There’s no doubt about it – we are in the middle of a perfect storm in the design world. Our already frail business model is being further assailed by the twin forces of severe economic depression and the continued rise of strategic planning.
We’re not blessed with the structural integrity which retainers bring to the business model of advertising and marketing communications.
Indeed, if we’re ‘lucky’, design groups are placed on rosters, and at the simplest level, have to work like crazy to maintain relationships with key clients and hope they refer us on to suitable contacts in their network (or take us with them when they move around jobs). In the current climate, this means we’re clinging ever more ferociously to the clients and relationships we have in order to mitigate the rollercoaster of perpetual pitching and the new business treadmill.
The other ‘solution’ design bosses resort to is to over-specialise. The argument goes that we can succeed better and command greater margins if we’re seen as ‘experts’ in one field, rather than developing big ideas for brands which transcend media and maintain freshness and interest for the creatives behind them. Leonardo da Vinci didn’t stick to portraits, or Charlie Parker play the same score his entire career. They embraced their creative talents, reinventing themselves as their muse drove them in new directions.
Throw into this mix the rise of strategic planning and you have a painful recipe for the curtailment of real creativity.
For me to criticise planning will seem odd to those who know me. I’ve spent the past 12 years as a brand strategist and planner, so why have I become sceptical of my own skill set? Shouldn’t I be pleased that a top London design group has six planners, or that another bases its offer on a customer-centric, planning-led approach?
I am happy that brand- and consumer-led thinking is aiding the creative process, but I take exception when planning constricts, and even curtails, true creativity. Planning should inspire and inform the creative process, not corral it into a colour-by-numbers exercise.
So, we find ourselves desperate to stay afloat and keep (understandably risk-averse) clients happy while informing our creativity with reams of research, ‘customer insight’ and beautifully crafted positioning statements. This is bad news for genuine creativity – hence the ‘perfect storm’.
Beset from all sides, we are in danger of undermining the very essence which makes us special as designers – our creativity – and this terrifies me. The great designers of the past 20 years haven’t built their reputations by treading a safe path or offering evolutionary design solutions. They’ve taken risks, listened to their instincts and upset conventions and category norms by the cartload. They’ve applied their creative talents to client briefs with verve and audacity in equal measure, and produced work that would not have seen the light of day had they been controlled by strategic planners, fearful of their reputations or preoccupied with margins.
What we need is fearless creativity.
Fearlessness says, ‘Let’s show them a wild-card idea as a matter of course, and not charge them for it. No, we won’t pitch creative for free.’
It embraces client briefs with no chance of breaking even, but which stimulate and excite creative teams and pull them in new directions.
Fearlessness eschews client service as a standalone, costly function and exposes creatives directly to clients, resulting in more collaborative and cost-effective work.
It searches out diverse clients and challenges which stretch existing skills and scare the pants off the team when first briefed.
Fearlessness wins awards, builds reputations and drives energy and belief into businesses, resulting in long-term growth and success.
It is not recklessness, but will occasionally see you fall flat on your face, learn from the experience and move on.
Above all, fearlessness reminds everyone in the team on a daily basis that clients engage us as design partners because we have fantastic talents, training and experience in the creative arts, and can interpret their commercial challenges in inspiring ways.
If we don’t apply the fearless antidote liberally, we might as well try to power our way clear of the ‘perfect storm’ with a dilapidated five horse-power outboard engine or jump ship now.
Fearless questions to ask yourself
- Does your planning function inspire and inform your creative product?
- Does your account service function add value to client relationships and enhance your creative output?
- Have you embraced a brief in the past few months that made you quake in your boots?
- Could your skill set be applied more laterally than at present?
- Do you celebrate and routinely include fearless work in your response to clients?
- Do you challenge a client brief if you think it’s flawed?
Brian Mansfield, Managing director, Taxi Studio