Episode 320 — Niche Down to Stand Out


Episode 320 — Niche Down to Stand Out

You need to be ultra specific in how you define yourself when you’re applying for jobs as an artist. It’s the difference between being front-of-mind and standing out — or blending in with all the other applications. And it’s something that none of us do. By not niching down — by not being a specific brand — you’re missing out on an opportunity to make yourself the ideal candidate for the job.

So what are you doing to stand out? How do you make sure your reel doesn’t blend in in the hundreds of other reels? You have to be ultra specific on how to categorize yourself. Because you need to set context for the positions for which you’re applying. It also helps to have your name anchored to the solution to their problem. 

The more you’re able to clearly define yourself and associate your skills with something — the easier it is for your name to resonate when that something is needed. That singles you out as a go-to person.

In this Podcast, Allan talks about finding your niche, how to have different niches for different audiences; but most importantly, why having a niche is so crucial for getting hired for the jobs you want.



[03:06] Niche Down to Stand Out

[04:32] Define Yourself at the Beginning of Your Reel

[07:44] Anchor Yourself as the Solution to Their Problem

[11:31] Teach People Your Script

[15:12] Have Different Niches for Different Audiences

[17:21] How to Actually Find Your Niche

[21:11] Wrapping Up



Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay. 

Welcome to Episode 320! This is about finding your niche and how to have different niches for different audiences so you can resonate with your audience to solve the right problem. Having a niche is crucial for having the job that you want. 

I’m really excited about this Episode! There is so much great stuff here, including how to define yourself in the beginning of your reel and how to be the solution for a specific problem in your clients’ eyes. Because we have a resistance to niching down, we are stuck with an obstacle. 

Let’s dive in!



[01:17] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

[21:40] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!



[03:06] You need to be ultra specific in how you define yourself when you’re applying for jobs as an artist. It’s the difference between being front-of-mind and standing out — or blending in with all the other applications. And it’s something that none of us do. So as terms, “generalists” or “artists” don’t do us any favor when we try to define ourselves when we send in our applications to HR or Managers or anyone else looking at our application and deciding to which department it should go. You’re also missing out on the opportunity to make yourself the ideal candidate for the job by blending in.

[03:52] We hear this all the time: Creative jobs are an oversaturated industry and that’s all true. So what are you doing to stand out and not get your reel or portfolio lost in the shuffle or overlooked? How do you make sure it doesn’t blend in in the hundreds of reels? (And yes, I said “hundreds”!) You have the chance to be very specific with how you define yourself when applying for work. That makes you the ideal candidate; but it also eliminates all competition. 



[04:32] It’s so obvious to me when I review hundreds of reels and realize that so many artists don’t get what costs them the jobs. But the good thing is that for those few that are paying attention, this is the hidden advantage. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve reviewed reels and tried to hire somebody. Later on we say, “I’ve reviewed hundreds of reels but I really liked that one destruction guy.” These are their — the artists’ — words. That is how they defined themselves at the start of their reel. And that’s what’s so powerful about having something like this at the beginning of your reel: It sets the tone. If it says, “3D Character Artist”, they know what they’re looking at and they’re storing all that in their mind. Later on they will mention it. So it’s not a “3D Artist” but a “3D Character Artist”. This sets the tone! Then, everything I watch on the reel, it files the content into that “3D Character Artist” category. The work is the same. But the way you introduce yourself sets the tone of what they’re thinking, what they’re expecting and how they’re indexing you in their mind. 

[06:18] It’s also important because not everyone who is reviewing your work specifically knows your trade. Sometimes before your reel lands on the desk of an FX Lead, Sup or whoever is making the decision on whom to hire, it’s going to pass through HR or an HR Manager, or someone that works for the studio but doesn’t do the work. Then they’re seeing a bunch of cool work but they have no idea about how you contributed. If you’re a Camera Tracker, they won’t be able to say, “There is a bit of slipping going on in the background.” If their eye isn’t trained, when they hear “3D Artist”, they file you under “General” or “Miscellaneous”. It’s the Everything Pile. They clearly don’t look at your reel and say, “This person is a Motion Graphics Artist”, or “This person is a Model Sequence Person”. They don’t know how to categorize you. Which is the reason why you yourself have to be ultra specific on how to categorize yourself. Because you need to set the context for the positions for which you’re applying. So be specific with how you classify yourself! That way, your work ends up being in a smaller niche of artists with whom you’ll be competing — rather than competing with everyone. 



