Can the Davids stand up to the Goliaths?

Someone commented the other day that Design Week’s news is now dominated by acquisitions, as the big marketing services conglomerates continue to eat up smaller design players. Last week we reported the merger of Conran Design Group and DIA, both of the French-owned Havas stable; this week it is the deal between Tempus and Added Value Group, which carries with it AVG’s print design subsidiary Brown Inc (see News, page 3).

We try to keep a finger on the pulse of the UK design business, pointing out developments likely to impact upon its future as an industry. It is inevitable, therefore, that the current boom in mergers and acquisitions should take centre stage. The outcome of such deals will influence the type of clients using design, opening doors for all players.

There is, though, a noticeable divide forming between groups which are owned and those which remain independent. It is to do with the perceived quality of the visual work. While creativity resides throughout design, with “owned” groups it’s more readily identified in “consultancy services” – the thinking end – than in design.

One argument is that “owned” groups can’t have as much fun. With pressure to meet financial targets – and parent companies not always appreciating the value of good design – they have less chance to experiment or turn down work. Not true. WPP Group-owned Enterprise IG, for example, runs internal projects to boost creativity; all groups turn down work; and you wouldn’t expect anything less than creative best from the likes of FutureBrand’s David Davies and Stuart Baron, regardless of a merger.

But then there are the independent groups, which tend to be more highly prized for their creative output – Johnson Banks, Why Not Associates, Aboud Sodano, Blast and their ilk in graphics; interiors groups such as Din Associates, Ben Kelly Design and Redjacket; product design groups like Tangerine and Priestman Goode; and a dwindling number of digital media independents, like Deepend.

There is no real reason for this divide. All businesses must meet targets. Nor is size necessarily an issue – a small team will still work on a project whatever the consultancy’s head count. As for “independence”, only one or two founders are likely to have a real say in the smaller groups.

Star turns such as The Partners, Lewis Moberly and Pentagram maintain high creative standards while running sizable and profitable businesses. Maybe those caught up in mergers should study them, before they marginalise design’s strengths purely for the sake of financial gain.

Latest articles