Better out than nothing at all

Outsourcing might be the design industry’s most hushed-up activity, but it’s essential to keep consultancy cogs turning, says Erika Clegg

You might be forgiven for thinking that among design consultancies, outsourcing is the practice that dare not speak its name. It might not be glamorous, but with stagnant order books more and more groups are doing it. Hush-hush it may be, but as a way of boosting the balance sheet and keeping bums on seats, outsourcing is a great sideline.

Of course, non-agency outsource options are always available – think freelances and overseas studios. The former have their advantages, but they have a propensity to disappear, either to a full-time job or on a last-minute two-week holiday, or get enmeshed on another project. The latter can be cheap and quick, but language and time differences get in the way.

So, using a smaller or complementary group to take on your dirty work or to carry out projects suited to your studio is a pretty good option. Assuming, that is, its skills meet your standards, studio management being fundamental to the success of the handover.

For a middleweight studio, outsourcing offers the opportunity to work on white-label projects for consultancies or manufacturers. It can provide a useful guaranteed income and, because it’s often non-creative, can be allocated to artworkers or proofreaders.

The Design Business Association is a good place to weigh up your rates against competitors. In many cases this may come as a shock and means you are saving your outsourcing clients money while supplying them with a low-cost revenue stream.

It’s important consultancies provide white-label clients not only with direct links to their artworker, but open access to company directors. This way they can exert pressure at a higher level – on those who are concerned about paying salaries and corporate growth, not just their own salary.

It goes without saying that clients hold more power than employers in this sense, since it’s far easier to sack a supplier than a member of staff. So it is essential, as a supplier, that you ensure budgets and deadlines are met and work is accurate, which is – however good your staff – not always the case with internal work.

For smaller groups, the advantages are manifold. They are able to work directly with clients for which they cannot always meet the procurement criteria. Agreed, the consultancy might not be able to shout about the work on websites or in press releases, but it’s quite a feather in the cap for an out-of-London designer, say, to work with household brands. This engenders invaluable confidence and experience, allowing them to sell direct to other interesting brands.

From a management perspective, the ability to allocate chunks of time each week and forecast the budget attached to guaranteed artwork acts as a great safety net. For many cash-strapped groups, it’s been the churn work from direct and white-label clients that has kept studios busy.

In addition to which, outsource projects allow staff to feel inspired and part of something larger – valuable for a young designer who might not have experienced larger groups. The work can fine-tune skills, including dealing directly with clients, as well as lay the best-practice groundwork for the future. For the older members of the team, the work presents an opportunity to draw on experience.

It’s not all donkey work. One of our clients supplies a leading supermarket and our work on its packaging compelled us to rewrite its design guidelines which, in turn, allowed the supermarket to reduce its packaging production costs through simple size reduction. Per item, this amounted to fractions of a penny, but on the scale they operate, many thousands of pounds were saved.

This is the type of project that can make your client look great and prove to them the benefit of employing a UK consultancy with a decent knowledge of production and a serious project-management structure, rather than a Mac monkey. And, since you deal directly with the client, they will notch up the brownie points, with no work on their part other than their weekly delivery of items for artwork.

With a great deal of middleweight consultancies, white-label clients are fuelling growth within a strategic expansion plan, allowing them to service high-profile clients directly across a wide range of disciplines.

Irrespective of the scale of your operation, there will always be larger consultancies to approach, and smaller consultancies which would value your cast-offs.

Outsourcing Tips:

  • If you outsource work, ensure that the project-management style of the group you commission meets your standards
  • It’s often a great opportunity for smaller consultancies to work on big-name clients
  • Consultancies providing white-label work may not get the praise, but they do get income and workflow security
  • Irrespective of scale, outsourcing is a good area to build into your growth strategy

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