Ilise Benun: Personal Trainer of the Marketing World

by Kate Andrews | September 6, 2007

Ilise Benun

Ilise Benun thinks self-promotion is like exercise: it’s something that should be done everyday for a healthy financial future, but that we almost always find excuses to avoid. As a top marketing strategist in the creative world, Ilise teaches people like you to promote themselves and their business in her own consulting firm, Marketing Mentor, as well as in her blog, newsletter, and numerous speaking events. She’s also the author of five books and various articles featured in magazines like Inc., HOW, Nation’s Business, Self, Essence, and Working Woman. Notes catches up with her here after the release of her most recent book, The Art of Self Promotion, the compilation of twelve years of advice and wisdom from her eponymously named site.

Q: Sometimes marketing seems contrary to the goal of visual communication (in this mindset, high impact work is the best tool for attracting new business, and promotion is merely extraneous effort). Why doesn’t good work just ‘speak for itself’?

Ilise: Good work does sometimes speak for itself, but the point I would make is that it’s not nearly enough. It’s unrealistic (and often wishful thinking) to believe, as many artists do, that one’s work would speak for itself. That’s putting the cart before the horse. People have to know about the work—hear about it, see it somewhere—in order for it to “speak for itself.” Marketing is everything you do to get the work in front of the people (your target market) who will appreciate it so that it can speak for itself.

Q: What is the biggest obstacle that keeps people (designers, for the purposes of our readers) from effectively marketing themselves?

Ilise: The biggest obstacle designers put in their own path to success, most often without even noticing it, is this: simply not carving out the time to do marketing every day, year-round. That’s how Feast or Famine sets in: you get busy and marketing falls to the back burner, especially if you don’t want to do it in the first place. Then, when things slow down, there are no prospects in the pipeline. A corollary to this is the belief that existing, paying work is more important than anything else. That’s not true. Investing in the future is equally as important; it’s just that no one’s breathing down your neck waiting for you to do your marketing.

Q: Networking can be daunting. Can all personalities promote themselves equally? Do different methods/mediums of promotion work for different personality types?

Ilise: Networking is a proactive effort rooted in generosity. There’s no “right” way to network so yes, all personalities can promote themselves, but not necessarily equally. Reaching out and building relationships is a very personal process. You have to experiment with all sorts of techniques and strategies to find what is comfortable for you. What do you like doing? What do you dislike but are actually good at? What could you learn to be better at? All of this takes time to figure out. The objective is not to duplicate what you see others doing or even to follow my instructions. I always suggest to my clients that they try everything recommended at least once before deciding if it does (or doesn’t) work for them.

Networking is also a mindset—not a mindset that you either have or don’t have. It’s a mindset anyone can learn. You train your mind to see and think in this open, expansive and ultimately positive (rather than negative) way, which is a good idea if you want to grow your business and get more clients.

Here’s what makes a good networker:

Enthusiastic. You are positive and interested instead of pessimistic, negative and critical.
Resourceful. You are bubbling over with ideas and connections for people. You have a network of people who can help, and you take the time to make the connections.
Generous. You are generous and you share your information and resources. Networking is not only about getting what you need, but helping others get what they need.
Open. You ask for what you need and you receive the ideas, assistance, and even criticism of others graciously and humbly. Indeed, you are always looking for help.

Q: What about the web makes it a valuable venue for promotion—is there something inherent about the medium that makes it an effective marketing tool, or is it just because we spend so much time online now?

Ilise: Online marketing—using web sites and blogs and email marketing, as well as the newest new thing, whatever that may be—is an important aspect of every designer’s self promotion efforts for a couple reasons. Not being online seems to imply that you’re not up to date technologically, which doesn’t help when you’re trying to establish the trust necessary to create strong client relationships. Also, because the speed of everything has increased, people go looking for help and want to find it right away. If you (or your web site) are not among what they find, they won’t find you.

Q: I read that you’ve been self-employed all but three years of your working life. Where did that decision come from? What have you learned about promotion from a career working for yourself?

