Ideas above your station

Bob English has useful advice for UK consultancies who want to succeed in the current design climate

I’ve directed creative businesses in both the US and UK for two decades, and can safely say the design profession is the most fantastic, rewarding world for a committed, passionate person who is prepared to take the knocks, work hard and enjoy a special kind of camaraderie with colleagues. Having said that, it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted.

I left the UK to work in New York in 1997, and in that time the design business on both sides of the Atlantic has fractured and divided, with many motion graphic designers in this country and the US falling foul of consultancy collapses and retrenchments. The prospects for our industry looked brilliant back in 1997. It seemed then that the explosion of TV channels and platforms across the world would create more opportunities for TV branding specialists and motion designers.

Sadly, it has not quite turned out that way. More channels doesn’t equate to more opportunity, it just means cannibalisation. It means reduced budgets and more competition, creating a buyers’ market, with designers desperately touting their wares to whoever will buy at any price. Not surprisingly, some clients have taken advantage of this situation and our profession and reputation have taken a bit of a beating, with free-pitching creating a dog-eat-dog mentality that benefits no one.

How can we effectively differentiate our clients if branding and design are forced to try to survive in such a competitive marketplace? It is inevitable that, in this climate, results are driven by economics, not creativity. Generally the trend now is for quick and cheap solutions, which sometimes means no substance or strategic relevance.

I moved to the US in the days of the US broadcast design super-consultancy. The likes of Pittard Sullivan, Novocom, 3 Ring Circus, Lee Hunt Associates and Razorfish employed hundreds of people globally. I left a thriving London scene where the likes of Lambie-Nairn, English & Pockett, Ortmans Young, and McCallum Kennedy D’Auria carved their unique niche in the UK and beyond with clever, thoughtful work that contrasted with the Americans’ brash glitz and glitter. The last two British groups now don’t exist and the other two have scaled down due to market pressures and the influence of new technology.

In those days there was no competition outside the Western world. Broadcast design grew up in the UK and US and TV channels across the world were just as hungry to adopt Western TV design, as they were to make their own version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The new boys to TV soon picked up how to do this and – with the help of cheap desktop systems and a willingness to work hard – were producing TV design that was not only as good as work by UK and US consultancies, but also had local relevance.

In the US over the past seven years, the broadcast design business has fragmented hugely into lots of small boutiques and two-man bands that operate in a very nimble and fluid way, with alliances and collaborations forming and dissolving as the work ebbs and flows. UK groups have remained more stable, but even here it’s rare to find consultancies that have grown over this period, both numerically and internationally.

Across Europe, broadcast design consultancies have sprung up to service their own local markets and if no consultancies have appeared, then the broadcasters themselves have invested in these areas. This allows them to gain a competitive edge over their rivals cost-effectively, while also investing in local talent.

The good news, is there’s still a place for international design consultancies that are able to apply themselves to the taxing questions of how to achieve stand-out in a multichannel world and which understand that TV channels need practical solutions to their branding and promotional needs. We’re creating a new trend in broadcast design with a seamless marriage of design and promotion that’s best exemplified by ITVs 1, 2 and 3 and which is not only helping to identify the channels, but driving audiences to specific programmes and parts of the schedule. Many other channels and groups will soon follow this format.

The UK still has some of the best broadcast designers in the world: our unique combination of creative genius and practical application will always win out, no matter what.

Top tips

• Learn a trick from the way US groups market themselves

• UK groups need to learn to educate clients on the importance of good design

• US clients are, in general, more respectful of design, as evidenced by paid pitching

• UK broadcast groups can learn a lot from the US about TV break structure

Bob English is creative director, design, of Bruce Dunlop Associates, and was co-founder of English & Pockett

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