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.’
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.
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
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
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.
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