Although the combined revenue of the top 25 design groups in print and corporate literature reached more than 60m last year, it remains one of the most cut-throat sectors of the industry. Free-pitching is rife, fees are still being squeezed and design groups are faced with tough competition from printers who try to entice clients by throwing in design services for almost nothing. Such is the state of the sector that Richard Watson, partner at client advisory consultancy Global Design Register, claims: “It’s the most difficult area of design to make money in. It may be no more competitive than branding and packaging but clients have a print buy mentality and almost expect to have the design knocked in for free.”
However, there is evidence that some clients, particularly the larger ones, are taking design more seriously and giving it a more prominent role in corporate communications. According to Philip Mann, partner at Bamber Forsyth: “Communications design is taken much more seriously and there’s a greater attempt to put together communications planning. Communications in general are moving further up the corporate agenda and becoming recognised as a strategic activity rather than a fringe activity.”
Annual reports continue to be a growth area, though there are complaints from designers about the call for free-pitching and a “me-too” approach. Watson comments: “Talk about clients behaving badly – free-pitching for annual reports is clients at their very worst.” Stephen Thomas, managing director at CGI, agrees: “It’s horribly competitive and rare to find a paid pitch – and even rarer to find non-creative pitches.”
But Quentin Anderson, managing director at Sampson Tyrrell Corporate Marketing, believes there are big opportunities to encourage clients to be adventurous in their approach to design. He claims: “Eighty per cent of annual reports are horribly safe and don’t help companies differentiate or build on their brands. There’s still a huge potential and the important thing is to explain to clients the benefits of good design. Their corporate persona is going to serious audiences and they don’t want to be made to look stupid.” As advances in technology continue to dominate print design, so clients have become less dependent on London-based groups.
However, there are certain clients who prefer to deal with the big London names and are prepared to pay the fees, particularly for annual report projects. Thomas believes clients are now more confident about spending more on annual reports. “We’re finding things really good at the moment. Budgets are higher and clients are displaying more self-confidence. There was a view that if it looks nice what will the shareholders think. Now there’s a feeling that they need to portray more confidence.” Website design is a key area of growth in this sector, with many clients now expecting designers to provide some sort of multimedia expertise. Design groups are consequently faced with the dilemma of taking on multimedia staff in-house or buying in services on an ad hoc basis.
What clients want
There is plenty of evidence that clients are looking for more strategic thinking, particularly bigger clients who want to ensure their brand image is as strong on an application form as it is for a TV ad. Rosters are also starting to creep in, proof that long-term relationships are valued. Nick Hall, director of marketing at Commercial Union, comments: “We’re not just looking for creative ability, but also strategic understanding of what we’re trying to do and making sure designs meet that strategy. If the design can’t be evaluated and isn’t consistent with the brand positioning then it’s failed. Planning and strategy are crucial.” Claire Smith, retail marketing manager at Granada Home Technology, stresses: “Obviously we want creativity, but also the ability to think strategically about our business objectives. We would also be interested in anybody who can add value and help us over and above design.”
Guardian Royal Exchange operates an informal roster but also brings in extra groups for certain projects, says communications editor Jo Ruckman. “Apart from the type of design that matches our needs, we’re looking for rapport and good, solid project management – the back office stuff is very important to us. We also expect designers to be honest about who they are working with as on some projects we can’t use groups if they’re working for main competitors, especially for an annual report which contains very sensitive information.” Philippa Butters, who recently moved from British Telecom to head of design services at Yellow Pages, also prefers some form of roster to enhance the client/designer relationship. “Taking creativity as read, the most important thing is a rapport with the consultancy you’re dealing with, and that comes down to individuals.” While stressing that establishing a relationship is vital, Butters is also keen to keep an eye on new talent and will be “looking for new blood” to add to the existing roster at Yellow Pages. Thistle Hotels has a roster of three different-sized consultancies and, says marketing director Sue Whitehead, “we don’t go outside that because we don’t want to lose consistency”. She adds: “It’s useful to work with agencies who have worked in the industry before because it’s important that they understand the dynamics of the hotel and leisure industry.” Whitehead also emphasises the importance of brand protection, but says the onus is on the client: “If you want to pay for it, creativity is there. You have to channel it and make sure it doesn’t compromise your brand.”
