Follow the money

A business software system could be worth the investment for a consultancy starting to grow and needing to keep track of projects. Emily Pacey and Suzanne Hinchliffe take a look at what’s available

Design isn’t all about creative problem-solving and drinks at friends’ private views. There’s the free-pitching, tender forms, tricky clients – and making a decision on which business management software system to buy.

The vast majority of design groups save themselves the trouble by avoiding management software systems altogether. Generally, they improvise with Excel spreadsheets or simply rely on their wits and scraps of paper. These methods are predictably disdained by peddlers of business systems software, but, aside from lining their own pockets, they may have a point.

Describing the state of most consultancies’ administration systems, Traffic specialist at Sohnar Waleid Eldesouky says, ’Many businesses have piecemeal set-ups, with one system for the financial side of their operation and another for the production side. Some people may still be relying on an Excel system, but with the recession, it is advisable to stay as organised and efficient as possible.’

But at what point in its growth should a design consultancy consider formalising its business management software arrangements? There is a rough rule of thumb, according to Synergist sales and marketing director Nick Lane. He estimates that once a consultancy has more than six members of staff, ’and they can’t just shout to each other across the office anymore’, it should consider installing a system.

There is a dauntingly vast array of products from which to choose. Several, including Traffic, Streamtime, Synergist and Paprika, cater specifically for creative businesses. Traffic calls itself ’a true electronic job bag’, its software system controlling each process a design studio generates, from project management to recording time and costs on tasks, jobs and projects.

Traffic claims to save every member of a design team at least an hour a week, while Synergist has collected data that shows productivity rises of 8 per cent and 15 per cent increases in billings after its system has been installed.

’A key part of profitability is breaking things down and slicing and dicing activities to see where costs and responsibilities lie,’ says Traffic managing director Tracey Shirtcliff. ’It’s all about being as slick and efficient with your time as possible, and about impressing clients with your organisational skills and attention to detail.’

It looks like the message is slowly getting through to creative businesses. Synergist claims to have recorded its best-ever year last year. ’As things have become more difficult financially, it has focused people on the need to have better visibility and control over the revenue that they are generating for the work they are doing,’ says Lane. ’We were surprised by our figures last year.’

Uptake may be higher than before, but it is still low. Besides the prospect of downing design tools to grapple with some of the complex pros and cons of various business systems, design consultancies find learning their chosen system another barrier to committing to buying one.

’The creative mindset doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a systemised approach to things, but the reality is that the people and creatives in the studio don’t need to use that much of the system,’ says Lane. He claims that it takes a designer about 20 minutes to be taught Synergist, while someone in finance will require a full day of training. These sound like reassuring figures.

The latest developments in creative business software systems include tying clients into the system. Several applications now allow clients to view and approve artwork online – potentially saving many e-mails and phone calls. Producers of business systems are also investing in applications intended to help consultancies win new business, ’especially important in today’s climate’, concludes Shirtcliff.

Case Studies
User feedback

As part of the WPP group, Landor Associates uses a fantastic piece of management software called Oracle. The financial-based system was implemented four years ago, in early 2007, to help track projects. It breaks them down into individual segments such as use of staff and budgeting for each project. An initial concern was the amount of time it takes to input information and the fact that staff have to fill in timesheets. However, it does help with time management, which is important when updating clients. Landor has considered other options such as Economy, which is cheaper to install but not as efficient.
Martin Sanders, Chief financial officer, Europe, Landor Associates

For the past five years, Reading Room has used a combination of bespoke and off-the-shelf software systems/ Agnes was built in-house to help with order enquiries, delivery and anything else relating to the production side of a project; Sage Line 50 – the largest and most popular financial package, – looks after the financial side of things. The advantage is we can create tailor-made reports. The disadvantage is that everyone needs to be trained on it and future changes must be built in from scratch. It’s also not very good at producing the detailed management information required by a growing group, so we would like to change the system to gain greater reporting flexibility.
David Manston, Financial operations director, Reading Room

Paprika is a financial and studio management software programme, which permeates small to mid-sized design groups. Seymour Powell has used the software for years in various guises – it was previously called Rebus. While Rebus did help with many things – time management records, budgeting, managing accounts and providing raw data – its developer, Kent Computers, realised that it wasn’t user-friendly and so the software was upgraded. Paprika can also be tailored for individual needs. The only thing we would change is the interface, as the layout is sometimes ungainly and too ’clunky’.
Russell Lloyd, Financial director, Seymour Powell

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