Package deals

Designer and client have to work very closely in packaging and branding. In a relationship which can make or break the project, how well do they communicate, and what do they expect from each other? Helen Jones examines both sides

Design, which has been under so much pressure for a number of years, seems to be picking up at last. Companies are investing in packaging and branding and appear finally to appreciate its strategic value. Some of the biggest projects are now in structural packaging, which allows clients to render their brands more protectable.

Brand-owners are also recognising the power of their brand names, says Richard Watson of European Design Register. “This means more than just facias and packs, it means every aspect of their business.” He cites Marlboro and Coca Cola as examples of brand-owners who are moving forward and opening retail outlets. He believes that designers are likely to see more and more work coming from these sources in the future.

Generally there is tremendous pressure on fees. Canny and cost-conscious clients are getting the same amount of work out of design companies as they were before the recession, but usually at pre-recession prices or even lower.

One head of marketing for a medium-sized design group says: “It is very tight and it is very difficult to move back up the fee ladder. Clients sometimes want to pay what they were paying five years ago – or even less – because they know that they are in control. If we won’t do it then there will always be someone down the road who will do it for half the price.”

Fees vary wildly, but a straw poll of middle- to top-ranking design consultancies would suggest that an average initial design pays around 10 000. Watson says: “In our experience, fees have not moved since the early Nineties. There are a lot of design groups who will still do jobs really cheaply and clients have come to expect that. However, there is some serious money in pan-European projects – we are talking six figures. The highest I’ve come across has been a project for 420 000 in fees.”

One way of pushing up fees is to be perceived as providing clients with added value and strategic brand thinking. Roger Heathcote, managing director of Michael Peters Ltd, describes it as operating as a “consultancy offering design rather than just a supplier of design”. Mark Wickens, chairman of Wickens Tutt Southgate, adds: “The situation is partly the fault of design groups – in the Eighties, like ad agencies, some put through inflated invoices and got involved in ‘creeping fee syndrome’. They tried to rip off the client and now the client is fighting back.” He believes that designers now have to offer more than just a pack design.

Rosters used to be something of a rarity in the design industry, with only a few of the biggest players in own-label – Tesco, Sainsbury and Boots – drawing up a list of preferred suppliers. Most other companies chose to work on a project-by-project basis. However, following their increased use in advertising, some major companies are beginning to apply the roster process to design. Recent converts include Bass, Heinz, Van den Bergh, Mars and Kraft Jacob Suchard.

The advantage of a roster is that it allows both client and design group to build up a long-term relationship. It also means that the designers can develop in-depth knowledge of the clients’ portfolio of brands. Another perhaps unforeseen advantage, says Watson, is “that if a client has a roster it stops unsolicited new business pitches from desperate design companies”.

However, there is a downside to rosters. According to one agency managing director: “They are fine if they are well run, but we have found that having got on to a roster, clients then ignore the list and just do what they want to. The internal structures for dealing with the preferred list are just not in place.”

While some clients may like to think that they have direct contact with top-level decision makers, in reality most deal with junior- to middle-level management. The biggest problem is that those who are commissioning in client companies either have little experience of the task or commission something only to find it is then dismissed by those higher up the management structure.

Andy Knowles of Jones Knowles Ritchie says: “Ineffective design can originate when the brand manager presents the work to his or her boss, who, without understanding the rationale, wishes to alter the direction. The answer is never to design by proxy.” MPL’s Heathcote adds: “Advertising agencies tend to see much more senior people because of the amount of money involved, but design groups need to start dealing further up the client ladder.”

The client/ agency relationship is often fraught, although long-term relationships tend to be more harmonious. Common complaints include marketing managers who want to interfere at every stage or fail to brief the designers sufficiently well at the outset. One head of new- business for a leading consultancy says: “Another big problem is that clients change their minds once you have produced the work and then don’t want to take the flak from their bosses for it so blame the design group. It is quite common and extremely annoying.”

