With all the excitement about the referendum results – and for half the country, disappointment, anger and frustration – one thing is sure: we now live in interesting times, politically and economically. Nobody knows exactly what the eventual impact of the UK’s decision to leave the EU will be – but I can safely predict that there will be change, good and bad.
In the longer term UK design firms, like all UK businesses, will be affected by issues such as different trading arrangements and employment laws. But what about the shorter term? Some of you will benefit from increased international work if exchange rates continue to be preferential to overseas companies; others will suffer as clients hold fire on projects until the smoke clears and the UK economy has settled; all of you will face a much more competitive market as everyone fights harder for available projects. The well-run design businesses will survive; the poorly-run will go under.
Uncertainty always presents a challenge for business, so here are five things that we’re advising design firms right now:
1. Focus immediately on your existing client relationships. They are the quickest, easiest, cheapest and best source of future business. Take a long, hard look at your firm’s client relationship management policies and practices; every member of your firm, whatever their role, should now have “impeccable client service” in their job description and be equipped with the tools to deliver it. Increase the heat to maximum on satisfying, retaining and actively developing your current clients, and contact recent-but-dormant clients in person: a database-driven, auto-send newsletter or blog won’t be enough.
2. Stop talking about your marketing and sales programme and do it. How’s your strategy? Have you got a robust positioning, target market and proposition? If so, you need to articulate them clearly on every touchpoint, from your website’s landing page to your email signatures. You need a rolling 12-month campaign plan with activities, dates and budgets, with the right people in place, in-house or outsourced. Are your activities as integrated, consistent, meaningful and powerful as they need to be, and how are your credentials meetings? Random tweets, online posts and digi-conversations are useful – and fun – but they’re just the sprinkles on top of the icing on the cake.
3. Continue to invest in your team members at all levels of seniority. You hired the best: now give them the expert internal and external coaching and training they need. Without the right knowledge, skills and capabilities how can they support you in your business? If they aren’t performing to their full potential, you’ve got a problem.
4. If you have periods of downtime, don’t just sulk. Or panic. Or do nothing. Instead, use the opportunity to work on your business. Think. Then think again. As Einstein said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Work with your senior team members on your vision, values, goals and business strategy, and then develop forward plans based on different “what if” scenarios. And be honest about your product – is it good enough in terms of the three essential pillars of strategy, creativity and implementation? Are you not only keeping up with trends in clients’ needs but staying ahead of them? Look at when you last reviewed and tightened up the operational side of your business, including finance, HR, IT, etc? They need to be running smoothly, bringing in results and providing value.
5. Don’t give away your work for nothing. Yes, I’m talking about free pitches. More than ever, now’s the time for UK design firms to stop providing unpaid strategic and creative thinking to prospects who can afford to pay for it. The sole exception is work done for charities or other not-for-profit causes that you support, in which case you’re donating skills instead of money. Oh, and did I hear you thinking in point two that you can’t afford a marketing programme? Try adding up how much time, effort and money you spent on free pitching in the last year. You could have used it on some proper marketing instead.
Finally, in case you’re suffering from post-brexit anxiety, it’s worth remembering that the UK has an extremely robust design sector. The Design Council’s 2015 report The Design Economy shows that within the creative industries sector, itself growing at almost twice the rate of the UK economy, design is growing fastest. We generate over £70 billion gross value added a year, equivalent to more than 7% of the national total. And our trade body, the DBA, recently issued an uplifting post-referendum statement. Chief executive officer Deborah Dawton reminds us that design’s proven ability to drive growth and the quality and effectiveness of our work remain unchanged – she concludes: “The arguments for design are resounding.”
Shan Preddy is a design-sector trainer, business adviser and writer. Her firm, Preddy&Co, works with design firms and in-house design teams.