Make your mark

Branding consultancies are very good at creating an image that will enhance a company’s reputation. But does a consultancy’s image affect its success? Matt Barnard comes up with some surprising conclusions.

They all say the same thing. They all tell you how important branding is to them; they all tell you that it’s vital to practice what you preach; they all tell you it’s about internal as well as external perceptions.

The people who live, breathe and sell branding are united in the belief that it is a vital part of the promotion of their own business, that they have to live their brand. The trouble is the message doesn’t seem to be getting through to design consultancies’ customers.

The UK design and branding industry is fragmented, diverse and has a huge number of players – estimates vary from 10 000 to 40 000 businesses. Many of them have experienced massive change, such as a takeover, merger, management buyout, departure of the founder, management succession or even flotation. These groups have had to consider their own brand values, while others look to reposition themselves with an unprompted review.

However, for many clients, one strategic design and branding consultancy is very much like another. When it comes to branding themselves, as David Mercer, head of design at BT, puts it: “Very often, they are not very good at it.”

For an organisation like BT, which Mercer estimates is dealing with up to 50 design groups at any one time, the key point is not the external, high profile side of branding, because all the groups they are likely to use are already well known to them. It is the internal elements of the brand which are important. “The main issue for design groups is for them to communicate most effectively what resources, what capabilities they can provide clients,” Mercer says.

However, much of the work consultancies pitch for is not for the likes of BT. It will be for clients which don’t have the advantage of knowing them and their work intimately. In this scenario, the external side of branding will play a significant role in whether they land the job. But in a tight market, the competition often has a similar CV to your own. Chris Cleaver of BrandSmiths explains: “It’s a bit of a tie-breaker – everybody has worked for BT, everybody has done something beautifully clever, everybody has won a Design Effectiveness Award.”

In the tie-breaker situation, it often comes down to the question: “What type of consultancy do we want to work with and what type of people do we want to work with?”. Often any brand a consultancy has got has been acquired by accident, according to Richard Watson of client advisory group Global Design Register. The table opposite is an unscientific glance at the brands of nine groups. It is probably less thorough than the research many groups will conduct for themselves, but it is, at least, a snap-shot through untinted spectacles.

For some consultancies, the way they see themselves seems to be shared by the rest of the industry and clients; for others, there is a noticeable difference. Seeing yourself as others see you is one of the most important starting points for good branding. Shan Preddy, of The Preddy Consultancy, which advises design groups on their branding, explains that the businesses she deals with find branding themselves difficult for two reasons: “First, they just don’t devote the time to it that they should. Second, when you are very close to it, it is hard to be objective about something that is very personal to you.”

In a previous incarnation, Ian Cochrane was chief executive of Fitch and business affairs director of Landor Associates in Europe. These days he runs the TiceGroup, advising service businesses on how to increase their value. He is the outside figure who can be objective about a company and the personalities running it. Cochrane starts by talking to staff and clients, then has a serious discussion with the chief executive and his board.

“Quite often, design businesses are reflections of the people running them,” Cochrane says. “So a lot of my feedback is personal and stylistic. You wouldn’t get that in a firm of accountants, but it’s crucial in design, and I just have to tell them. Who else is going to tell them they are boring?”

As Cochrane points out, being boring isn’t necessarily a negative quality, because some clients will not be looking for a wacky, far out design group. It is a question of round pegs for round holes, but it requires that a company assess itself carefully. Preddy argues that this crucial step of assessing how they are seen is the most important and neglected process by groups she comes into contact with. She says: “Often they just leap into implementation, and to be honest they might as well go and stand at Oxford Circus with several thousands pounds of nice, crisp banknotes and throw them away.”

One exercise that Cochrane recommends is for a consultancy to think about who they want to work with as part of their brand evaluation, and to go through their client list dividing it into people they are excited to work with, people who bring in money but are not particularly exciting, and people they hate to work with. The exercise is a good way, Cochrane suggests, for focusing a company on what they want to do and what any particular client gives them.

It is an exercise that Jones Knowles Ritchie appears to have carried out for real a few years ago. JKR’s biggest client was telecommunications group Mercury, but JKR decided that this was not the kind of work it wanted to be doing. As Andy Knowles, a founding partner, explains, the consultancy took a drastic step. “We resigned it, even though it was lucrative, because it was destroying our brand,” he says.

