Time to topple the pyramids

Networks, clusters and ‘hub and spoke’ arrangements – rather than big consultancies – are the working models of the future, says Bill Wallsgrove

The traditional and asset-heavy ‘pyramid’ consultancy model, now a design industry tradition, is getting tired as it struggles with the demands and paradoxes of delivering integrated projects. It is being overtaken by a new way of working that is more responsive to the complexities of brand building in today’s fragmented mediascape, and provides bespoke solutions in a more cost-effective way.

Be they networks, clusters or ‘hub and spoke’ arrangements, the premise is simple. At the centre is ‘design’ in its truest sense – strategic and innovative thinking. Intellectual property is paramount in this model and it usually belongs to an individual. Secondary to it is production, delivered by specialised teams hired to meet the demands of a project.

This new asset-light construct is of its age. It offers flexibility and adaptability and lends itself beautifully to global working, encompassing the cost efficiencies of off-shore labour and the opportunities of foreign markets. A project I have just finished for a Russian company used London designers, Warsaw programmers and an American production team. It’s a model we are seeing in many guises: in acquisitional groups like Loewy, in ‘talent on tap’ networks like Heroes and in ‘hub and spoke’ arrangements such as Big Idea.

The benefits to clients is manifold and, importantly, is measurable at the bottom line. To put it in context, a brand spending £100 000 with a traditional group, which has all its fixed costs to cover, would probably see 30 per cent of that amount spent on creative. Under this new entrepreneurial model, where there are no expensive assets to cover, a client would spend about £60 000 for a similar project and see 80 per cent of that sum spent on creative. It’s cheaper.

This bespoke style of working is not a completely new paradigm and has been used in the TV and film industry for years, becoming popular as a result of a major cultural shift that began two decades ago, when the BBC moved from in-house production to using independent programme makers. The creatives who left set up as independent programme makers and sold their bright ideas back to the Beeb. They then hired in the production talent to turn their ideas into reality.

We are seeing a cultural shift of a similar magnitude within the design and marketing industry. A change in demographics and a need or desire to retire later means that senior creatives who have grown and sold their design groups, or who have reached the top of the traditional pyramid, are looking for a next step. And they are opting to market their experience in the form of consultancy.

Working as part of a network of senior high-flying executives can offer young companies the benefit of world class talent on a project-by-project basis – and access to senior intellectual capital which would normally be way beyond their means.

This project-based working concept is meeting with a warm reception, particularly among smaller brands and entrepreneurial companies. Emerging markets too, such as China, Russia and India, are also seeing the worth of investing in Britain’s creative thinking. And, in years to come, I am sure even the blue-chip companies here will opt for this model – but it will take a huge shift away from the silo mentality that chains them to the groups which can mirror their structures and provide support.

Of course, like any system it has its weaknesses. Quality control is key. The answer is top-class project management. I like to think of these people as quality surveyors. They are the glue that holds this model together and the oil that makes it run smoothly. The role of managers, who can bring projects in, on time and to budget, cannot be over-stated. The need to find and keep excellent ones is top priority.

Another issue for ‘hub and spoke’ organisations is that all processes pass through the hub, and it can become a bottleneck and lead to unexpected consequences elsewhere. Even worse, if there is a breakdown at the centre, the whole process can jam, so good planning and back-up are essential.

Also, there is a danger that your collaborators, most likely small independents or even individuals, can agree to take on a project they don’t really have time for – we all know how hard it is to turn down work. But I have found in working this way you get to know who is reliable and you stick to working with them – the model engenders loyalty and partnership.

Bill Wallsgrove is director of branding at Big Idea and a member of The Heroes network

Benefits of ‘Hub and spoke’ model
• Greater flexibility
• Ideally suited to global working and making the most of foreign opportunities• Enables more emphasis on the creative side of things
• A cheaper way of working

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