Don’t rock a listing ship

Jim Davies wonders whether you should be busting a gut to get on to a client’s roster when you’ll constantly have to prove your worth to save walking the plank

‘Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.’ Groucho Marx’s wickedly warped sentiments could just as easily apply to a design group, which, after many hard months of canvassing, badgering and lunching, has finally won a place on a blue-chip client’s creative roster.

From the outside, the arrangement seems cosy. There’s guaranteed repeat work, a certain kudos and the chance to build a long and fulfilling relationship. You revel in a warm glow of acceptance and recognition. You enjoy supping at the same table as your fellow rosterites. Now you’re playing with the big boys. And after years of cursing it, you think the system is wonderful – because you’re in.

For larger clients, the arrangement seems to make perfect sense. It enables tight control, not only of quality of creative work, but of budgets and expenditure. Your suppliers are tried, tested and trusted. It brings a consistency to the look and feel of your brand. And, as it happens, it’s also an extremely handy way of letting any undesirable design groups touting for work down gently – all you have to say is that the good ship Roster is full and the passenger list won’t be reviewed for sometime.

You may choose to ally yourself with a large media group, to take advantage of shared values and processes. It’s like two extended families, brought together by marriage. The twist is that one side of the family comes with a fat dowry and the other is desperate to please.

But there’s something about the practice that harks back to the playground and the ritual humiliation of picking teams (with the client standing in as one of the team captains). You can hold your head up high if you are picked first or second, but any further down the pecking order, you begin to question your leader’s judgement and motives. Maybe your talents would be better appreciated on the other side. And he’s gone and made a huge howler about the scrawny kid with the glasses – he’s actually extremely nippy and has an almost uncanny tactical awareness. Which just goes to show that appearances can be deceptive.

The whole notion of rosters is restrictive, short-sighted and lazy. Far from producing a higher standard of design work, it mitigates against appointing the best person for the job. As a client, you’ve immediately limited your options, forced to make do with what you’ve got, even if there’s someone else just around the corner whose experience and skills set would suit your needs far better.

If you’ve thrown your hat in with a large media conglomerate, of course, it is going to recommend its brother and sister companies. But it’s a myth that this happy family will provide you with a more streamlined, integrated service. Often ‘colleagues’ within the same group won’t even have met. Even if they have, the chances are they can’t stand each other because of internecine rivalries that have built up over the years. Oddly, smaller independent ’boutique’ consultancies tend to get on better because they’ve been down similar roads and are quite used to collaborating with all kinds of outside talent.

As a design business, getting on to a roster can be a mixed blessing. The client has done you a huge favour – or, in other words, you owe. Which means you’re expected to show your gratitude on a daily basis, to jump even when you’re bogged down with other clients’ work, and to take on projects for rates that are competitive at best. Psychologically at least, the money is already in the bank, which means there’s a certain lack of enthusiasm when it comes to actually doing the work, particularly if a project drags on and doesn’t go smoothly.

It’s all too easy to switch on to auto-pilot, to keep any real inspiration locked up in a drawer until you really need it. After all, the days of champagne and designer lingerie are over, and you’ve now settled into the night cream and curlers phase of the relationship. And we all know what happens when you start taking each other for granted.

Rosters are constantly being ‘audited’, ‘reviewed’ and ‘rationalised’. It may have taken a superhuman effort to get on that precious list, but it’s a piece of cake for the client to take you off it whenever he feels like it. Far worse to have something you’ve become used to taken away than never to have had it in the first place. So next time a place on roster beckons, make yourself scarce. Don a disguise. A Groucho Marx moustache and spectacles perhaps.

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