It can be no coincidence that the group of design consultancies
showing the steepest growth in the past 18 months is dominated by those
that are making the most convincing noises about being ’brand
custodians’, ’strategic partners’ and ’world players’.
At the top of this year’s Marketing league table are Imagination (1998
turnover up 61% on 1997), Enterprise IG (+77%), Interbrand Newell &
Sorrell (+20%) and Fitch (+41%). Lump in identity stalwarts such as
Wolff Olins (+35%), Siegel & Gale (+22%) and Landor (+11%), and you have
a group of agencies with a very clear positioning that are now regularly
passing each other in the corridors of corporate power.
As they come and go from pitches, these agencies might claim that only
they have the resources to conceive and manage such brand identity
More than ever, there is a sense that a design or branding superleague
is emerging: a small corps of large agencies that are becoming
established as brands in their own right.
The parallel that these firms always like to suggest is with the
management consultancy market, where a Big Five loom large on
shortlists, and whose names are familiar in the boardrooms of the major
Forget that the workforces of Arthur Andersen, Ernst & Young and company
run into thousands scattered around the world, while the top British
design agencies still look to the home market for a large chunk of their
The ambition of these agencies rides roughshod over such details, driven
by a belief that the design profession is about to enter a phase of
expansion and acceptance that has led to select cliques of global
advisors in accountancy, law and advertising.
Fitch, for example, has had a good year and is set for expansion under
the wing of US investor, the Lighthouse Group. But joint managing
director John Harrison and colleagues have serious ambitions.
’We had been dreaming of our ideal business. If you imagine that, in
five years’ time, every CEO in the world would have a Top Five
management consultancy whispering in one ear and Fitch whispering in the
other, you get the perfect combination of left- and right-brain
thinking, which is what you need in order to truly innovate,’ says
You can forgive a little extra zeal from these companies, though, as
they grow into their new role.
Everything does seem to be going their way. Ten years ago, the big
corporate identity agencies were handing their clients glorified
lever-arch files full of rules about applying logos and positioning
Today, they are engaged on branding programmes which are planned to
evolve over a matter of years. They detect a stronger embrace of
risk-taking at board level and a greater trust of agencies’ abilities to
deliver high value, innovative solutions.
’I do think in the past ten years, board directors have become much more
interested in the large brand subject, and in the full story,’ says
Interbrand Newell & Sorrell managing director, Tony Allen.
’They are more interested in branding solutions that are far-reaching,
as opposed to cosmetic, and that can last and be built gradually over
time rather than radically and rapidly. There is risk there, but it’s
risk that is far more controlled and understood, and there is much more
precedent to learn from.’
So where exactly is the new business coming from?
For these supergroups it is largely coming from the same places it
always has: international businesses in leisure, travel, oil, finance,
pharmaceuticals, FMCGs and so on.
Wolff Olins completed the Go budget airline identity for BA, Interbrand
Newell & Sorrell relaunched Barclays’ identity, Landor won the brand
review for British Midland and Enterprise IG rebranded the merged
British Steel and Koninklijke Hoogovens (Corus) and Thomas Cook’s
The only difference is the nature of the agency-client relationships -
fewer in number, but longer-lasting.
’In past five to ten years, we have shifted from being tactical
providers of solutions - ’We need a design for X; let’s talk to Fitch’ -
to being perceived much more as strategic partners in looking at the
future,’ says Harrison.
’Increasingly, our conversations with clients have been about a search
for innovation, a recognition that the next generation of change is not
going to be cost-focused, but will be about unlocking true
This increased acceptance is signalled by some milestone wins of massive
programmes, against unfamiliar rivals.
’Winning Arthur Andersen was huge,’ says Patrick Smith, sales and
marketing director at Enterprise IG. ’To win that, on the basis of our
methodology and process, from an organisation that knows as much about
those things as they do, was a hell of a boost.
’That programme to date has been purely about establishing what the
business stands for in the light of its recent developments, and
establishing a consensus within the organisation. That’s a consultancy
’Identity firms have always been dealing with internal audiences,
external audiences, and that makes us well placed to make the most of
the whole brand development, rather than, say, ad agencies or management
consultancy firms,’ Smith says.
The wider design community has not missed out, either.
The extraordinary fusion and fission between telecoms, internet, media
and retailing companies, and the diversification in the financial
sector, have generated hundreds of new, quite intangible services.
