The merits of middlemen

Increasingly, designers and clients are appointing independent brokers to act as mediators, to reduce stress and free up time

The designer-client relationship can have its ups and downs. For designers, the euphoria of a pitch win is soon replaced with the day-to-day issues of delivering work, managing relationships and all the politics of working together. Clients, too, can find the process time consuming. As a result, there’s a growing trend for both clients and designers to appoint independent design brokers to help manage the process.

A number of Land Securities pitches, for example, have been constructed with the help of a broker, Jan Casey, who works with the client to select the consultancies on the list, manages the credentials pitch and collaborates with winning groups to realise creative solutions.

And it’s not all one-way traffic – design groups are also employing specialists to help them win and deliver on projects. Hat Trick Design is currently working on a rebranding and signage project at Twickenham Stadium and has employed the services of wayfinding specialist Richard Conn. Conn will work closely with the client in interpreting its needs and Hat Trick Design will realise creative work based on Conn’s feedback.

Hat Trick Design director Gareth Howat says the group has worked with brokers in a variety of ways, ‘from them being part of the selection process through to joint partnerships, where we join forces to tackle the job’. And he says the practice is becoming more common. ‘We’ve worked with independent brokers a lot in the past three years. Clients are becoming savvier and there’s a move towards working with teams of specialists. Pretty much every big job we do has [independent brokers] on board.’

Casey, who spent 20 years at Lambie-Nairn as a client services director and has also worked as a consultant with the NHS, Sky and the Red Cross, says both designers and clients benefit from working with an independent person. Clients save time, she says, because brokers ‘know the design consultancy world very well and can recommend the best [consultancy] in terms of personality, skills and requirements’.

Jane Wentworth, formerly a consultant at Wolff Olins, launched her own business, Jane Wentworth Associates, four years ago. Today she works primarily with cultural clients such as National Museums Scotland, the Natural History Museum and the Crafts Council. She says the benefit to clients is that they have access to a ‘dispassionate outsider who is objective about design and will take responsibility to ensure creative work meets the brief’.

But, she says, designers benefit from the process too, both creatively and from a business perspective. Wentworth believes brokers give designers access to the highest echelons of management. ‘I don’t think designers are good at getting senior level buy-in for a long-term strategy. The marketing department isn’t high enough for this type of work – it ends up being seen as just another marketing campaign. [Brokers] can get proper, top-level buy-in.’

Howat agrees. ‘[Brokers] definitely help facilitate high-level access to clients – access that we, ordinarily, don’t have, because people are busy and difficult to get hold of.’

Brokers believe their involvement also helps the creative process. Wentworth often gets heavily involved in the delivery of work – she will brief designers on strategy, copy, tone of voice and make comments on first draft creative. ‘Designers are more likely to come up with something that will succeed if I’m there,’ she says. ‘Clients are not as objective or able to vocalise their needs, and I can say rude things to both designers and clients, offer independence on both sides, to make sure things work.’

It’s a thought that Casey echoes. ‘Designers welcome the process because it cuts down on time. I know what the client will or won’t like and I know things, intuitively, that you can’t write into a brief. I’ve usually lived with the client for a long time and got to know them and the way they operate, and I pass on my knowledge to designers, who usually don’t have that amount of time with a client.’

Howat believes it does make the process smoother. ‘It’s a reality check, a filter,’ he says. But he sounds a note of caution – success depends on personality fit. ‘We have to get along. It is a two-way street,’ he says. And he maintains it’s vital that designers retain face-to-face contact with the clients. ‘We always present our ideas to the client in person and absolutely insist on having face-to-face contact. We wouldn’t work with a broker who prevented that.’

It seems the process of working with an independent broker is perceived as a positive one by all sides. ‘It’s a triumvirate – everyone wins,’ claims Casey. And Howat concurs. ‘We haven’t found any disadvantages to working this way. In our experience, [brokers] have brought with them a way of thinking that opens up the design process. They set parameters, interpret client needs and articulate and condense complicated issues. A client doesn’t always know what they need,’ he says.

WHAT DESIGN BROKERS DO
• Understand client needs and write the creative and strategy briefs
• Suggest a pitch list of potential designers to clients
• Whittle a long list down to a shortlist, manage credentials, presentations and help select a winning group
• Attend design meetings, brief designers and ensure creative work meets the brief
• Help sell creative solutions to clients and obtain senior management buy-in

Latest articles

Remembering Jon Daniel: 1966-2017

We look back on the life and work of the Design Week columnist, independent creative director and social activist “who helped put black participation on the political map”.