Clients are increasingly demanding that designers have access to technology such as ISDN links. It saves money, effort and time and ensures that designers can deliver to a tight deadline. Sheila Marshall, manager of special projects at Sainsbury, says: “The designers we use send artwork via ISDN links and then it is sent off to the repro house. It makes things much easier.”

Structural packaging is becoming increasingly popular with clients, as it allows them to protect their brands and the products can stand out from their peers on- shelf. “It’s having an increasing impact on our business. We have introduced a baby toiletries range with a shape unique to Sainsbury’s. And it’s particularly important in the toiletries sector, where secondary purchases can be positioned as a bit of treat,” says Marshall.

The Client’s view

Clients will at some point be the bane of every designer’s life, but what makes them tick and what do they expect from the designers they are working with? Design Week talked to some of those who were prepared to comment in an attempt to discover the clients’ perspective.

First and foremost, many clients want long-term meaningful relationships with design consultancies rather than brief torrid affairs. It makes life easier knowing that they can work with people who they respect and trust and, perhaps most importantly, know won’t stand them up when it comes to deadlines.

BT is a good example of a company keen on building lasting relationships rather than working on an ad hoc basis. It has design buyers centralised in key groups around the UK. They have to work within the context of a huge organisation, talking to non-design specialists about their aims and what they want to achieve through design. Knowing that they can call on designers who will satisfy those needs in the most efficient manner possible is therefore extremely important.

Richard Troughton, one of BT’s design managers, says: “Our aim is to use the best people in the market, but we also try to establish long-term relationships with designers. It means that the learning curve is not as steep if the people we are using know us and our requirements. There is a degree of shared knowledge and trust.” However, Troughton says that this has to be balanced with the need to nurture new talent. “We keep a constant eye on the marketplace to fulfil our obligation to the design industry and to give new talent the opportunity to show what they can do.”

In order to show clients just what they can do and to help establish these fruitful long-term relationships, design groups have to stick to some golden rules, say those buying design.

Perhaps one of the most important is to remember that each project is different. Although some clients may ask for prior experience of a particular product category such as toiletries or alcoholic drinks or may even demand a “me too” piece of packaging to emulate the success of another rival brand, on the whole they are very enamoured of their own particular brands and want them to be treated as special. Jon Turner, head of global design for The Body Shop International, says: “It is important to think about the client as an individual. So often people come in and design the same sort of thing for one client as they would for its rivals or for anyone else.”

Pitching is a vital component, and like all auditions is pretty nerve-racking for those trying to win the business. However, clients say it is not the size of your overhead projector or the slickness of your presentation that counts, but a depth of thinking and, most importantly, personality. David Mercer, BT’s head of design, recently told a Design Business Association seminar that while the best presentations “hit you right between the eyes, it doesn’t matter how the presentation is done. If there is not a close relationship between client and consultancy it is very difficult to work together”.

Another important factor, say clients, is that some design groups have a tendency to dismiss instantly all the work that has been done on the brand or product in the past. “While you can acknowledge that there are problems – otherwise they wouldn’t have called you in – it is arrogant and self-defeating to tell a client that it is all rubbish. What you may regard as rubbish may well at some stage have been the client’s ‘baby’,” says one head of design.

Turner also warns that designers shouldn’t push their luck. “If you are asked to do a leaflet, don’t start expressing ideas for a new corporate ID. Cheeky soon becomes tedious.”

Another big bugbear with clients is fees. Although most acknowledge that they are much more realistic than in the Eighties, some clients complain that design groups try to renegotiate the budget halfway through a project. One client says: “Just don’t do it. The budget is set and that is that. You should accept it.”

But the biggest problem of all is deadlines. Turner believes that as much as “70 per cent of design work is late”. Another client who prefers to remain anonymous agrees: “It’s completely unprofessional. Deadlines are not a moveable feast; they are real, and I can’t stand design consultancies who think the deadline they have been set is not a real one. They must be honest in the first place about the time-frame and what is achievable.”

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