Knowles, along with fellow director Ian Ritchie, decided that what they were doing for Mercury was no longer what they had started out doing for the company and that it was having a demoralising effect on the staff. They were worried that a number of their key designers were on the point of leaving, and they needed to make a tough decision on what their brand stood for and where they wanted to go.

Knowles continues: “I have to tell you it takes a lot to resign your biggest client, but I think we have thrived as a result because it made us a stronger business. We understood more about what we were doing as a business and I think it sent out a huge signal to the people who were working here that we meant what we said.”

Clearly, both the client list and the work a design group produces have a crucial role in its branding. One comment made about Wolff Olins is that it only takes on brand leaders.

Doug Hamilton, creative director at Wolff Olins, says that the quality of the work is such a high priority that the consultancy has been known to reject work internally which the client has accepted. He is also clear that the choice of client is an important reflection of their brand and that they choose clients with that in mind. “People like Hans Snook at Orange and Barbara Cassani at Go are a new generation of business leaders. They treat staff, suppliers and customers the same way, that is to say, with respect. If I contrast BA with Go, you can maybe see the point. These people are not breaking the rules, they are changing the rules, and I think we want to be part of that new world too,” he says.

The way a consultancy deals with developing and promoting its brand is a reflection of the kind of business it is, and methods vary. WPP Group’s Enterprise IG is one of a growing breed of consultancies which are part of an international branded network. Others include Omnicom’s Interbrand offices, and FutureBrand, which is part of Interpublic Group.

Enterprise IG, known particularly for its strategic strengths, goes about its own branding in a methodical, structured way. It holds seminars and gives internal awards in each of the categories it feels defines its brand, including a passion award, an ideas and expertise award, an understanding and respect award and an integrity award. Each new recruit is given a “little red book”, which identifies the consultancy’s core values and encourages them to strive to achieve them in their work.

Enterprise IG creative director Franco Bonadio says: “We’re trying to be a group that’s putting brands first. We model ourselves on companies a bit like Disney. When you think of Disney, you don’t think of Walt Disney, you think of Disney the brand. So it’s really about the individual working in teams.”

Other consultancies take a less structured approach. Deepend specialises in digital media and prides itself on its creative skills. Creative director Simon Waterfall is equally clear that branding is a vital part of the companies strategy, but he uses different language to describe the consultancy’s approach: “Branding is absolutely essential, but it’s not a great volume a new recruit would have to read. It’s attitude and aptitude. If someone who’s only been here a week can reel it off down the pub, he’s going to live by it. If he’s got to look it up he’s either in trouble or he’s doing an article on it.”

Wolff Olins’ Hamilton maintains that if you don’t get the reputation you want, you get the one you deserve. Some clients don’t believe a self-conscious brand is important for service companies in a fragmented industry. Richard Watson, who sees both sides of the industry, thinks the jury is still out: “Everyone should be creating a brand, but I don’t know how important it is. I suspect it is a bit important, but not as important as you tend to think.”

<b>Jones Knowles RicThie</b> Blending creativity with strategic clarity Good packaging design,creative, very commercial Good quality, value for money,understand client’s needs
<b>Enterprise IG</b> Passionate, down-to-earth, values integrity, ideas Large, faceless, question mark over creativity Big, good at implementation, not strong on creative side
<b>Deepend</b> Attitude – won’t do it unless we love it, creative flair Inexperienced, fast growing, name on people’s lips Digital media, creative, not very widely known
<b>Wolff Olins</b> Changed from being a safe pair of hands to being spot on Brand leader, arrogant, strategic and creative Creative one in big corporate identity league, expensive
<b>The Attik</b> Spirit, excitement, innovative, intelligent design Young, fresh, streetwise, overstretched, volatile Funky, young, decent people
<b>Elmwood</b> ‘Advantage through creativity’ thinkers and innovators Leading business outside London, ambitious Genuine, creative but not necessarily premier league
<b>Fitch</b> Informed intuition, multi-disciplinary, young-minded Big, not strong on creativity, lost its way a bit Big, quite bright, a bit 1980s and male-dominated
<b>Landor Associates</b> Global reach, diverse mix of people as driver of creativity Slightly staid, can handle big identity projects Competent, but conservative, a bit expensive, international
<b>The Partners</b> declined to comment Very creative, intelligent design User-friendly version of Wolff Olins, poor name recognition
* Table compiled following a trawl of key players in design and design buyers

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