Uncovering the difference

Design groups need to have a clear vision of their strengths to market themselves effectively, says Karla Mercedes Morales


There are many philosophies on how to win new business. ‘It’s not what you know, but who you know’ or ‘New business is a numbers game’. They all have an element of truth, but the lack of transparency in how one design group does new business versus another causes much confusion about how business development time should be spent.

Should they be cold calling all day? Should they be attending events and networking? Should they be designing a website and brochures? How often should they write a new business activity report? And what targets are too high or too low? As we worry about the economic downturn and the knock-on effect it may have, it seems timely to promote the role for business development strategy moving forward.

Most consultancies drift along. When things are going well no one ever asks why, but when things start to go wrong, people panic. It happened with the onslaught of procurement, it’s happening because of sustainability, and you can bet it will happen with a host of other pressures on our businesses in the coming years. In an increasingly competitive environment, business development is as much concerned with maintaining what you’ve got as it is with getting what you want.

There is often a knee-jerk call for action driven by the belief that doing something, anything, is better than doing nothing. We may take our clients out on more lunches, cut marketing budgets, make redundancies, put recruitment on hold or increase sales targets. What most design groups don’t do is look at a period of change as a time to pause for breath. That is because most groups don’t plan for growth, and all the ups and downs that come with it.

According to Ad Age, Campbell-Mithun, a Minneapolis-based advertising agency that’s been around since the 1930s, hired another ad agency, Cue, in 2007 to solve its communication issues. Unable to define or articulate why Campbell-Mithun is indispensable and how it goes about helping improve the branding and marketing efforts of its clients, Cue created a branding ethos for the agency consisting of seven tenets derived from quotes spoken by its founder, Ray Mithun.

The above example merely emphasises the fact that most consultancies forget all the tools they bring to their clients when putting growth strategy in place for themselves. The unspoken truth is that there is as much of a thin line between what you offer and what your competitor does as there is between one bar of soap and another. The difference is brand. Uncover what is it that sets you apart and make definitive statements about these ideas to position yourself in the marketplace. Your philosophies will create a culture that attracts like-minded employees and clients.

By knowing who you are, what you stand for, where you want to go, and how you are going to do it, you create a blueprint for the business that will weather good times and bad. By installing a completely functioning, consistently performing marketing and sales programme, you can outwit your competitors time and time again. What is the end point? Knowing this allows you to put a clear strategy in place.

A consistent approach to marketing and sales is typically missed by groups. With no shortage of creative ideas and enthusiastic cheerleaders, they fall prey to ‘the marketing initiative of the month’ or ‘exciting lead of the day’, never fully exploring what it takes to build a system for growth.

A large proportion of any consultancy’s new business comes from word of mouth and referrals – people do business with people they know, like and trust. In hard times low-hanging fruit is the fastest, most cost-effective way of winning new business. Align commercial goals with client service goals, and focus more attention and resources on maintaining and growing existing customers rather than chasing new ones.

Clients are increasingly challenging design groups to make themselves more relevant to business leaders. This challenge inspired the creation of our new group, Vibrandt Form, which has centred its own philosophies on the knowledge needed to break the chasm between design and business, and embraces the complexities of measuring design’s value to the bottom line.

When the going gets tough, consultancies would do well to take some of the well-thought-out advice they charge clients so highly for: create clear goals, coherent values and a defined culture, shared internally and externally. And if you can’t do it for yourself, bring in the right expert help to manage your business better and smarter.

Karla Mercedes Morales is business development manager at 1HQ

Developing a clear strategy

• Set well-defined goals for your consultancy
• Work out what your key strengths are and what sets you apart, and build on that
• Create a defined culture that works internally and externally
• Stick to your strategy – avoid pursuing marketing fads

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