The write way to do business

The design industry’s casual approach to producing copy should wake up to the benefits of in-house brand writers, says Martin Hennessey

As a brand writer, I’ve been happily breaking creative bread with design groups for a decade and a half. I am not in the habit of lecturing them about the way they run their business – at least, not usually.

But I’m amazed that some consultancies are missing out on one of the great growth stories in marketing. That story is the remarkable boost to sales, profitability and client service that an in-house brand-writing capability can bring.

According to the latest figures from the Design Council, the design industry chalked up revenues of about £11bn in the 2004-05 financial year. Some consultancies admit they can spend as much as 5 per cent of their project budget on freelance writers. If true, it means consultancies are missing out on as much as £500m in fee-income a year.

The current design industry spend on writing, though, is a mere fraction of clients’ spend on external and internal brand-writing. Add brand writing for copy for websites, corporate reporting, speeches, specialist articles, Web copy and newsletters, and estimates put UK business’ annual spend on writing at about £1bn. This extraordinary sum is obscured by being spread across a number of different marketing services – from investor relations and public relations, to corporate communications, digital media, advertising and brand consultancy.

This represents an incredible opportunity for consultants as UK and international firms demand ever more frequent and finely targeted branded communications, which are principally writing-driven – such as bespoke newsletters, quirky labelling, complex corporate reporting and on-line marketing campaigns. Design consultancies can tap into that brand-writing spend – simply because writing and design are so often considered by clients at exactly the same time. So could this great chunk of hidden revenue be an engine for growth in the UK design sector? Certainly, some groups think so.

Consultancies like Elmwood, Start Creative and Jupiter Design have moved fast to grab their share of the market for brand writing-led communication. In the past six months, Elmwood has launched a writing training offer to add to its in-house writing team. Meanwhile, Start is one of the few consultancies that has had in-house brand-writing capability from the beginning.

Dan Radley, Start’s head of copy for the past five years, oversees seven full-time brand writers, who work for clients such as Royal Mail, Virgin, Hertz and Deutsche Telecom. ‘Freelance writers help us deal when workflow increases unexpectedly, but we get tremendous extra value from our in-house writers,’ he says.

Not only do in-house writers reduce freelance bills and increase profitability, says Radley, they add a dimension to client relationships that is hard for designers to achieve on their own. ‘The very nature of what brand writers do, trying to get under the skin of a business strategy, means that writers build extremely strong relationships with senior people on the client side,’ says Radley.

Founder of Nottingham-based Jupiter, Mark Shaw is a relatively fresh-faced kid on the design block. Jupiter leapt from 82nd to 25th place in this year’s Design Week Top 100. Yet far from being a designer himself, Shaw was one of the most widely sought-after brand writers in the business – previously as copywriting agency Jupiter Copy.

Shaw says two things took place at around the same time. ‘First, I reached saturation point as a writer. Every working hour was filled with copy briefs and there was no room for further growth. Second, I was becoming frustrated by the way my copy was being set by designers that I hadn’t been able to meet, and I knew there was a real opportunity to bring copy to life through closer collaboration with design.’ Jupiter has been so successful partly by making the most of competitor groups’ weakness at handling words.

This last point should sound the shrillest wake-up call. Are consultancies really so keen to ignore a growth industry like brand writing? If so, how will their offer measure up against an increasing number of consultancies – the Elmwoods, Jupiters and Starts of the industry – that opt to put brand writing at the heart of their offer?

I have no answer, of course – hell, I’m just the writer. But it will be interesting to see how things play out. And maybe, just maybe, if the design industry as a whole starts to add 10 per cent, maybe even 20 per cent, to its sales next year through writing services, I trust my clients will indulge an old brand writer like me with a softly spoken, ‘told you so’.

Martin Hennessey is managing director of The Writer

Setting up an in-house writing team

• Be clear about your goals. How much extra fee-income do you want to generate? What type of work are you looking for more of?

• Don’t be suckered into hiring an ‘all rounder’. Contrary to what some writers claim, very few can ‘turn their hands to anything’

• Look for management experience – growing your writing offer is principally a management challenge, not a writing one

Latest articles