When someone gets up from their comfortable chair on the client side of the consultancy table, goes round and sits down on the other side, they are making a significant decision. From being the one doing the buying, they become the one trying to sell themselves on the strength of their ideas alone. Perhaps because it is a move from a relatively safe, stable environment to one that’s more precarious, it is less common for people on the client side to move into consultancy than the other way round, but that seems to be changing as the value of hands-on experience is increasingly recognised.
Most of the clients-turned-consultants interviewed below made the move because they wanted a wider variety of work, rather than because the consultancy world can seem more glamorous than industry. For the consultancies they have linked up with, it is their general practical knowledge, as much as their specific industry experience, that is of value. As Fiona Gilmore, chief executive of Springpoint, says: “There is a danger that consultants can be a little bit stuck in their ivory towers and you’ve got to be pragmatic. Having people who have experienced what it is like on the ground trying to implement a vast corporate identity programme is incredibly helpful.”
However, there is certainly an element of risk. As Citigate Lloyd Northover vice-chairman Jim Northover explains, it is the kind of thing that can go wrong.
“We have recruited people who work on staff here who’ve had jobs with clients and, to be truthful, our experience has been quite mixed. All those individuals are not always adaptable enough to the kind of freewheeling, entrepreneurial style that we need,” he says.
Most of the people interviewed feel that the remuneration in industry and consultancy is broadly similar, though the salary structure in consultancies tends to be less rigid so the potential to earn more is there. Surprisingly, clients-turned-consultants had only limited contact with the consultancy they now work for or with while they were in their old jobs. Chris Holt, for example, knew Gilmore at Springpoint through the public speaking circuit, and Penny Harris had never worked with Interbrand before she was recruited by the consultancy. Perhaps that’s why they say they’ve never had any situation come up in which there were any confidentiality concerns. This is also helped by the fact that they have left industry for the purpose of doing a variety of things, rather than staying in the same field.
Chris Holt has just finished his first year as director of corporate identity at Springpoint, after 30 years in industry, his last job being head of design management at British Airways.
“One of the things you get in a consultancy is variety, and I think no matter how exciting or how big a company is, eventually you end up doing the same things over and over again,” Holt maintains. “You can also spend an awful lot of time putting out fires, coping with the crisis of the day and trying to satisfy the chain of command from the marketing director to the chief executive. You never really get the opportunity to have the longer term view and to create the fire breaks in the first place.
“In consultancy you’re often working to tight deadlines, but you are briefed by clients to take the longer view, which is why they want your expertise much of the time because they’re too close to it [the problem], embroiled in their own politics and haven’t got the time.
“As someone who has travelled around the world, I have to say there’s something to be said for having a bit of an anchor, and it’s been tough enough having to learn a new set of rules without doing it part time,” Holt admits. “In most of the companies in which I have been, I have worked alongside colleagues. But in consultancy I think you realise to a greater extent how valuable other people’s experience is.
“While you’re in industry I think you are responsible for the bit you do and you let everyone else worry about their bit. In consultancy there is a much greater sense of team effort, and I think everyone appreciates you cannot be the goalkeeper, defender and the centre forward.”
Penny Harris learnt her trade in the financial services sector, where she spent the first 12 years of her working life. But even a brand as dynamic as First Direct couldn’t keep her from wanting greater variety. So 18 months ago she moved to Interbrand Newell and Sorrell as a director, managing a brand development team.
“The benefit of being on the client side was seeing the whole of the business rather than just a snapshot,” she says. “But I had enough of financial services because you get exhausted thinking about the same subject area.
“I love the variety [at a consultancy]. I think it’s fantastic that you can be thinking about chocolate biscuits one moment, telecoms software the next. You have to do some mental gymnastics sometimes to extract your brain from one company and one set of customers, but that is what makes it exciting. I think it helps having come from the client side in that I find it quite difficult not to start challenging them [the client] if I see there’s an issue with their business strategy. So perhaps it makes you cast a wider eye, which some clients like and others don’t.
“When I started here, people said I’d have to work so much harder, but I’d just like to debunk that myth. The thing that I loved about coming to Interbrand is that you’re surrounded by 270 other people who will give you a run for your money and are as passionately interested in the subject as you are, whereas before sometimes you felt you were bouncing your ideas off a brick wall.
“Also, I think clients underestimate how important having a nice working atmosphere is, like the fact that there are flowers in reception. I know all that kind of stuff is regarded as frippery, but it really does make a difference. First Direct is a fantastic brand, but its working environment is like being in an aircraft hanger on an industrial estate in Leeds.”
Former president of global brand development at drinks giant Allied Domecq, Richard Gowar became a consultant at the end of 1999, having worked for 17 years in industry. He has recently started working with Elmwood three days a week. His aim is to gain more experience with a variety of brands in preparation for setting up a business which offers training for clients to help them become more dynamic in their approach to problems.
He says, “Though it’s true that consultancy people can learn from the client side, I think the reverse is absolutely true as well. One thing that attracted me in coming to work with Elmwood is that everything is done with great energy. The chain of command is much smaller, the ability to act is much greater. Generally, things get done much quicker, and, to my mind, better.
“However, I think the days of having a great reputation and a glossy brochure getting you a contract have gone. You have to be much more understanding of what the client’s specific needs are and how you are going to meet them,” says Gowar. “As those sorts of things get tougher, I think the role for people who’ve been on the client side gets much stronger within consultancies. They have a bigger picture of what people are trying to do, and from a purely practical point of view, understand how budgets get allocated, how things get signed off.
“To get the best out of brands I think people are going to have to be prepared to zigzag between clients and consultancies. There is a real need for a transference of the kind of immediacy and energy of consultancies to big, sleepy client organisations.”
Jane Priestman spent the whole of her first career working within industry, from being a design manager at BAA, before the term really existed, to heading up design at British Rail as the industry was gearing up for privatisation. She left BR in 1991 when she reached the mandatory retirement age, and has been working as a consultant since then, both for clients directly and with other consultancies such as Citigate Lloyd Northover. But she still hankers after the chance to get her teeth into something that industry offers. “I certainly like the variety of being a consultant. I can move easily from working on a proposal for the redevelopment of Plymouth to the selection of an architect for the Royal College of Art,” says Priestman.
“When I retired from BR, because of my transport experience, my consultancies tended to be transport-related and abroad, but I established quite a lot else of a general nature.
“As a consultant you’re out bidding for work. One thing about consultancy is that they [clients] claim the good ideas, and if it doesn’t work it’s my fault.”
“Recently, I have been working as a consultant to the Design Council, working with four Government departments on their design portfolios. The trouble was that the people [design groups] fielded by the Design Council had no knowledge whatsoever about large organisations. Often designers come in at one very oblique point and don’t have a general view of the whole structure of the corporate body and the shenanigans that go on there.”