What happens when you all pull together

Richard Clayton looks at why more designers and small to medium-sized groups are offering up their services as a joint collective to potential clients

Back in the 1990s, we were constantly being told that future employment patterns would increasingly resemble an economic ‘network’. In practice, this has generally meant we use the Internet every day and hope to get job leads off our mates. The majority of us don’t yet revel in ‘portfolio careers’.

Examples of genuinely ‘networked’ working are hard to find. Within design, there are instances of collaborative individuals or ‘virtual’ companies like Amalgam and Circus. Marksteen Adamson, who stepped down as Interbrand international creative director last month, plans to move in this direction. But such arrangements mostly operate at the strategic end of the spectrum, especially where consultancies end up commissioning on behalf of clients instead of carrying work out themselves.

The question is, does this business model offer more bread-and-butter benefits?

Committee director Ian Bayliss thinks so. A freelance designer for nine years, he began to feel the pinch from the downturn at the end of 2001. ‘It was so frustrating, scrabbling around for work, finding small and often unrewarding projects left by the larger design groups because they weren’t worthy of their time,’ he says.

His response was to pull together his contacts – writers, editors, designers, photographers, illustrators and project managers – to give him, and them, greater profile and clout. ‘The idea of a design collective made sense creatively and economically,’ he says.

‘Clients with projects of a certain size, complexity and budget will go to an established company more often than not. Why? Well, a good name first of all. If you have large clients already, others will follow. [And] when you’re pricing work, coming in too low is just as bad as too high.’

Other factors he lists – organisational structure and the appeal of known quantities – essentially amount to client-side conservatism. But this is starting to change, of course, with many large corporates prepared to be much more daring in their choice of creative businesses.

The reason is largely twofold: with pressure on their own margins, clients see the overheads of big consultancies – all those levels of account handlers, art directors, designers and support staff – as a cuttable cost; and, creatively, they imagine smaller players – with less bureaucracy – often think better on their feet.

That’s not to say the need to be presentable goes out the window. Bayliss sought limited company status for his venture, bought up the relevant domain names and designed his corporate literature. ‘I didn’t want to cut off my nose before I’d even started,’ he recalls. ‘These were important signifiers of the professionalism of the Committee brand.’

For hard-pressed freelances, forming a band is one way to drum up business. But there are also a number of networks already out there that could help. ‘Brokering’ agencies like Host Universal and White Door place freelances from design and advertising on particular projects, either as individuals or part of a team. Harrow-based Rechord works in a similar way,as a ‘central hub’ for new-media creatives.

On a larger scale, websites like Flekken.com bring together creatives around the world in a showcase from which clients can pick and choose.

‘Companies like you to become part of their operation for a time,’ says Flekken founder Jimmy Adams. ‘It’s the best way for creatives to get under the skin of the business. Through our website clients have all the advantages of a flexible workforce. We have no overheads – clients pay for the time we spend on their brief. It’s far more transparent than recruitment agencies and very accountable in the sense that people are there as individuals as well as part of a team.’

But not only freelances can profit from flexible creative teams. Lin Arigho, director of ten-strong, Fleet-based visual communications group Aricot Vert, believes the idea extends to smaller consultancies like her own, allowing them to punch above their weight.

A broad yet flexible group of like-minded individuals and companies is tailor-made for a particular job. This lets Aricot Vert pitch for major projects without having to ’employ’ a complete skill set, she says.

‘Clients are given a choice and exposure to specialists in each of the fields required, rather than the best fit available from those employed by the consultancy who may not necessarily be appropriate. A project manager located at Aricot Vert means the client still has one point of contact.’

She adds, ‘To be successful, we look for “tissue match” between the groups, consultants and clients – people who share the same values – focused, creative, team spirited and enthusiastic.’

The obvious advantages of this approach are evident in the adage ‘two heads are better than one’. But Arigho suggests the collegiate ethos also gives the team more dynamism – ‘because you’ve chosen to work together you share an ambition to achieve something’, she says. ‘A team that works together for mutual benefit works the best.’

The lack of a ‘cosy, over familiar relationship’ ensures ‘freshness and energy’ at the proposal stage, Arigho believes, while a diversity of backgrounds ‘can produce a fusion of ideas [that] gives a competitive edge’.

It isn’t all plain sailing, though. ‘Working like this is challenging and you have to be prepared to listen – to do things differently on occasions,’ she says. ‘There can be “creative tensions” or, as we like to say, “healthy debate”. There’s no room for prima donnas. Good teamwork and communication are essential.’

However novel the group, it seems some things never change.

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