Head hunting ground

High-profile public companies are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit heads for their in-house design teams. Hannah Booth asks various groups how they plan to tackle the problem Head hunting ground

Why are companies finding it so hard to recruit design heads? The evidence speaks for itself. The Body Shop has appointed internal candidates to head up its in-house design team. Boots the Chemists did not replace in-house head of design Peter Ramskill, but has reshuffled its design department from within. And Marks and Spencer has yet to decide how to replace design director Brian Godbold when he left in July 1999.

M&S is seeking a head of creative design to oversee all aspects of the company’s design and branding; Interbrand Newell and Sorrell creative director Rodney Mylius is currently acting creative director for M&S.

M&S has not decided the parameters of the role, but a decision will be made within the next few months. “It is a case of who to appoint, not whether to appoint,” adds a spokeswoman. “For a business of our size, it is vital to have a design head to consolidate our different areas.” Whether M&S appoints an internal or external candidate has yet to be decided.

On the client side, promoting someone from within can be useful, says Clive Grinyer, head of design at Tag MacLaren, because they know the system. However, a top-level reshuffle can be a good opportunity to send out the message that the company is changing, which an internal appointment does not usually do.

“Clients seeking in-house design heads can be inflexible and reluctant to look outside their own industry,” says Grinyer. “A telephone company, for example, does not necessarily need a designer from the telecoms industry – a fresh pair of eyes can be more beneficial.”

Executive creative director at Enterprise IG and former Body Shop head of global design, Jon Turner, agrees design has slipped off many board’s agenda, which may be down to the lack of high-profile roles currently in the industry.

“If design is undervalued at the top, it will not be invested in, which means high-level designers will not be interested,” says Turner. He adds, “High-profile public companies aren’t paying enough for design heads if a designer is prepared to enter what can be the lion’s den of an in-house design head job, they will want to be paid well for it. Companies need to wise up.”

RitaSue Siegel, president of US recruitment consultancy RitaSue Siegel Aquent Executive Search, which finds people for large groups such as Landor Associates and Wolff Olins, says salaries in the US for top-level appointments can start at around $350 000 (£233 000), but the UK offers greater opportunity to make around 30 per cent extra in bonuses such as share options, company cars, healthcare and holidays.

Siegel says finding executivelevel designers is easy because they are highly visible figures. “One of the main problems is dealing with counter offers from the person’s existing company,” she says. “That happens nearly 20 per cent of the time.”

Karina Beasley, director of creative industry recruitment company Gabriele Skelton, suggests both design consultancies and clients must be prepared to pay more and offer more attractive packages to attract top designers. “The creative industry has a reputation for not incentivising its top positions,” says Beasley.

She says it is slowly changing to attract better people who may otherwise succumb to the lure of an in-house role. “People’s lifestyles are changing and they are working harder. They will not be interested in a job if they are not looked after.”

But those who have worked in the industry do not see in-house roles as automatically enticing. Grinyer says that, initially, working as an in-house design director can appear unexciting and working under too tight a rein, until you get under the skin of the brand. Designers working in-house can often feel under-appreciated, particularly if they have joined from a consultancy where they may have been fêted.

Illustrating the often negative way an in-house role is seen, Grinyer says it is rare for designers to move from a consultancy to an in-house position. “Most people rise through the ranks, taking the experience they have amassed in-house to other clients.”

According to Beasley, a toplevel design position in-house can be a bit cramped and potential employees can be turned off by the thought of only working with one brand. Consultancy work offers more diversity and creativity, she says.

To attract top designers, clients must offer more than just financial rewards, says Turner. He says an in-house design team must be valued, which could mean putting the creative director on the board or not overshadowing its worth with external consultants. In-house teams which have worked with consultants include Boots’ work with Pentagram’s John McConnell or M&S’s in-house team working with INS.

“One of the main problems with employing both internal and external consultancies is that it’s human nature to view external consultancies as ‘experts’, when that expertise is often in-house under the board’s nose,” Turner says. But an external design consultant often acts as a successful catalyst for the in-house team, and can more easily address senior management, he adds.

There can be clashes of egos between internal and external consultants, says Grinyer, but these must be worked through. “It takes a strong head of design in-house and an open, corporate culture to make it work.”

But Grinyer suggests a single design visionary may not be the best way for clients go. “Recruiting a ‘magic’ design head is not the answer to a company’s problems. A strong design team is vital, but history has told us that employing one person to turn around design fortunes just doesn’t happen,” he says.

A balance between a strong internal design team, which knows the brand inside out, and talented external consultants, who can take a step back and be non-political, appears to be ideal. If this can be achieved with one design team, even better.

Grinyer says the way Richard Seymour is used as a consultant at Lever Fabergé is highly effective because his is a high-level, strategic consultant role rather than a purely design role.

The answer to whether clients should use in-house design teams or external consultancies could be the “in-house consultancy”, says Grinyer, which he claims works well at Samsung and Tag MacLaren. This approach uses design consultants to keep the in-house team on its toes and stop it being blinkered.

Pros and cons of being an in-house design head


Deeper, long-term relationship with the brand

Employers are starting to meet salary demands

Can be a very high-profile position


Work is usually one-dimensional

Dealing with the board can be frustrating

Work may be undervalued

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