Design studios are struggling to influence clients at the top level

Though design studios are trusted to tackle topical challenges, very few can penetrate the top levels at a client’s company, according to a new report.

Only 9% of clients believe that design studios influence their companies at the very highest level, according to a new report on agency-client relationships.

Among other findings is the increased importance of an agency’s diversity and the attraction of more traditional features (such as a physical office).

The What Clients Think report is based on 600 interviews with clients from sectors including healthcare and childcare about their experience with design studios. Now in its eighth year, the report is carried out by Brighton-based business consultancy Up to the Light, in association with the Design Business Association.

Clients commented on issues ranging from pitching dos and don’ts to developing better agency  relationships. The studios ranged in discipline and size (from five to over 100 employees).

“It has been a turbulent two years with the pandemic hitting markets such as transportation, hospitality and leisure very hard,” says Up to the Light founder Jonathan Kirk. “Consumer behaviour has shifted and brand loyalty levels have been dented.”

What are clients looking for in a design partner?

With an almost 10% increase from last year, 67% of clients say that diversity is important when choosing and working with design consultancies. As well as race and gender, clients are looking at the various ages within creative teams as well as their nationalities, according to the report.

There’s also a strong desire from clients (79%) to build a long-term relationship with an external agency.

Despite all this, only 9% of clients say that their design studio is “in the boardroom” – meaning that it has influence at the very top of a company’s hierarchy. “Design agencies are struggling to influence clients at the very highest levels,” the report says.

What are clients worried about?

Clients were asked about their main concerns, beyond the immediate agency relationship. The biggest challenges included internal issues which complicate jobs, a disconnect among marketing teams (either in-house or external) and ongoing restructuring, according to respondents.

There are client problems where design consutlancies can offer much-needed help. Some 76% of clients say they are “extremely time pressured”, meaning that they rely on agencies to “be their eyes and ears” and spot relevant trends, the report explains. A further 89% of clients believe the market is moving faster than ever before, while 79% say they cannot pay attention to long-term brand building as much as they would like to.

It’s good news for the role of design in solving these problems. Around 85% of clients believe good design is a “very important contributor to business success” while 99% believe “the need for exceptional creativity has never been greater”.

According to the report findings, over half (54%) of clients consider maintaining brand consistency over multiple channels “very challenging”, and 66% of clients would like faster, more detailed access to customers.

The best ways to win new business

When it comes to the all-important matter of new business, 90% of clients consider the best approach to feel like an “informed discussion” rather than a hard sell.

Pitching is still seen as good business practice by almost all clients, though it’s hard to come up with memorable ones: over a quarter (28%) of clients failed to recall agency pitch presentations one week later.

Among the top irritations for pitches, clients listed a lack of clear leadership, confusion over who would be working on the project, and disconnected disciplinary approaches (between strategy and creative, for example).

A studio’s website is still an important way for clients to find an agency, though 61% of clients said they were “unimpressed by design agency showreel style videos”. In contrast, 93% of clients prioritised speed and ease of navigation when it came to a studio website – “extraneous copy or anything that slows or confuses the client’s journey is a mistake,” the report adds.

Problem areas

While the pandemic has changed working life for everyone, including designers, some hallmarks from former days are important to clients. While around half (53%) of clients consider an agency’s location to be unimportant, 70% of clients prefer to have a physical office.

That may tie into another pandemic-era consequence: 89% of clients reported they feel a “degree of ‘burn out’” from online meetings, according to the findings.

Clients were also surveyed about their ongoing relationships with agencies. Of the clients who had a weaker relationship with agencies, 87% highlighted client service issues as the main problem (a familiar problem over the years, according to the report).

Meanwhile 34% of clients said they wanted their agency to be more self-critical. “Clients appreciate an agency’s ability to be self-critical,” the report says, adding that, “some agencies can be too content to accept praise, rather than seek improvement.”

You can read the full report on the Up to the Light website. Banner image is courtesy of Shutterstock

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  • Neil Littman April 26, 2022 at 10:24 am

    Would be interested to see the full report and whether it makes reference to the corporate reporting sector which I have been involved with for over 30 years. I think that the knowledge and influence of design agencies still plays a major role in shaping the messaging and imagery used in the annual reports and other publications produced by companies. During that time I sat in the room with CEO’s and company chairpeople at the highest level. I doubt that has changed much. Quite often design agencies will employ consultants whose job it is to keep tabs on current reporting legislation and compliance so that the relationship between the agency and client is a partnership rather than supplier/contractor role.

  • Raigo Lilleberg April 26, 2022 at 8:10 pm

    Also interested in seeing a more broader research on this, that would focus addition to marketing and/or brand design, to service, product and business design. Breferably covering more than one industry.

    In general the discussion about studio vs (for example) freelancer value for the client is an interesting discussion to have.

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