Assuming a missionary position

As the British Council’s plans shape for a trade mission to Brazil, Tom Bawden examines some of the benefits of participation.

At the start of next month The British Council will take representatives from eight design consultancies on a four-day trade mission to Brazil. The event is part of a broader Department of Trade and Industry promotion of British business in Brazil and is the first in a series of missions planned by The British Council.

While the concept of a trade mission – where an industry body takes a group of suppliers to meet a group of buyers – is nothing new, missions dedicated purely to design are a relatively recent, and growing, phenomenon.

But what exactly can the participants expect to get from their mission to Brazil and how can they ensure they make the most of the opportunities it presents?

“A big reason for going is psychological. It is reassuring being taken out with a group of people in the same situation as you, by people who know the area and have a lot of local clout,” says Tayburn McIlroy Coates managing director Simon Norris. The Scottish group is going on The British Council trip to Brazil.

CGI managing director Stephen Thomas says a heavyweight trade mission organiser can gain access to a number of key clients in the same place and at the same time. Thomas is also going on the trade mission to Brazil.

There are no set rules on what constitutes a good trade mission. However, industry experts agree successful trips generally share a number of common features which would-be participants would do well to consider before committing to a trade mission.

An effective mission should provide participants with detailed research on relevant markets to help them target the right clients and to set up one-to-one meetings with them, says Thomas.

It should also arrange a good line-up of speakers at any event involving clients and provide participants with the opportunity to make their own presentations.

The presence of an ambassador, politician or senior industry figure is generally regarded to be a good way of drawing top clients to an event – ideally, the mission will be attached to a major international exhibition, making them easier to attract, says Seymour Powell co-founder Dick Powell. Seymour Powell has been on a number of missions and will be going to Brazil with The British Council.

For their part, individual participants need to do their own meticulous preparation.

“It can take a long time to prepare, but you have to do it if the mission is to be a success. The mission will get you somewhere for a reasonable price, but you can’t leave it all to the organisers. You have to find out exactly who will be there, track them down and sell yourself,” says Powell. Conran Design Group creative director Dave Chaloner adds that you should meet clients as much on their terms as possible. This includes translating any literature you might use into their language.

But, however thorough the preparation, Chaloner says a successful trade mission can only be a starting point in a long process.

“It’s the same as in the UK. Winning a project relies on your face being seen more than once. One trip is not enough. It will open doors, but the relationship has to be substantiated through continued contact,” says Chaloner.

Design Business Association chief executive Ian Rowland-Hill agrees that mission participants expecting to win a new contract after just one visit “are usually disappointed”.

Many consultancies find the preparation time and the expense of a mission off-putting.

“You have to ask yourself two things. Are you likely to be able to fund a prolonged relationship with the client before you win a contract and, if you can, are you going to be able to afford to service it? Doing business overseas is incredibly expensive,” according to Corporate Edge and Michael Peters Literature chairman Peter Sampson.

Tayburn’s Norris says he and a colleague have spent three months preparing for the Brazilian mission. They have spent time locating and fostering existing links with local clients, setting up meetings, attending separate events with a relevant Brazilian theme, working out a niche, preparing presentations and attending British Council briefing meetings. Norris estimates that, very roughly, they have spent the equivalent of one working week preparing for the event.

The nature of the consultancy is also a factor when considering the effectiveness of a mission.

Rowland-Hill says trade missions are generally better suited to packaging, product and exhibition design, where work can be easily shown, and less suited to less tangible, strategic disciplines, such as corporate identity. He says there are no set rules as to which member of a consultancy should attend. “Whoever’s best at presenting and best at selling should go,” he says.

Meanwhile, the small consultancies find it hard to justify the necessary time to make the most of a trade mission.

“We’ve never done a trade mission. They seem like a good idea in theory, but for a small consultancy, to go to all that effort it has to be pretty settled that it will lead to work. Just going takes around a week out of your schedule,” says Callum Lumsden, managing director of the 14-strong group Lumsden Design Partnership.

Interbrand Newell and Sorrell director Simon Jones has never been on a trade mission either. “I get the impression that trade missions can be a wild goose chase,” says Jones.

British Design Initiative chief executive Maxine Horn agrees they “can be a complete disaster, if you don’t plan them thoroughly”. Horn says the market and potential clients need to be researched thoroughly and says it is no good running a mission on the cheap. BDI runs several trade missions each year and says it generally takes around three months to prepare for them.

Jones says the former Newell and Sorrell drummed up most of its sizeable export business through global clients; a Dutch office; and direct approaches to and from overseas clients.

Jones adds that joining the 19-strong global Interbrand network has rendered trade missions largely unnecessary.

However, he echoes the feelings of most mission participants in recognising their potential as one of a number of tools for gaining overseas business.

“I don’t rule out going on a trade mission in an area not covered by the Interbrand network. I see it could provide a valuable entry into the market,” says Jones.

Destination: Lisbon

Organiser: Design Business Association/ Department of Trade and Industry

Participants: CGI managing director Stephen Thomas and CGI marketing director Sheila Lalani

Cost: 150 fee per person plus expenses (flight approximately 165 and two nights accommodation 140)

Date: 7-9 September

Stephen Thomas and Sheila Lalani travelled to Lisbon with a group of design consultancies. The trip included a sector briefing, a series of one-to-one meetings, the opportunity to make a presentation and a visit to the Expo ’98 exhibition.

The introductory gathering included DBA chief executive Ian Rowland-Hill, Design Council chief executive Andrew Summers, the British ambassador, the Portuguese secretary of state for industry and energy and the chairman of the Portuguese Design Centre.

‘In the short term, the trip gave me a feel for the design culture that exists in Lisbon and of the level of sophistication of corporate identity design buyers.

‘I made a presentation on transportation, which didn’t take too long to prepare because I’d made it already before,’ says Thomas.

‘The trip hasn’t led to anything concrete yet, although I made one good contact over lunch – which is often the way. I am going to keep in touch with this particular client and am hopeful a contract will come out of it in around 18 months time.

‘I am planning a follow-up trip to foster that relationship,’ adds Thomas.

Destination: Taiwan

Organiser: Department of Trade and Industry, Taiwan action committee

Participant: Conran Design Group creative director Dave Chaloner

Cost: No Fee. Expenses – approximately 600 (the travel/accommodation package cost around 1200 and the DTI provided a 600 subsidy per person)

Date: 17-20 November 1997

Dave Chaloner travelled with a group of 20 people from a wide variety of sectors. He was the only designer present. It was up to the individual participant to create their own programme and to set up meetings with clients. The DTI provided him with detailed information on the Taiwanese market and a list of suitable clients.

‘Since the event I have had several meetings with clients I met there and been given new names by the DTI to follow up. The DTI has also notified me of suitable seminars and presentations taking place in the UK,’ says Chaloner.

He will return to Taiwan next month as part of a separate DTI mission, for designers and architects, entitled The Taiwan Shopping Centre Developers and Retail mission. He hopes this second mission may bring him close to a deal, but says nothing is definite. He believes the first trip was very worthwhile.

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