Checking in with the high-flyers

As design groups expand overseas, Clare Dowdy dissusses the importance of face-to-face contact with some designer globe-trotters

Hi-tech communications, such as mobiles and modems, may speed things up, reduce costs and save time, but there’s one thing they can’t do. Despite expectations to the contrary, in the design industry at least, they can’t cut down on the amount of travelling people are doing.

Clients like to see their brand consultants and designers in the flesh, and the more overseas jobs there are, the more overseas visits are required. And don’t think you can get round it by opening a local office. Having more bases to keep “on-message” leads to more trips in itself.

It is not only communications which have gone hi-tech in recent years. Travel itself is more sophisticated, or so we are led to believe. But the average experience of many in the design industry is more frustrating than sophisticated, and if anything, it seems the experience of business travel is going downhill.

It was during the last recession that many designers turned their attentions to overseas clients. As work at home dried up, it made sense to invest in new business opportunities further afield. That commitment coupled with the UK design industry’s strong reputation abroad, led to some consultancies coming to rely on foreign clients more and more.

Nowadays, plenty of consultancies have projects abroad, right across the disciplines from graphics, branding, interiors, digital media and on-screen. And as consolidation means that clients become even more multinational, more work in different territories often comes up. “Clients need to see the face and identify with the designers,” says FutureBrand English & Pockett chief executive Darrell Pockett.

“It shows dedication if you turn up,” adds Interbrand strategic director Graham Hales.

For the increasing number of independent groups which are no longer just UK-based, like The Attik, Deepend, Imagination and Rodney Fitch & Co, or those which are part of big networks such as Omnicom, the WPP Group and Interpublic Group, much time is taken up in the business of managing outposts. For the acquisitors it means flying into a new market, checking out the local talent, forging a deal and then repeated visits to get your purchase up to speed. Organic growth too can be just as, if not more, labour intensive.

Over the past two years, Deepgroup has opened Deepend offices in New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Sydney and Prague, along with a backend office in Bangalore, India. “The process of opening these offices, plus finding space and teams, meant that I was travelling a great deal,” says Deepgroup creative director Simon Waterfall.

“And it hasn’t really slowed down – each of the Deepgroup directors is committed to spending significant time with each of the overseas offices once a year. And, of course, there’s help to be given on pitches, creative direction, business planning and such like.”

This view is echoed by Jeff Kindleysides, managing director of retail specialist Checkland Kindleysides, which handles substantial overseas work from its Leicester base. “Having other offices wouldn’t cut down on travel. I would hate to spend the time going from office to office,” says Kindleysides. The group currently has work in North America and Europe. Opening a second office has been considered by the group. However, it is yet to commit itself, and, “Other than our own inconvenience it doesn’t stop us getting work abroad,” he says.

Many regular business travellers bemoan the process, and it is undoubtedly time-consuming, tiring, unpredictable and expensive. “I love flying but doing it all the time can weigh heavily on you,” says Pockett, most of whose trips are to Scandinavia or the US.

Kindleysides reduces his time away as much as possible by cramming everything into day trips, even if the destination is the west coast of America.

But the discomfort of flying is in part self-inflicted, with the best of intentions. Despite the perception of hot-shot designers living it up in first class, it seems that most are relatively frugal. “Sometimes you have to go economy to save money, and for long-haul it’s murderous,” says Pockett.

While Imagination creative director Adrian Caddy can be spotted in business class, at Deepgroup there is a company policy to travel in economy unless the flight is longer than 12 hours.

“In all my flights, I have only travelled business twice; the service is better, but at what cost?” asks Waterfall. (Having tried every airline going, many sing the praises of Virgin’s Premium Economy services.)

One area where new technology really has helped these travellers is keeping in touch with HQ. Mobile phones work pretty much anywhere in the world these days, and coupled with e-mails, the travellers say there is no excuse for not knowing what’s going on at home. Though, of course, the structure of the UK office must reflect the increasing absence of its top-level people. “It’s about structuring [yourselves] with people who don’t travel in key positions,” says Kindleysides.

Caddy now has offices in Detroit and New York to visit, as well as keeping up with clients in Tokyo and Europe. Back in London, he has four deputy creative heads, each of whom have a group head. “The business that you are working on runs itself,” he says.

And for those of us stuck in the office all day every day, it’s a relief to know that at least some jet-setters are getting something positive out of the experience. “The greatest thing is the opportunity to absorb some culture,” says Caddy. Hales at Interbrand is positively poetic about it. “Travelling keeps you fresh – it gives you time to think, and the whole thing can be quite stimulating.”

Awaydays – days spent on overseas business travel last year

Simon Waterfall, Deepgroup 111
Adrian Caddy, Imagination 70
Graham Hales, Interbrand 69
Jeff Kindleysides, Checkland Kindleysides 51
Darrell Pockett, FutureBrand English & Pockett 23

Travelling – the downsides

Battling with the crew to get models or A2 presentations on board rather than in the hold.

Customs officials seem to be drawn to art bags, and it is not unusual to have to run through a presentation before being allowed past.

Saudi Air allows on-flight smoking.

Domestic [flights] and European short-haul can actually be more uncomfortable than longhaul.

Having seen every recent film release while airborne, it makes you a tricky cinema companion back home.

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