in the industry, what do you need to know? If you're a creative business owner we talk about it and devote 30 minutes every week to getting everybody up to speed.

Nate Watkin: And if anyone wants to go deeper than that and connect with you and learn from you, how can they get in touch?

Joel Pilger: Well, you can just Google me Joel Pilger. Usually LinkedIn or Instagram is probably the best place to catch me. But I would say if you're a business owner that's running a studio or a production company, I would highly encourage you to join our community, which is, we call it Rev Community or just the community for short. It's free. And if you basically go through an application process and make sure that you're qualified to join that community and jump in and yeah, hang out with your peers. I'm there, Tim's there, my team is there. And it's an amazing community where you can connect with just tons of people and tons of resources.

Nate Watkin: Awesome. Yeah, amazing conversations and insights in that community from being in it myself. Well, thank you so much for your time. So good to connect with you always. I hope I see you at the next dinner, wherever that may be in the world, but appreciate your time.

Joel Pilger: You got it, man. Enjoyed it.

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