[07:44] Also, the more you can associate with something, the easier it is for your name to resonate with their problem. When they have a problem like, “We need to do large scale water simulations”, your name is the one that pops up. That’s what I call indexing. In psychology, they call that “anchoring”. You’re able to anchor your name to a thought. More specifically, when they need something — the more your name is associated with the solution. For me, back in the day, it was “FumeFX” or “fire stuff”. [08:22] So the more you’re able to clearly define yourself and associate your skills with something — the easier it is for your name to resonate when that something is needed. That singles you out as a go-to person and that way when they need a “fire person”, they call you in. If you don’t specialize with anything or you don’t index yourself well, it’s hard for your name to come up.

[08:58] I have friends who I knew did 3D but I didn’t know what they did specifically. Later on, I’d realize they did 3D Modeling and I’d realize I could’ve hired them dozens of times. But I had no idea! So you need to find a way to stand out. If it’s something ultra specific like “Car Modeling”, you can introduce yourself as, “Hi, I’m Keith. I’m a 3D Modeler. I specialize in hot surface car modeling.” That is going to be very specific. It doesn’t mean that I won’t consider you for other modeling positions. It means that now I have a place to store you in my mind, so when I have a specific problem — you’re at the front of that line [as a solution]. The list of 3D people is otherwise too long. I get what they call “paralysis by analysis”. There are too many people in the “Miscellaneous” category, so I go completely blank. The more you can be specific and really define who you are and the problem that you solve — especially when it comes to problems that you want to be associated with — the better it is!

[10:02] You need to combine your name with the thought, “I solve this problem”. That way they think of you when that problem comes up. This is exactly why we work on branding. We want our name anchored to a specific problem / task that they have. That way they think of us instead of the competitor. And it doesn’t have to be a service. You can stand out in other ways. I have plenty of friends and I don’t know what they do. But they’re really excited about photogrammetry or drone photography, for example. One of my friends works in Videa; but I don’t think of Videa when I think of her. I think of these really cool crochet animals that she makes for people’s pets, instead. And I love that! Because of that, I’m always thinking of her and talking about her business. Be it that or photogrammetry or drone photography, that’s what I’m going to associate them with. That’s the thing they love and that’s what makes them stand out. They have something to anchor their mind to. This is how we get people to talk about us: “They’re a 3D person but you really have to check out their photogrammetry”. 



[11:31] This is exactly how we categorize people in our minds. Without that, you don’t have a hook and you don’t become memorable. The clearer you are with what you want to be defined as — the clearer it will be in their minds. Another example would be if I’m at a party and I don’t do a good job introducing myself as someone that does 3D animation for tv commercials. Instead I say, “I’m in 3D animation.” What ends up happening is when someone introduces me, they say, “This is Allan, he does cartoons.” I’m sure we’ve all had that happen. You’re not going to correct them and play it off. The problem is they won’t remember what you do. Every person they introduce you to, they’ll introduce you incorrectly. Instead, you could say, “I do all those really interesting titles that come up in the beginning of movies. It’s called title sequences.” Or, “I create realistic cars through animation for commercials. In 2020, we may not have manufactured that car yet. So we’ll shoot the commercial with a 2019 model and then I go in and replace it with a CG one that no one has seen yet.” That is something that people will remember and want to talk about! 

[13:50] The more specific you get — the more clear it will be in their mind. On top of that, they’ll be able to repeat it to other people. “This is the script. Please introduce me as that.” And this could [happen] at a network event. This could be at a studio. Word of mouth is how work gets around. Relationships: That’s how the industry works! But if you aren’t memorable, no one is going to remember you. And when you’re applying for jobs, you’re competing with all the generalists and all the 3D artists. You aren’t getting specific about what department you should work in — and what problem you should be associated with as a solution provider. So always keep that in mind that it’s a missed opportunity. 