Bob Brand, assistant director of the publications group at Central Office of Information, is in the unusual position of being both a design buyer and design supplier for government departments. His emphasis is very much on quality, and when selecting design groups he says “the one thing we look for is some formal commitment to quality which may be BS5750 or something like working with the European quality model. It often says something about the determination of the consultancy to do well in the market place and it’s in touch with the spirit of the moment.” Almost all design work at the Health Education Authority and most public sector organisations is put out to tender. “We have to tender everything. It’s public money and we have to be able to justify how we spend that money,” states HEA campaign manager Louise Rees. “We choose consultancies for their capacity to get their head around the brief, also whether or not they have the resources to handle the project in a short space of time. If you’re working to campaign deadlines they have to deliver.”
She adds: “It’s a bonus if they understand the way the HEA works. I’ve got an excellent relationship with the consultancies I work with. They are more committed, people get very involved because they’re working for a campaign that gets media coverage, it’s a worthy cause and it gets their foot in the door.”
Room for improvement
Understanding clients’ needs comes through strongly in the quest to better client/designer relationships. Clients are also ready to admit they can sometimes be at fault. For Ruckman, a key bugbear is “interpreting and understanding the brief”. She suggests: “There are people in our company who don’t always give a good brief. It would be useful for designers to give us the criteria they want in terms of the brief and it would be helpful to have a discussion with them about how it could be worded.” Whitehead says her concern is that designers don’t always understand the “business side and the message that’s got to get across”. She adds: “There can be a danger of designers producing beautiful literature which doesn’t actually work. We have to be more disciplined at the brief stage and make perfectly clear what we want it to do. There’s no point having reversed out text if it’s got to be printed in six different languages.”
Brand is also concerned about designers seeing their work as “art rather than a communication vehicle”. He says that sort of approach is the age-old problem of designers “picking up on something important to them and practising their craft which can lead them to lose sight of the overall goal of promoting a message”. Butters believes designers could do a bit more groundwork to pre-empt their clients’ needs. “If it’s a first job, designers should pull out all the stops and find out how clients like to work.” According to Hall, the “weakest aspect” of design groups is their planning and strategy work, though he acknowledges that the fault can also lie with clients not having fully integrated brand strategies. Smith agrees: “Strategic thinking is something everybody says they would like to offer, but in practice it doesn’t often happen.” One client at a financial services group who prefers to be unnamed suggests designers take a more “proactive role” in making sure projects are delivered on time and within budget. He also claims it is “harder and harder” to differentiate between them on a creative level because he believes creative standards are getting higher.
Tailoring the relationship to suit the type of client is also important, particularly if the client is a public sector organisation. Rees recalls: “I once dealt with a design consultancy which was very aggressive in its approach and treated me like a private sector client – you’ve got to remember you’re dealing with the public sector and need to be sensitive to health issues. An aggressive, entrepreneurial business style doesn’t go down well.” Brand suggests that designers are losing touch with printing processes because of increased reliance on new technology. “Use of new technology is making designers more remote from the end processes of printing. There seems to be less awareness of the technical constraints that printing processes inherently have.”
Fees are generally a sore point. Because of the highly competitive nature of the sector fees have been kept down and designers are frequently asked to take part in creative pitches for little or no remuneration. “Fees are dreadful and haven’t moved for five years,” declares Watson, yet clients often feel they are paying over the odds. “Fees are high and I’m concerned about the mark-up for administration services. There’s no industry standard and it would be useful to have an agreed level,” comments Ruckman. “I feel fees on the whole are quite high,” agrees Smith. “You sometimes wonder if you’re getting value for money. If it’s a simple extension of an existing campaign or activity, it can seem like we’re being charged a lot for account handling and project management.” Others are happy with fee levels: “We wouldn’t work with our agencies if we didn’t feel we were getting value for money,” says Whitehead. Brand believes fees are increasing: “We think we’ve seen fee levels go up a little bit. At one time they were very low but we have seen a slight rise in the last year.” One area where fees have remained strong is the extension of a corporate identity across a literature suite – “that’s usually pretty lucrative,” suggests Watson.
