The art of putting on a good show

Hosting a series of talks or seminars is a great idea says Tom Bawden, as long as it is carefully branded and you realise how much time and money it will cost

In the nine years since Paul Smith spoke at the then Newell and Sorrell’s inaugural Utopian Night, the series has become a design industry legend.

The Utopian Nights series invites speakers to talk passionately on any subject except design and observers say the initiative has helped boost (Interbrand) Newell and Sorrell’s reputation as a consultancy in the business of inspiration.

In other words, the event has been carefully branded to develop and reinforce the consultancy’s core values. The brand has been stretched through a book released in 1996, which gathers the essence of the talks up to that date, and a booklet on each event since.

While the Utopian Nights series is probably the best-known of consultancy soirées, it is by no means the first or only one. A growing number of consultancies are also holding successful regular events in the form of open days, conferences and seminars.

“[These] are only worthwhile if based on a strongly researched and well-founded idea. A standard format sales pitch is no good,” says marketing consultant Margaret O’Brien, who has helped organise numerous events within the design industry.

Elmwood managing director Jonathan Sands agrees a clear proposition is the key to a successful event. In May his Leeds group will hold its third one-day annual Advantivity conference at London’s Royal Society of Arts. This targets existing clients, potential clients and designers.

“We wanted our event to be different. If we had copied others it would have looked bad. Our conferences are all about unlocking creativity rather than the usual issues of packaging, design procurement, the power of branding and so on,” says Sands.

Sands says the conference is intended to reinforce Elmwood’s brand identity as a consultancy in the business of creativity. The programme includes workshops on meditation, language, teamwork and brainstorming.

Kinneir Dufort senior director Ross Kinneir’s most recent event was sparked by a different catalyst altogether.

“Our move to a refurbished sugar refinery in Bristol late last year provided the perfect focus to hold an open day. How many people would have visited such a building before?” he asks.

The group invited existing clients, potential clients (including the bank manager “who is always a good person to know”), suppliers and designers specialising in disciplines outside Kinneir Dufort’s remit.

Meanwhile, The Partners has evolved a travelling seminar. Put together four years ago to explain the group to advertising agencies, the “show” has now clocked up around 50 performances. The presentation often involves input from clients of The Partners.

“We put the seminar together to show the role of creativity [in design], which is what we are best known for. Essentially, we wanted to show how we think,” says The Partners client services director Gareth Williams.

Williams says the group is usually approached by existing clients who have heard about the presentation and want to see it. While the basic format remains the same, each presentation is tailored to the client, according to its expertise and sector. The presentation will be given in Hollywood this summer.

Product consultancy PDD is probably the latest group to initiate a branded event series, launching its Quiver evenings at the beginning of April. The first comprised a talk by Web group Deep End’s founder Simon Waterfall on setting up the consultancy.

The evenings will run quarterly and have been set up by freelance consultant Graham Moore. He says Quiver is very much at the experimental stage and is keen to let the evening evolve rather than impose a concrete structure and remit at this stage.

PDD managing director Paul Pankhurst says Quiver will exist alongside other PDD events, which will all share the broad theme of design awareness.

The consultancy has run daytime functions on education in design and the future of software and aims to hold around one such event a month. While Quiver is aimed at a broad audience, including clients and designers connected and unconnected to the consultancy, the daytime functions are confined to clients.

None of the consultancies mentioned has attempted to quantify the value of its events in isolation because a successful design business is based on a number of interweaving factors.

However, qualitative analysis suggests a properly managed event can go a long way towards cementing a consultancy’s reputation and its relations with clients and designers. With appetites whetted by the high profile the design industry has enjoyed of late, now would seem a good time to really hit clients with well thought out events.

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