These wholly depend on high quality brand communication to attract the
consumer’s focus in what is a pretty nebulous and ever-growing,
E-commerce, worth pounds 600m in 1996, will, by 2002, be worth over
pounds 400bn, says International Data Group.
Not a week goes by without a new online business or telecoms operator
launching with a highly ’conceptual’, or amorphous, brand identity.
’What they are all trying to do,’ says Allen, ’is communicate the fact
that they have this exceptionally individual idea. But when everyone is
trying to land on the same bit of space, then, actually, they all end up
looking the same.’
These new age brands are all fighting for a strong identity.
Who would have anticipated, five years ago, for example, that a PR
agency and an internet credit card service would be fighting over the
name and trademark of Marbles?
The proliferation of distribution and advertising channels, and the
simultaneous cross-fertilisation of leisure and retail have also opened
up new areas of business for identity-led design consultancies.
Bluewater complex, which opened in April off the M25, showcased new
prototype stores for the likes of WH Smith, and presented hard-won
rewards for Britain’s best retail design agencies, with lots of juicy
The ’experiential’ retail concept is firmly in vogue now, as traditional
chains under threat from the internet attempt to make shopping a joy for
Imagination, the experience specialist at the top of the rankings, is
moving from temporary, staged, business-to-business work into the more
permanent, business-to-consumer arena.
Its budding chain of new dealerships for Ford, complete with cafes, play
areas and multi-screen video walls, typifies the phenomenon.
Supermarkets are steering their juggernaut operations toward the
’branded experience’, and single-product snack chains - coffee, soup and
bagels a speciality - present another facet of the retail
As we round the curve of the millennium, what of the road ahead? The
challenge of new media is being absorbed into the wider one of brand
communication and the big groups have all recruited or acquired
The gatecrasher in the top 20, web specialist AKQA, and agencies like
it, are deliberately restraining their growth following a period of
Aspiring superleaguers will need to demonstrate international coverage,
speed of delivery and a wide breadth of skills as they attempt to add
value to their service.
’You’re going to find a wider diversity of people with accountancy
backgrounds, legal backgrounds, strategic planning backgrounds,
advertising backgrounds and so on,’ says Allen.
Most of the large agencies are already plugged into worldwide marketing
WPP bought five design agencies in 1999, including most recently The
Brand Union, which includes Lambie-Nairn and Tutsells, taking its stable
to 14 - five of which make up the Enterprise IG sub-group.
The Lighthouse Group, with former Fitch chief executive Martin Beck now
installed as president, plans to push the Fitch role model in overseas
’We want to see how big we can make the design world,’ said Beck earlier
this year. It can get bigger, that is for certain, but buyers of design
are famously unimpressed by size: it’s the ideas and the creativity that
still count. Superleague, Big Five, maybe; but nonetheless, there are
comparative minnows with great potential in this thriving market
Top 20 design agencies
Rank Consultancy 98 97 % % Intn’l Staff
(pounds m) Change Turnover 98
1 Imagination 79.63 49.31 61 40% 272
2 Enterprise IG 34.92 19.75 77 n/a 130
3 Interbrand Newell & Sorrell 30.60 25.40 20 30% 240
4 Fitch 30.58 21.75 41 33% 130
5 Siegel & Gale 28 23 22 94% 340
6 Cambridge Consultants 27.20 28 -3 70% 360
7 HP: ICM 21.07 13.60 55 70% 93
8 Wolff Olins 17.22 12.80 35 50% 161
9 Holmes & Marchant
Design Companies 16.58 15.02 10 n/a 123
10 Checkland Kindleysides 14.13 12.23 16 43% 108
11 AKQA Communications 14 6 133 n/a 60
12 The Haygarth Group 12.56 10.42 21 10% 104
13= Landor Associates 11.20 10.08 11 63% 89
13= Design Bridge 11.20 10.27 10 51% 102
15 CLK.MPL 11.10 8.27 34 7% 113
16 Lambie-Nairn/Tutssels 10.95 9.67 13 15% 65
17 Revolution 10.80 8.40 29 10% 112
18 Burrows/WCJ 10.77 7.61 42 6% 108
19 BDG McColl 10.21 8.85 15 5% 250
20 Real Time Studio 9.79 9.02 9 n/a 83