Top tips on running a design consultancy

Emperor’s executive creative director Marc Jenks shares practical insights into how to run and manage a growing design studio.

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Inside Emperor’s studio

Managing a growing creative studio is both a dark art and a subtle science. Mastering your craft means learning on the job and absorbing a great culture during your time at other agencies. But what does it really take to succeed? When Design Week visited Emperor’s London HQ last year, we discussed life behind the frosted glass and glowing screens.

For me, running a studio is walking a tightrope between inspiration and commercial reality. You’re creating a space to in which to think and play. But you’re also dealing with deadlines, client pressure, and ever-increasing expectations. This raises questions. Who works well together? Who doesn’t? How do you keep teams motivated, while meeting the ever-present goal of making a buck?

More space, more questions

I’ve managed both small and large studios, so I know that size matters. Good creative space is at a premium in London and our home in EC2 is no exception. A growing team needs a bigger studio, and we’ve been lucky in acquiring space within the same building. New spaces like this raise interesting questions. How do we encourage other teams in the agency to think of this as an extended space that benefits everyone? How do we avoid a “them and us” mentality?

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Inside Emperor’s studio

In my previous agency life, I found that teams often hid behind closed doors, or even different floors – with questionable results. I wanted our new studio to help bond and inspire teams, while providing a thinking space that allows colleagues and clients to be more involved with our creative processes and culture. So we’ve plenty of communal areas in which to hot-desk for the day, and bringing a client in to work or discuss a project is fairly normal.

Music should unite, not divide

Music is “the key of life” for many creatives. I count myself among them. However, I’ve always preferred that headphones should only be worn when absolute concentration is needed. As a designer, I understand the occasional need to disappear into your own music. But as a manager, I’m now acutely aware seeing a sea of headphones around me. And this means there’s a lack of interaction.

Concentration is important, but at what loss? One of the great benefits of a studio is the sense of being one team and this means sharing professionally and personally during the working day. Collectively agreeing on what music we play in the studio is tricky. But I believe we’ve found the right balance with inclusive playlists and a broadly agreed opinion of what’s “studio friendly” and more importantly, what’s not.

True creativity has real depth

Clients can get fantastic creative from small independents or Group owned 300 strong mega-consultancies. But what makes you stand out – other than your fees – is your culture. One way of reflecting this is your outward appearance. Take a walk down London’s Brick Lane and peer into Weiden and Kennedy’s HQ. Their building oozes creativity and a deliberate anti-office mentality. It looks great and projects a powerful message. But I think it’s the substance behind the style that really matters.

Appearances are important. But true creative excellence only emerges when you remove the creative cap and don the thinking one. Otherwise, you just get work that only ticks the “that looks nice” box. Clients are wise to design for design’s sake. Maybe it’s the explosion of social media channels like Instagram and Pinterest, but everyone sees themselves as a bit of a designer. As professionals we have to earn our keep by bringing depth of thought to everything we do.

Efficiency breeds creativity

In Adrian Shaughnessy’s excellent book Studio Culture, Erik Speikermann writes “You can have 125 people, but the work never gets done by more than five”. It’s a great point. Efficiency in larger studios can often fall apart due to bottlenecks or a lack of time to assess and engage. So when we reached this point, we took steps to address it by adapting our structure.

Last year, Adam Holloway – former creative director with SAS, now MSL Group – joined us to help manage our London team and grow our print and digital client base. Bringing experience in from highly respected agencies is crucial in developing our business and teams. I’ve never assumed we’re the finished article. If we’re to progress, we always need to look outside for new approaches.

Thinking more means doing more

It seems that the bigger you get as an agency, the less time you get to do what you’re good at. So at Emperor we’ve established a “Think, Do” culture, where striking the right balance results in the best outcome. Easier said than done, as I’m sure you’re thinking. A whole lot of “Do” may pay the bills but it doesn’t necessarily make for a happy creative team.

Protecting the time to “Think” is the most important part. It saves you the time to “Do” at the other end. Building creative seniority and experience around the thinking time helps fast track the process, without sacrificing the goods. With Adam joining my team to work alongside our design directors, we’re helping maintain this without our fees becoming unrealistic.

Share your successes

We’ve just developed emperor.works – a new consultancy website which allows visitors to explore our culture and work in depth. Sharing your positioning, client case studies and awards successes are crucial. It sounds obvious but it’s important to find time to make sure that the essence of what makes your consultancy unique is projected beyond its four walls. 

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