[15:12] Finally, you can be memorable in different circles under different categories. You don’t have to feel like you’re niched into one thing. For a long time, you’d think of me as “a Fume FX Guy” or “Particle Flow Guy”. Rhythm & Hues and ILM both sought me out as “the Fire Guy”. If you aren’t in 3D, you might think of me as “the Guy that Helps Other Artists Level up Their Career” or “the Guy with That Podcast”. I have spoken at a lot of marketing events. I’m colleagues with a lot of marketing experts like Pat Flynn and John Lee Dumas. They all know me as “Allan is the film guy who talks about launching online courses and about pricing psychology.” That’s my niche to them and that’s how they remember me. One of those things is a hook “film guy” but the other is my speciality which is “online products and pricing psychology”. But if you’re on Facebook, you know me as “the guy that drinks lots of beer and swears to never drink as much again!” But in each of those groups, I want my name to be the first to be thought of because I’ve done my job defining myself. 

[16:39] I get this a lot from different people who might feel threatened by the idea of specializing because they’re afraid of eliminating themselves out of these different opportunities. Which is completely backwards! You can have different niches for different audiences. [16:55] Forget the “If I specialize, I’m going to miss out” mentality! You aren’t ever missing out. Instead, you’re eliminating competition and qualifying yourself to be the right person to be hired. Never do I say, “I specialize in fire but I suck at everything else.” Your work is good in everything. You niche down to stand out.



[17:21] How do you figure out what your niche is? The easier thing to look at is what are the jobs for which you tend to be hired for? Maybe you notice that you get hired for a specific job, so you know that’s what people think of when they think of you. So own it! But if you don’t want to be known for that one thing, you need to start steering it in the right direction. One of my colleagues was a lighting artist but he wanted to do FX. But everyone kept hiring him to do lighting. Eventually, I remember supervising a project he was working on. One of the other Sups wanted him to do lighting. My friend took a hard stance of, “I only do FX”. So he went from “Lighting” to “Lighting and FX” to “I only do FX”. He was ready to take a bit of a hit in the beginning, but he would eventually gain momentum in that as well. But then, he was able to use his other strengths as an artist. He had strong rendering skills, so he began to market himself as “an artist who did effects that looked great”. He knew how to create realistic effects and integrate them into VFX shots. I know a lot of studios that complain that the effects look flat. This was his strength. He was able to become an artist with strong lighting and rendering skills. That became his thing. He was able to pivot and reintroduce his skills in the new niche.

[19:32] There are a lot of ways to find your niche. Find that one thing that you hired for the most and lean into it. Own it! But it isn’t where you want to be, you have to decide how to find another way — and how to stand out. There are a lot of ways to do that. Sometimes, it’s as simple as looking at job boards. Look at the job requirements and what they’re looking for. “Needs to know how to work the pipeline,” “or needs to have strong knowledge of facial rigs”. See what pops up a lot and change your description. For example, you could say, “FX TD characterizing in character pipelines.” It means you can still do the other stuff but you’re able to niche for the main requirement. If it was animation and you’re applying at Weta, knowing they’re working on Godzilla right now, you could say, you specialize in “large scale creatures”. That’ll make your name bubble to the surface. 



[21:11] So look for the things that are in demand but that you can demonstrate on your reel and lean into as your angle. So when your title appears in the beginning of your reel, your name stands out. And remember: You can have multiple niches. You just need to find a way to define yourself and index yourself so they think of you when they’re looking for a problem to solve. 


Thanks for listening! I hope you enjoyed this Episode. 

Please take a moment to share this Episode with others. 

Next week, I will be sitting down with Daniel Harmon, the CCO of Harmon Brothers, and Benton Crane, the CEO of Harmon Brothers. We talk about manufacturing hit commercials.

Until then —

Rock on!


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