A good state of independence

Independents are spared the pressure of delivering shareholder profit and can get on with the business of finding creative solutions, says Bill Wallsgrove

Our industry is constantly changing to cope with the opportunities for creativity provided by new media. I see a really interesting future ahead for anyone working in integrated brand solutions and on-line marketing given the current decline in TV ad spend.

Clients are motivated by new ideas and platforms to communicate to consumers. Who is currently creating content for the iPhone? Who is creating brand ideas for TV programmes? Who is creating brand solutions within games? The recent D&AD film of 2006’s award-winning creative work illustrates the growing number of categories where creative solutions are being delivered and highlights how this year’s entries will be even more varied – creative diversity is flourishing.

In this turbulent world, the current state of the design industry is fascinating. One of the big issues is the division between independent and agency-owned consultancies. They operate in very different ways and this affects the creative framework.

I’ve worked in both, and I much prefer independence and the opportunity to collaborate with other companies across design disciplines. My background is consumer brand packaging, but my independent guise has allowed me to become involved in a variety of brand communication projects from retail identities, interiors and events, to on-line marketing, animation and music.

Personally, I find the freedom helps me to be more creative and entrepreneurial for our clients. This is not about numbers because in creativity size does not matter. Two leading large consultancies in their disciplines – JKR and Imagination – are fiercely independent and, I believe, all the better for it.

Working inside an agency-owned design consultancy gives too much focus on delivering shareholder profit rather than creative solutions. I just don’t believe that treating design consultancies like advertising agencies works. One of my favourite books lampooning agency life, ‘E’ by Matt Beaumont, brilliantly describes, through a series of hilarious e-mail conversations, the constant politics, layers of dead wood and poor communication within a typical consultancy. It certainly mirrored my experiences.

I now use that inside knowledge to my advantage on competitive pitches. I know full well what percentage of a client’s money is spent on the creative product and what has to be delivered to cover overheads and layers of planners and account management. On a pitch we are able to assemble bespoke teams, across disciplines, to compete against much larger groups. In presentations we clearly explain how much of the client’s budget is spent on creative strategy and integrated design.

The other benefit of independence is that you are able to target who you work with and what you want to charge. There is no shareholder pressure, driven by share price, to constantly deliver growing return on investment. There is a good balance of commercial responsibility and freedom of choice. I am one of many people operating this way. An interesting example is the enterprising couple, ex-FutureBrand colleague, Tim Fendley with Applied Information Group, and Georgia Fendley with Construct – who are successfully growing their individual businesses through collaboration with other independent specialists.

There are a number of interesting new models – what Loewy is doing will be interesting to observe. Will the acquisition of Williams Murray Hamm successfully retain the creative spirit that flourished in this consultancy’s independent guise? I am not claiming that the best creative solutions come from the independent sector. WPP has successfully kept high levels of creative excellence at one of my early employers, Coley Porter Bell, for example.

I am passionate about creating brand ideas for clients. Businesses want innovation and new intelligent intellectual properties and products for the future. The creative industry will profit by delivering these – the real profits certainly don’t lie in production. One recent project’s programming was done in Mumbai, the artwork in Russia and the printing in China. It’s a fact of life that clients keenly understand that the cost of this does not bear the luxury of UK rates.

Networking with other independents globally can bring great opportunities without any risk or investment. The biggest irony is that I have more opportunities to work internationally since leaving a major agency group than I did within. Despite groups touting an integrated group offer, the reality, in my experience, is that it does not work and there is no incentive to share or collaborate across business units for the client’s advantage.

Having played on both sides of the divide I certainly declare vive l’independence!

Bill Wallsgrove, Creative director, Big Idea, Sound Idea and Xylem

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