Ilise: Well, self-employment wasn’t actually a “decision.” At the age of 27, I was fired from my second job out of college and I was so angry that I “decided” I would never work for anyone again. Self-employment was my solution to the “problem” of working for someone else. So everything I’ve learned has been on the job, through trial and error—both my own and my clients’. One lesson I’ve learned in 20 years of freedom is that as long as you keep promoting yourself and evolving your business in response to the needs of the market, there is plenty of work to choose from. Also, the freedom I refer to isn’t the freedom to do whatever I want. That’s a myth about being self-employed. Instead, it’s the freedom to do what needs to be done. Because the reality is that you have to do everything, or else you pay the price. When people neglect their self-promotion and marketing, the price they pay is taking whatever comes along—usually boring work for peanuts—rather than proactively pursuing the work they want.

Q: Being self-employed quite obviously requires more marketing—you’re responsible for pulling in business—but are there reasons and opportunities for in-house designers to market themselves and their skills?

Ilise: Even if you have a “real” job, I don’t think anyone is secure in their employment anymore. One must always be developing and nurturing relationships for the short- and long-term future. Within a corporation, it’s important to make sure the right people see what your role has been on a project. I’m not talking about bragging here; I’m talking about making sure that the boss’s boss knows what part you played in a successful project—getting credit where credit is due. It’s also essential to get involved outside the corporation in a trade association where you can meet others in the industry and make connections that will help you advance and grow.

Q: You advocate the use of many forms of promotion: advertising, mail-outs, promotional gifts, networking events, testimonials, e-newsletters… Is there one guiding principle behind each of these strategies?

Ilise: The guiding principle is: do something! There are many marketing tools to use, and it almost doesn’t matter which ones you choose. What matters is that you start doing something and then keep doing it. On the other hand, some marketing tools are more effective than others, and I speak to many designers who are paralyzed by all the possibilities and don’t know where to start.

Last year I wrote an article called ‘How to Build Your Own Marketing Machine,’ for HOW Magazine, and in it I outlined the top 5 marketing tools: networking, email marketing, cold calling (yes, it really does work), a website, and tangible promotional materials, such as samples of work and/or a brochure or one-sheet. These tools work well together and are not very expensive to use.

Q: For your own business, including your websites, mentoring program and speaking events, is there a promotional technique or ethos that you come back to time and time again?

Ilise: I would say it’s an attempt to root my business in a foundation of generosity. Some people tell me I give too much away (my free email newsletter, a free half hour phone consultation, past articles I’ve written, etc.), but I want to give people a taste of what it’s like to work with me. If you’re attracted to it and it fills a need you have, great! Let’s talk. If not, take the ideas and use them to grow your business. The same is true for designers. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas. I’m not advocating working for free, but there’s a lot you can give that will help people understand better what it would be like to work with you. That’s what I call “the art of self promotion.”

Q: What’s the easiest take away tip you can offer our readers?

Ilise: Here’s something everyone can do this week: pick up the phone and call 5 colleagues—whether past clients, prospects or co-workers—that you haven’t spoken to in a while. Out of sight, out of mind has never been truer. That’s why keeping your visibility high is essential to a thriving business. It’s your responsibility to stay in touch with everyone in your network so they don’t forget about you, and so they can pass your name along or call you when they’re in their moment of need.

Also, patience is key to this process. Marketing works—if you do it consistently. But this isn’t a quick fix, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Marketing is a new habit that you have to learn and then practice. In fact, marketing is a lot like exercise. You know you need to do it, you never have the time, but when you don’t do it, you feel guilty. That’s why it has to be integrated into your day-to-day life.

Q: Your business consists of continued support for your clients through various situations and stages in their careers. How is mentoring more effective for implementing new marketing than, say, reading a book? In what ways have you found that mentoring makes a specific impact? Ilise: Accountability is what many people need. That’s how my Marketing Mentor program developed. I used to offer a 2-hour consultation during which I would overwhelm my client with ideas. When I checked back in, they had only managed to implement one or two before they got distracted by other things. That’s when I had the idea to offer a weekly phone session to keep my clients on track with their marketing. Also, many designers work independently, which is to say, alone. That means they have no one to bounce ideas off of. So as I work with some clients and get to know them personally and professionally, I end up being a sort of business partner they can trust to guide them toward growth, which is also extremely rewarding for me.

Anyone interested in a copy of the above mentioned articles should feel free to email Ilise directly at

Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.

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