Who’s in charge of managing the group?

Clare Dowdy takes a look at four approaches to the overall management of design consultancies and finds out what works for one may not work for another

While many consultancies get by with one, BDG McColl has two and SAS Design didn’t have one at all for three years. The object in question is managing directors. But it’s not the only senior role that groups choose to tackle in various ways.

The business of running a design group seems, for many founders, to go against the grain – they’d much rather be creating than managing. Yet good design work alone doesn’t spell success.

When it comes to the optimal managerial mix, it’s about functions rather than roles, according to management consultant David Jebb. He divides them into four: creativity and production; finance; sales and marketing; and general management, including administration. ‘However big the company is, these four functions have to be covered,’ he says.

Unsurprisingly, most consultancies are good enough at keeping their eye on creativity and production. Until too many staff come on board, general management tends to look after itself. Sales and marketing can get neglected, particularly when there’s enough work coming through the door. And trying to promote yourself when times are hard is an uphill struggle.

It’s the financial side, however, that often takes a back seat – and that’s at the consultancy’s peril. ‘Design consultancies are less inclined to be very commercial in their outlook,’ says Jebb. ‘They think seeing the accountant once every six months is sufficient. Without having someone book-keeping, they are flying blind.’

But the main message is that different managerial arrangements work for different sorts of companies, at different times of their development. These case studies profile four businesses, each with their own approach to brewing the management blend.

BDG McColl

When BDG McColl hived off its retail and leisure arm to sister consultancy Enterprise IG, and lost its architecture division, a number of faces at the top of the business changed. And as a consequence, two managing directors were appointed to the 35-strong group: Gill Parker and Phil Hutchinson, formerly marketing director and creative director respectively. In this new line-up, Parker focuses on the commercial side (that is business and marketing) and Hutchinson on the creative aspects. They share the general management of the studio and a commercial manager reports to Parker. All senior staff are involved with new business development. ‘Having joint managing directors gives us a good business foundation,’ according to Parker. Hutchinson adds, ‘It emphasises the balance between commercial matters and design, with clients seeing the two elements being offered on an equal footing.’

Venture 3

Identity consultancy Venture 3 was started by three ex-Wolff Olins employees in 1999. It tries to outsource everything that’s not brand work, from IT support to finance and accounting. Only one person, the business manager, is a non-billable overhead. The bosses are in contact with the finance person at least once a week. ‘We are trying to think as creatively about how we manage the business as we think about our work,’ says co-founder Philip Orwell. As the engine of the business, creativity and production is driven by the three principals – Orwell, Michael Zur-Szpiro and Paul Townsin. New business is the responsibility of the whole team rather than a dedicated person. Admin is overseen by the business manager and Orwell, who admits general management is their lowest priority. ‘We run quite smoothly, but any organisation has happened accidentally,’ he says. The whole team works on each project, which is fine when projects are few and big, but less manageable when they are busy with several smaller jobs. He questions whether this set-up is sustainable indefinitely. ‘We plan to adapt things because we need more of a structure,’ he says.


Ben Parker and Paul Austin spun off from North to create graphics duo MadeThought two years ago. Both are designers, so creativity and production is a joint effort. ‘We brainstorm each project, then one person leads,’ says Parker. Being so busy has meant sales and marketing gets neglected. The two awards MadeThought has won were entered by printers. The division of labour is influenced by personality, so day-to-day invoicing falls to Parker, as he’s more organised than Austin. The pair have recently invested in a book-keeper, who comes in once a month. General management will fall on either of their shoulders, depending on who finds the problem. ‘If we are going to move forward, we need to start shifting responsibility to other people,’ says Parker.

SAS Design

Stocks Austin Sice set up in 1989. At that time, Jeremy Sice was handling business, marketing and client issues, and Nick Austin and David Stocks were design-focused. As the consultancy grew, Sice headed up business development and finance, worked as account director on certain projects and dealt with general management. ‘When we got to 20 people we felt we needed to reassess to take it to its next stage,’ says Sice. So a non-executive director was introduced and a head of finance recruited. When Sice left in 1999, the remaining two founders divided up his functions, effectively sharing the role of managing director. But this meant Stocks and Austin were less able to concentrate on what they do best – designing. Sice returned at their request as managing director earlier this year (DW 1 August). There are now people heading up business development, finance and sales and marketing at the 30-strong group. ‘The area that’s needed most attention is the way the business markets itself,’ says Sice, and that’s his job.

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