DESIGN: Designs on the right choice

Robert Dwek looks at the problems clients face when hunting for a good design agency

Robert Dwek looks at the problems clients face when hunting for a good design agency

How do clients choose a design consultancy? With the aid of careful,

considered, scientific criteria, or based on gut feeling?

Unfortunately, it seems to be the latter, despite all the talk in recent

times of designers becoming more marketing-literate. One designer,

Jeremy Haines, creative director of Haines McGregor, thinks his industry

is still shockingly unprofessional in its dealings with clients.

‘Design companies have failed to do the one thing they claim to be able

to do for their customers: differentiate themselves,’ he declares. He

claims that clients choosing a design consultancy confront a ‘muddled


This is because most design buyers have not heard of any design

consultancies apart from the ones they have already worked with; there

are too many small design outfits and not enough high-profile ones; the

turnover of personnel within consultancies is too high; and new business

presentations are severely handicapped by the fact that they all look

and sound so similar.

In short, concludes Haines, design is ‘an alien culture full of buzz

phrases’. Designers desperately need better marketing so that clients

can ‘make judgments based on expertise rather than appearance.’

Uninspiring industry

This grim picture is reinforced by a recent client survey by Coley

Porter Bell. The consultancy was in the process of relaunching itself

with a more clearly identifiable brand image, so it asked some big

clients how they perceived the design consultancy world. ‘They told us

it was nothing more than a beauty parade,’ recalls CPB managing director

Amanda Connolly. ‘Our audit showed that nobody is properly

differentiating themselves and that we as an industry are guilty of not

practising what we preach; we haven’t defined what we are about as


CPB’s new look was the result of focusing on its values and what they

meant to its various different audiences. The new brand philosophy

combines ‘substance with sizzle’ and is intended to bring ‘a lot more

creative edge and excitement’ to CPB’s work and image. Connolly says

other designers have also been doing some serious navel gazing. ‘It is

time to grow up and manage the business. You have to have something,

either in your service or processes, that makes you different.’

Addison Design thought it had a strong brand image, embodied by a

goldfish logo, until it saw a suspiciously similar goldfish on a new

British Gas credit card, designed by Wolff Olins. The lawyers are

involved, so no-one is commenting, but it does indicate how fragile are

the brand identities of even the biggest design consultancies.

Personality disorder

John Williamson, marketing director of Wolff Olins, will say: ‘Design

groups have been pretty bad at developing their own identities, possibly

because this has always been a small industry.’ He believes those

consultancies which did manage to stand out from the crowd were able to

because of very strong personalities at their helm. Now, however, there

are fewer of them and, with design becoming increasingly global, more

conventional branding techniques are required.

WO’s branding approach is to make clients aware that it can handle

hardcore marketing problems, of which pure design is a small part. This

was recently seen in its work for Channel 5, where Wolff Olins was

involved not just in the new C5 identity but also in direct marketing

and advertising (alongside Saatchi & Saatchi).

‘There’s a big middle ground of opportunity that has opened up between

the various marketing services agencies,’ says Williamson. ‘The battle

for this centre ground - involving ad agencies, design consultancies and

even management consultancies - is already well under way.’

Perhaps, but there may yet be casualties. Richard Watson, a director of

the European Design Register (EDR), a matchmaker for clients in search

of a design consultancy, thinks there are still far too many designers

with far too little marketing nous. ‘It is a phenomenally oversupplied

market,’ he states. ‘There are 10,000 to 15,000 design consultancies in

the UK, and up to 90% of them employ fewer than ten people. Most are run

by designers who are not marketing people. They are tremendously

undifferentiated and have a portfolio approach to pitching; they simply

tell the client what they do and show them previous work.’

But, true to his middleman position, Watson is also very critical of

design buyers. ‘Clients buy design appallingly; they’re incredibly

promiscuous. The norm is to hold a pitch every time you have a new

project, although this seems to be changing at the top of the design

industry. Some clients are starting to realise that if they cut their

design rosters down to a much smaller number of consultancies, then they

will get better deals, more consistent work and enjoy more honest


Watson wants to see a much clearer charging structure for design. He

believes consultancies have been under charging and that fees have not

really increased in the past decade. ‘Design is under priced and

designers can be very easily demotivated. You will get very average

design if you scrimp and save.’ Moreover, many clients have no idea what

they are really spending on design since there is nobody to co-ordinate

all their design projects.

Tim Greenhill, marketing director at BGA, believes in long-term

relationships. His consultancy has worked for BMW for 16 years,

alongside ad agency WCRS and its sister direct marketing agency. ‘We all

meet every week and there is complete cohesion through every element of

the marketing mix,’ he says.

BGA was recently taken on by Capital Radio to revamp its main brands.