Felicity Kelly, managing director at Pile Probert Kelly, believes clients will value design more. “Clients are recognising the need for design to add value and are much more aware about their image and personality coming through in their literature. But they are also much better informed about production processes and costs, so they expect a lot.” Rosters are likely to become more widespread, but the days of free-pitching are not yet numbered and the sector will no doubt remain as competitive. New technology will continue to play a dominant role in the design process and consultancies will have to keep one step ahead. “Technology is speeding up the whole process and making it more sophisticated and potentially a lot more interactive,” states Hall. But some clients fear new technology may lead to poorer results as the design process is speeded up. “We do have to be very careful about it. It might end up with stages being skipped and could lead to mistakes,” warns Ruckman. Multimedia is definitely an area to watch. More clients are asking for web design, and consultancies are having to decide whether or not to offer such skills in-house. “Every consultancy has to make a decision about whether they are a jack of all trades. It’s not print and there are more constraints,” points out Kelly. “It’s a very specialist area and I think the design world will be leading us in a lot of ways, although there are things to learn on both sides,” says Butters. Although Hall declares that “websites and print are poles apart”, he advises designers to “know what’s happening, otherwise they will miss out on a major opportunity”.
Health Education Authority case study
Working for a public sector client is in many ways different to the private sector. Instead of shareholder accountability, it is tax payers’ money that foots the bill. Fees tend to be lower, but designers perhaps get more of a buzz from campaigns aimed at the public, and more fulfilment from projects perceived as worthy. Pile Probert Kelly was selected by Di Swanston, campaign manager at the Health Education Authority, after five groups were invited to tender for the Active for Life campaign. Two designs were then tested, and PPK’s concept for material aimed at encouraging men and women over 45 to take more exercise was chosen.
“It is very different for a public sector client. We have to clear material with the Department of Health and we can’t produce anything that’s remotely controversial – we can’t make mistakes with public money,” points out Swanston. “We did have some wacky ideas put forward that might be fine for selling computers but we’re actually trying to get people to change their behaviour for the rest of their lives.” Swanston was looking for an eye-catching approach with the emphasis on fun and enjoyment rather than health. The guides, posters and leaflets produced for the public and health professionals, with print runs topping one million for leaflets and posters, appear with bright colours which are “traditional and simple” such as green, turquoise, orange and yellow. Testing revealed salmon pink didn’t go down a storm with people in their 70s and that real photography rather than cartoons should be used. “Testing is brilliant, it really makes a difference,” claims Swanston.
PPK managing director Felicity Kelly points out that working for a client such as the HEA requires a different tone of voice. “It’s about a message rather than a brand. Exciting stuff but no money”. But Kelly says PPK’s designers really enjoy working on HEA projects. “We work very much as a team for a common goal. It isn’t us pushing for creativity and them resisting it. They’re excited by it too. We set a fee level and put in more hours than we should. But you get caught up in wanting to work with them to achieve their objectives. It’s like working with a charity.”
Avis case study
Designs by Sampson Tyrrell Corporate Marketing for the Avis Europe stock market flotation last month grew from an initial brief to produce a share offer brochure and prospectus covers into creating a brand identity used across the whole range of flotation literature. Morag McCay, director of marketing and corporate communications at Avis Europe, states she was “extremely impressed with the way Sampson Tyrrell organised the project management”, and was able to meet deadlines and maintain quality despite a number of last minute changes to documents and brochures. “Designers often fall down on project management and keeping clients aware of the costs incurred.” The consultancy was asked to help with the flotation literature after having worked on an extensive corporate literature programme for Avis.
Sampson Tyrrell Corporate Marketing account director Vanessa Meaney explains the chosen approach centred around Avis’s existing “we try harder” badge button. So a badge symbol was adopted for the flotation and applied to a range of promotional material from point-of-sale in the retail setting to backdrops for press conferences. “If you come up with an idea that works and is right then clients do appreciate design. The documentation was fun and interesting. Pictures within the A5 leaflet were formed into badges to create a 3D effect so that what was dull and boring stock photography has a bit more life injected into it,” she adds. McCay says the launch was a success and shares were five times oversubscribed. She was particularly impressed with the consultancy’s handling of such a complex project. Meaney points out that without strong back up of account handlers the project would have been very difficult to manage. “It was important to have a suit on the agency side. When you’re dealing with four firms of lawyers, three sets of merchant banks and there are 30 people around a table every Tuesday morning, you have to be able to speak their language and push quite hard. I don’t think any designers would have liked to have been thrown into the bear pit.” McCay concludes: “The client’s responsibility is to know your brand and how to acquire the appropriate resources”.