Stay local to make it globally

To make the best of overseas prospects, consultancies should act globally but stay UK-based, says Jonathan Cummings

With the London Design Festival over for another year, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the value of ‘brand London’ to our industry.

In the Design Week Top 100 supplement in May, I wrote about our experience from the previous 12 months of travelling the world, developing our understanding of emerging markets, building relationships and unlocking opportunities.

Still very much based in Soho, we now have a small office in Mumbai and people in Russia, and we are very close to opening an office in Dubai. From January, we will be up and running in Hong Kong.

But opening offices in these territories is not about replicating what we do in London. It’s fundamentally about marketing our London business, and building, developing and managing client relationships on the ground.

In the Top 100, I talked about the perception of many clients, in different parts of the world, of London as a world centre of creative excellence. Granted, it is not a ground-breaking notion, but I do feel that the industry here still doesn’t quite believe it. In these times of economic uncertainty, we need to start believing it, and we need to start taking advantage of it. The LDF is great, and it is growing. But it is in London. There were delegates from all over the world, but they constitute a very small sample. I understand that plans are in place to take the LDF out to the world and we should all get behind the team and support them.

This is not a case of blowing our own trumpet, arrogantly believing we’re better than the rest. It’s also not a case of British designers being better than those of other nationalities. It’s about building on an existing reputation, continuing to compete in the war for talent, attracting the best designers to London and marketing this hub of excellence to the world.

Further, for UK design groups, and for the industry as a whole, it is a vital defensive strategy against the economic situation in the UK. We have a global competitive advantage. Let’s capitalise on it.

I met the managing director of a major Russian vodka brand last month. He asked me about our plans for developing our business in Russia. Of course, I talked passionately about the investment we are putting into the region and its importance to us as a business. But when I mentioned going as far as opening an office in Moscow, he stopped me in my tracks. ‘That will halve your fee and make me seriously reconsider hiring you,’ he said.

Essentially, he was looking to engage the best design team in the world to help with the job in hand. He needed a team that understood the Russian market, but he did not want a Russian team.

In his perception, the best designers, strategists, planners and so on will not go to Moscow or anywhere else in Russia. That’s not to say there aren’t very talented individuals there, but the pool is limited and it’s better to take advantage of the hub of the best talent from around the world.

In Dubai, I have had conversations along the same lines with people from marketing, senior management and procurement. ‘We have the money and are prepared to pay for the best in the world. And we view the best in the world as being in London, not in the United Arab Emirates. We’ll pay UAE rates for UAE consultancies,’ one said.

The challenge is to balance this view, and the reality that backs it up, with the need to be on the ground to build relationships at a senior level and manage the work.

So we’re setting up offices in different parts of the world where it fits with our plans, but we are not creating a global network of offices that replicate the London set-up. We are still a London consultancy, with employees from all over the world, delivering strategy and design to clients wherever they are.

We understand local sensibilities and our experience and multinational talent base enable us to deliver quality everywhere, but we cannot replicate the team in London on a slimmed-down scale.

Our strategy of building relationships at a senior level, but doing the work from London, helps us build confidence among our clients that they are getting the best possible team for their requirements.

This works for us today. We hope it will work for us tomorrow and long into the future. But for this strategy to be sustainable on a long-term basis, the perception of London as a world centre of design excellence must be constantly reinforced.

As an industry, we need to continue developing – and importing – the best talent, so that we can continue exporting the best all-round strategy and solutions, building our business and contributing to UK plc.

We’re in a good place, but we need the ongoing support of Government, industry bodies and the industry itself to keep us there.


• Use your overseas offices to manage client relationships and develop local expertise

• Carry out the bulk of the design work in the UK

• Make sure you get paid UK fees rather than local rates

• Take advantage of our industry’s good reputation

Jonathan Cummings is marketing director of Start Creative

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