Limit your offer to get ahead

Specialisation may seem like a route that would narrow your options, but there are sound economic reasons for it, says David Rivett

Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations has always been a seminal text for me. One of its fundamental messages is that economic advances come through the specialisation of labour. It is a lesson design groups can profitably apply to their business model.

There are about 10 000 design consultancies in the UK and many lack the courage to commit themselves to an area of specialisation. This seems strange when you consider that they often advise their clients on issues of differentiation. There is a propensity to keep strengths hidden behind generalities and statements about strategically informed creativity, client focus and commitment to high standards. They fear that specialism will limit their business. This is where courage is called for, just as with some great athletes who have the potential to be good in many areas, but at some point have to commit to one discipline to achieve greatness. Tiger Woods was a world class 400m sprinter.

Specialisation can take two basic routes – skill or sector. Some consultancies are sector specialists – for example, Fitch, which has returned to its retail focus, Spencer du Bois, which has amassed impressive expertise in the not-for-profit sector, and The Team, which excels in the public sector. Others specialise in a particular skill set – Fontsmith in the design of typography, Johnson Banks is all about print and Tin Horse specialises in 3D packaging and innovation.

Either route can work well, and the upper reaches of the Design Week Top 100 demonstrate only too clearly that focus builds successful, profitable businesses. From my work with smaller groups, such as Osborne Pike, I also see how specialisation delivers above-average profit margins and the opportunity to work with fantastic international clients. The trick is to avoid becoming niche – too specialist and your market can be so limited that there is no room for growth, or you become overly dependent on one or two clients.

Conversely, I have worked with start-ups which were fatally flawed because the founders didn’t have enough specialist skills before setting up. They launched on the back of a project or client and then flailed around trying to find follow-on work, attempting to be all things to all clients and lacking any convincing potential to differentiate and thereby achieve profitable fees. They were vulnerable to competitors with demonstrably more specialist expertise and forced to sell on price to unappreciative clients who saw design as a commodity. This is not a pleasant place to be.

The two specialisation routes demand different structures with different implications for optimum scale. Skills specialists have great depth of knowledge on how to deploy their craft to maximum effect, and digital groups are probably the best current example of this approach. Packaging designers have an in-depth understanding of consumers’ relationships with packaging, of print possibilities and of pack formats and materials. Even ‘best of breed’ groups following this route can be tiny.

Sector specialists will usually need a broader range of skills, applying these within the framework of understanding the nuances of a particular sector. The consultancy understands the client’s business, has an expert knowledge of customer patterns and motivations and a sense of what works. It understands what is evolutionary and what is revolutionary, and it knows the competitor landscape. It might also comprise a collection of skills specialists, so the boundary can be fuzzy.

But isn’t specialisation the antithesis of many a designer’s vision of being a polymath, deploying their skills as widely as possible to make our environment a better place? If you specialise in one sector, don’t you risk client conflict issues, or ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’?

The answer is yes, but, on balance, the risks of generalising are much greater. The great multidisciplinary designers – Raymond Lowey, Philippe Starck, Le Corbusier – started as specialists and built great design brands. All groups are de-facto brands and should develop them to make it easier for clients to pick them. Just like the things they design, consultancies need shelf stand-out. Specialisation is simply the first step in the brand-building process.

You must choose your ambitions, and the foundation must be a strong brand founded on specialisation and excellence.

David Rivett is former group managing director of Design Bridge and founding partner of Actionable Advice

Become an expert

• Specialise in a sector -or in a particular skill set
• Make sure you’ve got the necessary expertise in place
• Don’t launch until you know for certain that you’re ready
• Build up your brand so that it has a clear focus that will appeal to clients

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