Direct positioning

How to build a portfolio to land direct clients (and studios)

Displaying more comprehensive expertise to work without the middlemen

By Shea Lord |
February 18th, 2023
Direct positioning

How to build a portfolio to land direct clients (and studios)

Displaying more comprehensive expertise to work without the middlemen

By Shea Lord |
February 18th, 2023

Read time: 4 minutes

Motion Hatch recently hosted an incredible roundtable discussion about best practices for reels and portfolios. I’ll be chewing on all that info for a while.


  • Personal projects = yes!
  • BTS, or having the date and “Reel” = never!
  • 30-45s is a sweet spot (with exceptions)
  • make it memorable re: your style
  • seriously, watch the video

But what changes when your target audience isn’t a studio? What if you want to target businesses, a.k.a. “direct clients”?

Most of my clients are direct. It’s been several years since I updated my own portfolio, and it’s still doing a great job of convincing businesses to trust and work with me.

This year I’m finally working on a revamp and doubling down on what my business clients tell me they love about my site.


No matter who the client is, they’re looking to understand one thing when they visit your site: what exactly you can do for them. You don’t need a fancy site with parallax and micro-interactions.

  • Motion and VFX studios prefer to see more narrow expertise (I.e. 2D character animation) so they know exactly where/if you fit into their pipeline.
  • Video studios and agencies, in my experience, are more happy to hire generalists and throw you right in with the clients. You can be “the motion person.” Instead of “the 2D character animator”
  • Businesses in the market for creative freelancers, the one’s who don’t have robust in-house teams (might as well lump them in with studios) have more open and flexible opportunities.

The following points are how to provide that clarity.

Branding as an individual vs. a studio

This is going to depend on your situation.

I’m often torn on using my name (Shea Lord) versus One Sky Creative as my front-facing brand. I stick to my personal name because it has proven to make me more approachable to the clients I prefer—direct and studio alike.

  • Using a studio name gives the impression that you, a freelancer, have overhead costs and payroll to cover, so you’re probably more expensive. That could turn off some clients who are otherwise good fits.
  • Explain your business structure in the About if you do scale up with other people.
  • Studio names also add a layer of confusion about who is actually doing the work.
  • Really great thread here started by Chris Long, with insights from Ronnie Koff (Imaginary Forces) and Amanda Russel (Cream Studio).

The Reel

Like a movie trailer, you want to make sure the movie you’re about to buy tickets for aligns with your expectations for the evening. The reel is similarly a vibe check to make sure you can provide exactly the kind of work the prospect is looking for.

  • Put it front and center with a play button (e.g. SPILLT)
  • Personal projects are great, but businesses want to see some examples of commercially viable work related to their industry
  • ex. Paid ads, or hands using phones, might be boring to a studio viewer, but a business owner might be looking for exactly that
  • Find a way to make those things more interesting— maybe build contextual scenes to display them all together to save precious seconds

When you pass the vibe check, the prospective client wants to learn more about your work.

Strategic Case Studies

Every project thumbnail should lead to a corresponding case study article. This is where BTS (behind the scenes) is appropriate and welcome.

Show the work and explain the strategy. Direct clients are more interested in whatever business results your work has created.

👉 Being able to speak this way—about KPIs or retention or conversions—positions you to partner with studios in a higher capacity instead of just being just a hired gun. Solve mo’ problems, make mo’ money.

How will you work with their team?

What does your process look like? What should the client expect? Direct clients, in my experience, typically prefer that you be the expert and drive the process.

This information will be found on my homepage as a featured article that explains the phases of production, perhaps with a video!

Testimonials from business clients

Probably obvious, but words from direct clients are more powerful than a logo wall. Include headshots if possible.


The only people who say SEO is dead are those who don’t. The motion design industry as a whole, doesn’t— not often. Which is just screaming opportunity.

Write. A. Blog. Optimize it for what your client is searching for. Quality > quantity.

Web design SEO tips:

  • “Above the fold” means what’s visible before you have to scroll the page. Google places huge importance on this in their rankings.
  • Use live text (not baked into an image or video) with your name as an h1 header, followed by at least one h2 tagline with your keywords describing what you do and where you’re based.
  • Use your h tags intentionally throughout any long-form writing, including case studies.

Operate like a freelancer, think like a studio

Staying small is powerful. You can provide flexibility and quality service without all the middlemen and overhead. Plus, the tools just keep getting better. One person can do more than a team 10 years ago. Maybe even less. Help clients capitalize on that.