Greenhill believes he won the job partly because of a product called

‘brand workshop’, a process BGA developed which ‘allows the client to

create consensus among its management about their brand values before

our creatives come up with the goods’.

Ted Briscoe, chairman of Edward Briscoe Design, agrees with the need for

a strategic selling point: ‘You’ve got to understand the totality of the

brief right at the beginning.’ His consultancy used this approach to win

work from British Airways (establishing its global electronic marketing

system), from Next (building a central brand management database) and

from Sainsbury’s (on its Reward card).

But Briscoe believes his consultancy’s approach is the exception and he

remains ‘staggered’ at how little his industry understands the bigger

marketing issues.

Strategic thinking

Lizzie Palmer, marketing director of Capital Radio, says the thing which

stood out about BGA was that: ‘They approached the brief from a

strategic angle rather than just a creative one. They were more like an

ad agency, and they involved us in all stages of the process, so we had

a strong feeling of ownership of the end product.’

Designers, says Palmer, under sell themselves. Three of the five

consultancies pitching for the recent work were ‘very disappointing in

how little they seemed to understand about Capital, and they didn’t come

across well’. To do so, she argues, a designer has to ‘get inside the

shoes’ of the client. BGA presented ‘extremely well and professionally,

with great panache’.

Amanda Hawkins, marketing manager at food giant CPC, says the design

world does itself no favours with the high number of cold calls it

directs at potential clients, an approach she described as ‘a complete

waste of time’. But clients can help the pitch process by knowing what

they are looking for, opting for smaller rosters and ensuring that

consultancies aren’t out of pocket if they pitch unsuccessfully.

‘Chemistry matters a lot,’ says Paul Butler, marketing manager at

Strongbow Group, owner of the UK’s biggest cider brand. ‘Once you meet

the consultancies and see their creative work and the way they approach

the brief, you make your mind up pretty quickly.’

A former design person himself, Butler is also a keen advocate of paid-

for pitches: ‘I agree a refusal fee because I realise that an awful lot

of work goes into staging one.’ He tries to keep close to developments

in the design world but is happy to use a middleman, such as EDR. It’s

best to keep the pitch list as small as possible, he says.

Gary Bond, of Nestle Europe is, like Hawkins, fed up with pushy design

people. ‘The new business people are constantly phoning, which may do

them more harm than good in the long run.’ He thinks designers need to

think about ‘the total communications and not just about the packaging’.

Nestle’s policy is to have fewer but better consultancies on its roster.

Tony Key, head of corporate and brand design at the BBC, was formerly a

design buyer at BT and BAA. ‘I’ve bought a few quids’ worth in my time,’

he jokes. He feels designers are becoming more businesslike, whereas

there are many clients who ‘don’t know how to write a brief’. He says:

‘The worst clients are the ones who tell a designer ‘I don’t know what I

want but can you give me a few good ideas’, which is just unprofessional

and sloppy.’

Key’s main advice for designers is not to bore the prospective client

with work that isn’t immediately relevant to them. ‘Of course I need to

see a range of portfolio material in order to judge if the designer is

competent, but that should not be done as part of the main pitch.’ He

also wants to see presentations that are not clumsy when it comes to

slides, overheads and so on.

Winning vision

Mark Binnington, marketing manager of HMV Direct, ended up choosing a

direct marketing agency over several design consultancies for the launch

of his direct selling division. Again, it came down to strategy and the

inability of the designers to offer a comprehensive solution. DRS

Advertising, the winner, appealed because it ‘looked at the brief from a

marketing perspective, it didn’t just restrict its ideas to the visual

but also included, for example, promotional and sales material’.

‘Design consultancies create very nice stuff but not necessarily what

you want,’ notes Binnington. ‘Too many of them thought it would be nice

to work for HMV, but didn’t focus enough on who we were.’

He says that sorting through such unfocussed pitch material is the bane

of his life. And there is real pain in his voice.

Tips on choosing an agency

DO put together a search brief: why are you looking and what criteria

will you use to judge who is best?

DO select on the basis of skills, processes, track record and people.

Leave the question of fees till last.

DO think about the timing you’re giving to the consultancy. It is

invariably not enough. Remember that time, not money, is gold dust for


DO think very, very carefully about how the project is going to pan out.

Sort out as many of the costs as possible at the beginning.

DO make sure that the design brief is signed off by everybody who is

going to sign the work off at the end. This avoids chaos later on.

DO research the design consultancy market first - it invariably pays


DON’T shortlist more than three or four consultancies. If your pitch

list includes 12, you haven’t thought enough about your brief.

DON’T just base your budget on what you spent last time. It must be

realistic for what you want to achieve now.

DON’T use huge numbers of consultancies. There are serious cost savings

(20% or more) from restricting your roster to just one or two, plus

benefits in the consistency of your work.

DON’T be surprised if you get inferior work if you insist on unpaid



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