“When we set up, from day one we had a clear idea in our head that we were going to do this differently,” says BrandOpus chief executive Nir Wegrzyn. “What we told our clients was that the whole business model with their relationship to agencies was wrong.”
BrandOpus was founded in 2007 by Wegrzyn, formerly managing director at JKR. Fellow co-founders included executive creative director Paul Taylor and client services director Avril Tooley, also formerly of JKR.
Wegrzyn has a background in advertising and when he formed BrandOpus he took the ad agency/client relationship as a model for the new consultancy. Instead of focusing on one-off project, Wegrzyn intended for BrandOpus to be built on a series of long-lasting client contracts.
He says: “Design consultancies traditionally offer a very odd financial model to work with – it’s built on stages and on projects and it can change depending on the wind-blowing.
“But in the grown up world we deal with, with big marketing departments, we should be able to offer them a clear budget that they can work with; and to give them the benefit of sustained budgets they have to appoint us to work on the brand, not on the project – and commit for a long period of time. And then we are capable of passing the savings on to them.”
BrandOpus’s first client was RHM, which was bought by Premier Foods, with whom the consultancy set up retained contract. Wegrzyn says: “Once that was in place we had something to work with and to show to other clients.”
Subsequent BrandOpus clients include Twinings and McCain’s, while the consultancy has recently rebranded FRijj milkshakes and cycling brand Wiggle. Last month BrandOpus was appointed to work on the Mr Kipling brand and says new work on identity and packaging design will launch later in the year.
According to the 2014 Design Week Top 100 survey, BrandOpus had a total turnover of just over £9 million that year, and a design fee income of £7.7 million. Accountant KingstonSmithW1’s annual survey shows the consultancy as having double-digit income growth for five consecutive years.
Last year BrandOpus invested in a new office space in central London, which bring the consultancy together for the first time and boasts features including an in-house photography studio and a series of breakout spaces.
Wegrzyn says the new space “will allow for expansion in forthcoming years” but that it has also “slowed our margins”. He adds: “We have to allow ourselves to now get into a period of sustainable growth – we need to get all the functions to work at the right rhythm.”
Executive creative director Paul Taylor, who worked on the design of the space says: “It has changed the perception of the consultancy from a client perspective and the move here was about getting that next shift in gear. We’re a bigger consultancy now and we really want to create the right impression for our clients.”
BrandOpus is now facing the next stage of its development following a period of rapid and – the co-founders admit – sometimes painful growth.
Wegrzyn says that one of the challenges the consultancy faced – and still faces – is explaining its way of working, with its long-term retainers, to potential clients. He says the way to tackle is this to “explain it again and again”. He adds “We let clients speak to old clients. Some clients ask us at the beginning to do a project first before they appoint us long-term… You can’t force clients to work like this.”
Client services director Avril Tooley says: “Because this way of working does foster long-term relationships often clients move to other organisations and then they then re-educate some of their teams, so over the past few years it has become easier.” Wegryzn adds though that “The reverse can also be true – if you get a new marketing director coming in you can lose the business straight away”.
There were also issues inherent in the consultancy’s rapid growth. Wegryzn says: “Obviously if you grow too fast it costs immediately – you can quickly get talent problems and if you react to talent problems in the wrong way you an quickly have bigger problems.”
Taylor says: “Trying to build a consultancy around young talent that takes time, and when you as a consultancy are growing beyond expectations – that’s when stress points start to appear.”
He adds: “What’s really important though isn’t to bring in more experienced people to try to plug the gaps – you’ve got to stick to that original principle and support people as much as you can and get them to the right place as soon as you possibly can.”
Growing this sort of talent and capability internally, Wegrzyn says, is about “making sure that everyone understands what the core principles of the consultancy are and exactly what is sacrosanct – and then they’ve got the freedom to go and act”. Taylor adds that it’s vital for senior staff to “free ourselves to be there and to be able to support people”.
Another challenge – and one faced by most, if not all, design consultancies at the moment, is finding terms to describe what it is that they do. Wegrzyn says: “There are a variety of things in place now – the boundaries between traditional agency activities have blurred design consultancies do so much stuff – advertising, packaging, branding in a traditional sense…
“Consultancies like us that try to affect the way a brand behaves in the fmcg or luxury world where you exist and you die by what you look like on the shelves – we’re almost in a new niche position that’s not defined. The words that we have – like branding and packaging – are already taken, so that’s one of the greatest problems.”
He adds: “When a client places us in a ‘packaging’ box that’s a very awkward space to work in. But when a client begins to work with us all of sudden you get more senior people in the room and then things start to happen and then they start to think that actually this could be significant for their brand. And then you can do more interesting things because you’re no longer measuring what you might do on a tactical pack but you’re measuring it on long-term brand building.”
Tooley says BrandOpus measures its success on metrics including Design Business Association Effectiveness Awards (the consultancy is currently third in the effectiveness league table) and a programme of relationship monitoring with clients – “as the relationship continues they understand that if they tell us they what they don’t like it can change”.
BrandOpus’s focus in the short-term will be, as Wegrzyn says, on regrouping after its new office investment. He says: “I think we took time to recover from the move and are now recovering very well.”
But its greater ambitions, says Wegrzyn, include not just fully defining its proposition and deepening its understanding of how brands develop, but also changing the way design consultancies get paid. “We, as an industry, are still not remunerated properly,” he says. “But at the moment I have not idea how to change that…”