Acknowledge breakaways to maintain a united front

The ups and downs in fortune experienced in design over the past few years has spawned a new generation of consultancies that will carry the baton forward as the industry enters the next phase. There’s nothing like economic pressure to focus people on what they really want to do.

As in the early 1990s, when the demise of top players such as the Michael Peters Group and wholesale lay-offs led to a host of start-ups, most of the new contenders begin life from a standing start. Some have been forced by redundancy into rethinking their careers, while others have realised that with smaller overheads, they can undercut their former employers on fees and have greater control over which projects they take on.

The principals of these new groups often have experience of business, client contacts and first-hand knowledge of how the creatives/suits balance works. Most aim to do great work, as is the case of the four graphics groups we profile this week (see feature, page 16).

So what’s new? It’s a fact of life in design that breakaways form with the worthiest of goals and promises of ‘doing things differently’. Few actually achieve this – it’s more a case of doing things they’ve always done, but without the hassle of big company life.

However, there is a difference between groups forming now and those born in the 1990s. For a start, hardly any of the breakaways put their own names above the door, preferring an anonymous title such as Together (see page 16), Dave (born out of Wolff Olins), Allofus (the Digit breakaway launched before Digit joined WPP) or 39 (the group set up by former Bamber Forsyth seniors as it was merged into Fitch London).

Such names are a nightmare for headline writers, but the trend allows consultancies to get on with the work without the worries of personality. It takes design away from the ‘creative guru’ model and into mainstream business practice.

There are, too, fewer descriptors such as brand consultant, strategic consultant or whatever. This must help clients, confused by every packaging or identity group claiming superior skills.

There is also more openness to collaboration. It has always gone on – witness Pentagram, formed with a co-operative spirit from the start – and clients put groups together on projects. But it is now accepted that like-minded groups might pitch together.

These are healthy developments for design. But with the industry not getting noticeably bigger, fragmentation can lead to a loss of influence. If consultancies are getting smaller and looking to new ways of working, then their representative bodies must look to better means of presenting a coherent front to design’s audience.

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