Baying for fresh blood

The design industry is now flourishing, but complacency can lead to a swift downfall. Richard Williams calls out for daring, innovation and respect for marketing experts. Richard Williams is a partner at Williams Murray Banks.

At last the design business is climbing out of recession. However, while there is a plethora of well-managed and profitable businesses out there, I feel less comfortable about the state of things than I have for a long time. I am worried on two fronts. What recent evidence is there of the innovative and inspiring work for which the British design industry is renowned, and where are the young, zealous marketing experts who can add so much to what we do?

Let’s kick off with design. I chose design because the creation of arresting solutions thrilled me. I felt, and still feel, that design can dramatically change the way people react to their environment. The much maligned Eighties saw design rise to achieve real importance and where the impossible could happen – remember Mothercare before Conran got hold of it? This was a time of true innovation.

We have lost that passion to innovate. I have seen too many designers, stuck at their desks, reaching for the D&AD Annual just after they have been briefed. It’s time to regain pride. They must start to be creative – which, after all, is what they are paid to be.

Now to the marketers. Last week, while leafing through a sheaf of CVs sent by headhunters, I was shocked to find that I had already interviewed most candidates before. Design has started to seem like a community suffering from inter-marriage. Why are we incapable of attracting fresh talent, from outside our own industry?

Now businesses have become profitable and there is plenty of work, many consultancies have been lulled into complacency. This scenario is compounded by a fundamental problem with our attitude towards in-house marketers. Most consultancies refer to account handlers and planners disparagingly as “suits”. Until those members of staff are treated with respect by their colleagues and, indeed, their employers, we cannot expect our clients to place true value on their input. We need to correct this, especially in light of the vast changes which have affected our clients over the last few years – manufacturing companies have been downsized and their needs have changed dramatically. Design businesses must help meet the increased demand on suppliers.

The industry had the ability to attract “stars” into its fold from the client side and advertising in the past (Jan Hall and Paul Southgate spring to mind as two who contributed a great deal to design). I’m sure with a concerted effort we can do so again, if we provide the right environment.

Many never bought into the concept of harmonising design with marketing strategy. I’m horrified to see how planners are often only used to “drop in a bit of marketing thinking” to impress a client. Marketing strategy and effective design go hand-in-hand, neither is superior, we need great marketing strategists in the design industry just as much as we need great designers. So where are they?

They are to be found in client companies and ad agencies – many are barely aware of the existence of design consultancies! We have failed to be an attractive industry to graduates or to entice those working in other marketing disciplines to make the switch.

Somehow design is seen as peripheral and lacking in influence – and bright young people starting out in a career want to know they can effect change. Until we prove that we really value their input and learn to offer real motivation, then recruitment of talented players will remain difficult. This is all the sadder because of our desperate need for new blood.

Big design businesses were traditionally “universities” of design – Conran, Michael Peters, Fitch & Co and Wolff Olins spawned a stream of breakaway hothouses which became established companies. Since then our confidence has declined and bigger businesses have grown, taking staff from one another, but rarely taking on untried employees. For a creative industry we have become unadventurous.

So, what is the panacea? We can not afford to rely on our representative bodies to make the business more attractive. We have to do it ourselves. We should establish better communication with the various business studies and marketing colleges, tap into the “milk round” system of recruitment, to bring enthusiastic talent on board. We should, once more, aspire to become universities of design.

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