Paths to success

Though some remain suspicious of outsiders, design consultancies are increasingly looking to recruit specialists from a variety of business and research backgrounds, finds John Stones

For creatives, the path into design is fairly straightforward. You study and then climb your way up where you can. For the ‘suits’, ending up in design is likely to have been one of a series of options, as the fundamental business skills of marketing, account or project management can find a home in many spheres.

Given the current kudos of design, there are plenty of hopefuls knocking on the door looking for a career. While those doors may be locked from the creative side, for suits the situation isn’t quite so forbidding, though it is still far from easy. The usual avenue into design is from a marketing role in a client company or a position in advertising or, less frequently, a management consultancy. Speak to recruitment agencies, however, and they’ll tell you tales about people from the army, teaching, sales, law, the music industry, museum curating, ethnography, psychology – and even a doctor with ten years’ experience in accident and emergency – making or trying to make their way into design.

‘It’s really hard to break in. There is a lot of snobbery from people within design consultancies. If someone doesn’t have experience working in design, they simply turn their noses up,’ says Steve Crompton at Cream. ‘It’s very difficult to make the transition,’ agrees Lucy Cooper at Major Players, adding that ‘London, in particular, is very conservative.’

But, as the market is currently buoyant for suits, and with demand outstripping availability, design groups are having to think more broadly. Network’s Stuart Newman says that when a consultancy has a specific language requirement, such as fluency in Japanese, then looking outside the design world often becomes a necessity.

As it stands, BDGXchangeteam’s Valerie Gascoyne notes a ‘chicken-and-egg situation’, in which ‘design doesn’t offer the same level of training and development, or pay, so it’s seen as the poor relative. Design consultancies have to get in there and grab them while they’re young.’ While suits moving from a major advertising agency to a big brand consultancy would see comparable pay, generally, in account management in design they would get less, says Cooper. Salaries can lag behind by as much as 25 per cent, compared with advertising, confirms Crompton, but it’s not the only obstacle. ‘The perception is that advertising is more strategic, whereas account management in design is less sophisticated and more tactical,’ he says. Likewise, in-house marketing positions are likely to offer more money and benefits, leaving lifestyle considerations, such as job satisfaction or living outside of London, as primary motivation.

However, the convergence taking place in marketing services means that this is changing. ‘As clients are demanding more integrated solutions, the lines between design and integrated agencies are blurring. Integrated agencies are specifically seeking out design and branding specialists and, similarly, design consultancies are keen to attract candidates with a broader, integrated campaign background,’ says Workstation’s Jo Webb.

While many recruitment agencies note a willingness to recruit part-timers with business skills, Kim Crawford of Periscope, says there is still a problem with women being able to stay in the industry. ‘We have many excellent account handlers who want to work part-time or, at least, regular hours. But our industry does not realistically suit a three-to-four-day week, return-to-work mummy, sadly, so there are a lot of good women who may never return to the industry.’

She also notes a resistance from clients against candidates with MBAs. On the flipside, Jon Alport of recruitment agency Alport, notes a reluctance on the part of management consultants to move into design, because of a lack of clear career progression or commitment to further training.

But, with the intensifying turf war in marketing services and the need for design consultancies to justify their fees, there is a particular call for people with analytical skills. ‘More and more design groups are doing the strategy themselves,’ points out Cooper. Gascoyne agrees, adding that ‘as consultancies become more strategic, the role of planner is becoming more common, as they are seen to give good value. They nearly always come from advertising.’

There is evident frustration within recruitment agencies about the talent that is being ignored by design. While someone who has worked in-house for a conspicuously design-aware company – such as Procter & Gamble or British Airways – or within advertising will have obvious skills to offer, so might many others. ‘The design industry needs to change its attitude,’ says Crompton. But there are signs that that is happening. Paul Wood at Purple, while admitting that consultancies have been cautious, says that some have now ‘spread the net wide to secure talent, and are employing people with very specific skill sets, rather than traditional design consultancy backgrounds’.

For interior or retail design, this could be ethnography, semiotics for a product consultancy or experience in medicine for the specialist consultancies with healthcare clients. While such candidates sometimes arrive via recruitment agencies, it seems they are more often appointed because of existing contacts. Smaller consultancies are unable to justify a full-time appointment of candidates with these less obvious skills, but may still use them on a freelance basis.

Of course, fence-hopping can happen in both directions. Madelaine Cooper of recruitment agency MCV is intensifying her focus on the recruitment of senior candidates from design and into client companies, something which she claims the top candidates need little persuading to do, and not necessarily for financial reasons. ‘It’s a warning bell for the design world about companies getting smarter and making design part of their own culture. As companies get accustomed to having very good people on board, it could change their relationship with design consultancies,’ she warns.


Charlie Mitchell-Heggs, business development director, Vivid Brand

After six years in the Gurkhas, where he was an officer, Charlie Mitchell-Heggs did a British Army-sponsored business management course and, he says, ‘buzzed to marketing most, as [he] enjoyed the creative environment’. A spell in advertising, culminating at G2, the now disbanded below-the-line agency of Grey, saw him work on British American Tobacco, where ‘a lot of the work was branding without advertising’ – a platform that allowed an easy transfer to design. In any case, he believes ‘there is much more scope for blending the two’ and that, from a client-management perspective, the jobs are pretty much the same. ‘There is a requirement, now, for everything to be solidly grounded in brand thinking – it’s not just about prettiness,’ he says. ‘There is no mysticism about the job – it’s just about understanding and communicating to real people. My diverse background is an advantage.’

Diane Fox Hill, semiotician, PDD

The path to design has been anything but straightforward for Diane Fox Hill. After a spell in financial services, she retrained in psychology and moved into market research, specialising in semiotic work. To carry on with that, the options were advertising or design. Having worked initially in advertising, she finds design more meaningful and less ego-driven. It also, she says, allows her to ‘keep [her] hands on the process much longer, nothing is lost’, with the personal satisfaction of seeing the process and it resulting in a tangible product. At PDD, she is one of two psychologists, and there is also an in-house economist. Working at a consultancy the size of PDD, she doesn’t feel she is losing out in terms of pay, career benefits or progression.

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