Talk of the devil

The price-led attitudes of design buyers are nothing short of criminal, says Richard Watson. It’s about time they took guidance from the advertising sector

If you want to know what God thinks about money, runs an adage, you only have to look at the people he’s given it to. And in the design industry, the clients have all the money, making most of us follow their rules religiously.

In the past, I’ve accused designers of various crimes, but none have been as bad as the crimes committed by clients – I don’t mean all clients, just most of them.

So who should be arrested? Well, to start with, the buyers of design, especially buyers of packaging and literature (just think of the annual report buyer who recently asked 32 groups to take part in a free creative pitch). They should all be given the boiling oil treatment. Better still, they should experience hell – in the form of having to sit on a metal sofa and watch Channel 4’s Girlie Show for eternity.

I use the word “buyer” in its loosest sense, because all buyers are concerned with price. But that’s not the be-all and end-all. Quality and service are paramount and buyers realise the importance of building a long-term relationship in which both parties prosper. This is rarely the case with buyers of design. Here, the idea seems to be to give the job of buyer to the person in a department with the least possible experience and give them absolutely no training or support whatsoever.

Success is then measured by how much the buyer can screw design suppliers into the ground – if design is a commodity, buying at the lowest possible price is the name of the game. If the buyer starves design consultancies to death in the process it doesn’t matter; another one will always come along.

This is all fantastically ironic. Most clients will agree that building successful brands takes a long time and they acknowledge that it involves large sums of money and careful nurturing. Building brands is also about building confidence between buyer and seller but, when it comes to design, all this is conveniently forgotten.

Contrast this with how clients in advertising work. Most clients will have “best practice” guidelines on briefing and evaluating creative work. Fees will be professionally negotiated in the context of both an overall advertising budget and competitive advertising spend.

The benefits of such practices are clear. Fewer and longer term relationships with consultancies create better understanding. This improves trust, which in turn improves creativity and commercial effectiveness. All very sensible. So why won’t clients treat design consultancies in the same way?

A key problem seems to be in the definition of design. Clients take some areas of design very seriously, they just don’t realise it’s design. Design is primarily associated with graphics, and this isn’t sexy. Packaging is just what it says, something around the brand but not the brand itself. This is changing as the concept of “total brand experience” moves centre stage, but it is not changing fast enough.

Another problem is that design is too cheap. If clients looked at a project’s total cost rather than just the concept fee they might take it more seriously. A glance at annual design spend figures (when available) might also work wonders.

Too many design groups also undercut each other on price, with inevitable consequences. And, critically, many designers seem unable or unwilling to explain cost to clients. If a client criticises high fees, this is really a value for money judgment.

Then there is what might be called the “take me to your leader” problem. If a spaceship landed tomorrow and a little green Martian asked to speak to the leader of the design industry, we’d all be dead by the time anyone stepped forward. Either that, or so many different people would step forward simultaneously that the Martian would be crushed to death.

Is it really any wonder that clients behave so badly when none of the plethora of trade bodies seems able to communicate to clients in any coherent and consistent fashion on how to buy design? I’m not talking about design managers; they are already converted. I’m talking about lunatic brand managers and their bosses.

Finally, there is the prevalent assumption within the design industry (and certain trade bodies) that all design is good. All clients therefore need is a designer. This is claptrap. Most design is worthless and most clients know it. That’s why they won’t pay for it. The crucial issue is to try to explain to the clients that the 10 per cent which is priceless is worth substantially more than the 90 per cent which is useless.

Someone, somewhere, needs to communicate this to clients, otherwise God help us.m

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