Transatlantic brain drain

UK digital design is embracing new technology, leading the way for the international creative community. Which explains why the US are headhunting all our talent.

The headhunting of UK design staff by US companies has been well-documented. But now it would seem that the rise of digital media groups is adding to the mêlée. So much so, in fact, that it is becoming a bit of a nuisance.

“Getting called by a headhunter used to be quite flattering, something you used to tell your friends about over dinner, but that has changed. The number of calls we are getting from headhunters now is silly,” says one designer, preferring to remain anonymous.

The culprit seems to be that old devil the US Web fraternity, which has been having such a heavy influence on UK design consultancies and marketing agencies. In many ways, this week’s departure of Fitch associate director, Helen Charman, to join US Web group Scient as director of customer experience design is one illustration of this. Charman, who has been working with digital media projects at Fitch, was herself headhunted out of New York.

According to Charman, the US has more than just the quality of British creative staff to be envious about. The relatively advanced level of technology infrastructure in Europe means it has become something of a hot bed for testing digital products. “We are much more advanced with our WAP technology than the US,” she points out. This Wireless Application Protocol system is one of the many new networks coming on-line to link the Internet to mobile phones. Europe’s WAP testing, particularly in Scandinavia, which is home to the likes of Ericsson and Nokia, is widely regarded as the best in the world.

Consequently, the US digital sector, which has the oldest and most developed Internet market in the world, as well as most of the cash, is setting up shop in the UK and looking for local staff with the experience of integrating new technologies.

So what has this got to do with design, you may ask. The answer, suggests Charman, is everything. US design, she says, has encapsulated experience-focused ideas rather than being preoccupied with simply creating brands. Charman will now hold the post of customer experience architect and, before you start to laugh, it is worth understanding the premise.

“There is a whole area of design opening up which is a lot more about understanding who you are communicating to,” she says. “Design [in the US] is known as customer experience and it encompasses interaction, information, graphics, animation design and content strategy. Design works with the business and technology teams.

“Companies need to be innovative. This is the only way for new businesses to go,” she adds.

New technology requires designers to understand how consumers and businesses will experience brands in the future. Devices like WAP phones, TVs and games consoles all offer new brand opportunities and design requirements. To build them into client strategy requires the fullest appreciation of the experiences they involve. And Charman, among others, feels that US digital media groups are being offered little threat in this area from UK-based consultancies.

New York headhunter Judy Wert runs the international recruitment consultancy Wert and Company. She has seen a rise in recruitment demand herself.

She says US clients set up in the UK if they are looking for design staff. “Their goal is to become the global e-players,” she says, adding: “The expansion is very rapid, aggressive and competitive because they are basically looking to hire the same people.”

Wert says that what is noticeable too, is how designers approached several months ago are now beginning to return the calls. “There has been a 360 degree shift in attitude to working for a US company. I am now getting phone calls from people who were not interested,” she says.

Wert confirms too that her clients are looking for candidates who are able to work with the “user experience” rather than traditional visual design.

One of the contenders for hiring design staff is US digital media giant US Web/ CKS, which recently revealed to Design Week that it has been looking to expand its UK presence. The group makes no secret of the fact that, failing an acquisition, it will boost the UK office by employing a locally-sourced creative team (DW 4 February). What is interesting is that the group defines itself as a branding specialist despite its on-line heritage. It offers design, technology and strategy services for on-line and off-line media.

When US groups do headhunt European staff they will not be acting softly. US Web/ CKS chief strategist and knowledge officer Ian Small acknowledges that his company is “very-fast moving” and “aggressive”.

“We firmly believe we are the best at what we do, and we will beat any competition,” he says. In such a competitive market this attitude is simply a policy of survival, he feels.

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