Getting a handle on the consultancy life-cycle

A veteran of the design industry and founder of multiple consultancies, John Brewer reflects on the life stages that design groups are likely to experience

During a long career I’ve been involved in four consultancy start-ups and witnessed dozens of others. Many fail or, at best, become freelance operations, but a few grow into genuine success stories.

The life-cycle of a consultancy usually begins, amoeba-like, with a small partnership splitting off from a larger one. Though most start-ups are breakaways that snaffle up a client or two from the mother ship, a new venture won’t succeed if it is conceived merely as a me-too exercise. The wannabe partners must want to express their own visionary gleam, to put their own ideals into practice and to reconnect with those flashes of inspiration that just aren’t possible in the larger, more comfy outfit they are leaving.

Discontent being the fuel of ambition, prospective partners in design often feel hemmed in by the constraints of the consultancy from which they draw a salary. They want to see if they have what it takes to join the boss class and resent that their existing roles as brand guardians for multinational clients is all about committee meetings chaired by here-today-gone-tomorrow brand managers.

Design? Who cares about design when there’s a multiplicity of corporate interests to be juggled? The business cards might announce our malcontents as creative directors, but often the most creative things they direct are their own expense accounts. So it’s time to go. The partnership is a euphoric marriage of minds and, as with any other marriage, the last thing to be discussed is where they’ll be in ten years time.

The main concern is wooing a client to finance the first bills then securing more fee-income for the immediate future. The problems roll in – creating a corporate identity to die for, renting a tiny office, recruiting a receptionist and choosing hardware. However, solving it all is a pleasure and there are even enough hours in the day to do some career-best design work. The preoccupations and excitements of a growing business allow no time to take on conceptions of strategy or anything much to do with human resources. An early problem that can hint at later difficulties is job titles and the normal compromise is joint managing director.

Who manages what? The partners might be aware of the adage that if two people ride a horse, one must ride behind, but early on there is a common interest that overrides awkward competitive stuff. The early stages seem too early to anticipate future personal changes and the germination of sub-texts leading to disputes about exactly which partner has held true to the original vision and who is putting in the most effort.

Meanwhile, a new reputation is growing and the contracts start to roll. Over the next couple of years, a small team of eight or ten people is installed into considerably swisher premises.

Social anthropologists say that people form into groups of about a dozen. This business anthropologist can certainly confirm that a consultancy of eight to ten staff is the optimum for creativity, manageability and profit on turnover. So it’s time to pause and realise that, typically, entrepreneurial designers are unprepared for the complications of success. The only structures they know are the ones in which they have worked in previously and they can often end up whinging about how it’s tough at the top. It can certainly feel that way if you haven’t taken the emotional and creative implications of success into account.

The whole commercial ethos ignores these things and instead is based on expansion. In our industry, this means that five years down the line the successful consultancy has an impressive list of big clients and a 30-strong payroll to match. There are senior, junior and middle account handlers, new business people, a studio manager, in-house artwork staff and a couple of visualisers.

And somewhere in this melee are a bunch of designers who need to be satisfied with evermore elaborate job titles. ‘I haven’t directed anything creative all year,’ is a common line of disgruntlement and, were they on laughing terms, the partners might well find this amusing. Things go full circle with the founders inflicting on others (and themselves) what they escaped from in the first place.

The logic of success demands taking on the very clients who stifle creativity. Don’t forget, the bigger the corporate HQ, the more the marketing mumbo-jumbo and the less opportunity for individual design flair. Discontents repeat themselves and diseconomies of scale mean that fragmentation of the large unit is the rule, at least in design consultancy. If there is a trick for consultancies to survive beyond their founding partners, then it’s a stage of business evolution that eludes all but the rarest design group. However, disappointments for the old are opportunities for the young, which is as it should be, especially if you’re red in tooth and claw and believe that an ambition to better oneself is written into the genes.

So, if you have the bottle to go it alone just remember that success comes in different sized packages. In this game small is often beautiful and big is usually bad.

Latest articles