Inclusivity is key to differentiation

A less fragmented approach, involvinig all departments at every stage, can help you stand out from the crowd, says Jon Davies

A design consultancy without a point of difference? How ridiculous. You must have a specialism. Are you experts in strategy, consumer insight, structure, alcohol, food or luxury? There must be something. Please tell me why I should commission you.

The need for consultancies to differentiate themselves from the competition has driven us down a very confusing road – it has also led to pigeon-holing by clients and, most importantly, poorer packaging design.

The point of packaging design is to create a branded pack that increases sales and awareness for the long term. A consumer doesn’t know, understand or care that the consultancy that created it is an expert in consumer insight if the execution is weird. They want to empathise with the brand, and the pack is its communication. All of it – the label, the colours, the shape, the functionality, the product – constitutes one thing. So the only specialisation a packaging design consultancy should ever talk about is its ability to design packaging.

We’ve all done it – selling ourselves to the opportunity in hand. We did it so effectively over the years that, at one point within Unilever, we were seen as a strategic graphic consultancy for the household care division, a specialist structural design consultancy for the personal care brands and new product development experts for ice cream. Separate creative teams in separate rooms with separate financial reporting. Madness.

But it’s quite simply done; consultancies have started to believe their own hype, separating disciplines into little compartments creating a production line for design. First you will meet the account management team, then the consumer insight people, then the planners and then the graphic designers.

Can you afford a structural change? You can? Great, we’ll get them on board once we’ve established the identity. But it is just wrong. Where is the empathy in the team? Where is the empathy with the client and where is the empathy with the consumer?

Consultancies need to reject division and embrace a ‘huddle’ mentality. Design is an iterative process – everyone inspires and everyone is inspired. The creative team must include – at all times – planners, account handlers, graphic designers and structural designers, no matter what the brief. This is the only way to create an effective pack design.

Design consultancies need to run as single profit centres, not as mini individual companies. It may clarify their own business plans, but it doesn’t deliver good design. We are all very privileged people to be in this business. We all have our own particular talents that contribute to brilliant design solutions. Let’s not make things difficult for ourselves and our clients.

But we aren’t the only ones suffering from this disease. Our clients aren’t just dealing with fragmented design consultancies – they have the same issues in research, promotions, sponsorship, public relations and all other communications agencies. All this fragmentation and all these influences – never has the saying ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ been more apt.

I do hope that our decision to simplify our offer – to get back to the purpose of our business – has made working with us a little easier for our clients.

The irony of it all is that offering this inclusive, creative approach has given us the biggest point of difference we’ve ever had within our sector.





Jon Davies is managing director of Holmes & Marchant

• Too much emphasis on specialisation is not productive
• Excessive differentiation can lead to pigeon-holing by clients and poor design
• Separating disciplines into compartments leads to a production-line method of design
• Consultancies need to reject division and embrace a ‘huddle’ mentality
• All departments should be involved at every stage of the creative process
• Design is an iterative process – everyone inspires and everyone is inspired
• Consultancies should operate as single profit centres, not as mini individual companies
• Fragmentation can lead to ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth’
• Above all else, focus on the purpose of your business
• Empathy is important – with your team, the client and the consumer
• The inclusive, creative approach itself could become your biggest point of differentiation

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