Let the ideas boost business

Turn off the Mac and switch on the right brain – original ideas are far more important for business than its execution, says Gerry Postlethwaite

A great question for all design consultancy chiefs is whether they are set up to generate truly original ideas or merely to produce terrific executions. The trend in the design business is heading rapidly towards the latter.

In his foreword to Design Week’s Creative Survey (DW 1 December 2005), Mike Dempsey observed that of the 185 000 people working in design, only a small handful are producing anything really noteworthy. Why? The answer lies with both the client and the consultancy. The way we run our design business and develop client relationships can go quite a long way towards reversing this trend.

Let’s look at the client side first. Too much work is briefed out by inexperienced people who are simply the mouthpiece for a more senior body.

They neither originate the brief nor have power of approval, yet they are a filter/barrier between the real client and the creative people. Their inexperience creates a situation that demands lots of executions to choose from rather than great ideas in rough form originating from a creative brain.

The joint industry guideline booklet, Judging Creative Ideas (published by ISBA), may help. One quote that I particularly liked is: ‘The smart client sees the briefing meetings and the presentations as being umbilically connected and insists on the same people being present at both’. With inexperienced people ‘procuring’ design, that connection is simply impossible. Volume is the order of the day rather than quality. This already costs the design industry a huge amount of money every year and it is getting worse.

The challenge for design industry chiefs is to run their business on the basis of a passion for creating truly original ideas while meeting or beating client expectations. It really amounts to management judgement as each new opportunity emerges.

One golden rule would be to refuse virtually any assignment where you will not have the opportunity of presenting your work face-to-face with a decision-maker. This is a tough call since all design businesses need volume to generate a profit, but the reverse of that is the benefit of not leaking away hundreds of valuable creative hours. In the long run, however, the benefit of the tough approach is that you end up with better/closer client relationships and clients who have a real respect and understanding of what great ideas can do for their business.

Most design businesses will have a balance between routine (even mundane) work and the real idea opportunities. The responsibility for creative and client services management is to ensure that the skill sets and work methods exist to pounce on the briefs where a great idea can make a difference.

Switch off the Mac, get a collection of your best talent together, then switch on the right brain. It does not cost any more. Indeed, it may cost less in terms of time input. It will give you the chance to really involve the client in your thought processes with initial responses to the brief showing ideas or concepts simply sketched out for discussion.

For both the client and the consultancy, these types of presentations can be hugely rewarding. They can lead to a long-term relationship and value contribution recognition on the client side. A design business built around a core of such a relationship will be more profitable and a great deal more fun for everyone. As Raymond Turner said in this column a few weeks ago (DW 13 July), ‘If “added value” is not at the core of the client/designer relationship, the inevitable consequence is that design will be seen as a commodity where the cheapest wins the day.’ Of course, it is up to the design consultancy to generate the creativity, but the client has a key role in recognising and nurturing a great idea. The client’s business will, after all, be the main beneficiary.

The immediate future should be seriously good for the design industry. The landmark Cox Report has been published and widely read (though some suspect not widely understood). Now the real responsibility is for British design to get to work and help our manufacturing and service industries communicate with clarity and originality. To do so we will need to be striving to beat the world, not just the design shop around the corner. We will need to switch on the right brain first and the Apple Mac second.

Gerry Postlethwaite is a director of DogStar

A quick checklist:

  • Avoid, wherever possible, investing your skills and talents on an assignment where you cannot meet the decision-maker
  • Exercise pragmatic business judgement as to when to turn down an assignment
  • Ensure that you have the right balance of people and work methods to be able to generate ideas and sell them
  • Make sure all your staff know what to switch on and when
  • In managing the idea-generating process, make sure everyone understands the ‘suspend judgment’ golden rule
  • Try to assess early in the client relationship whether you are dealing with left or right brain

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