Different strokes

If you come from a traditional design consultancy background, how do you break the mould when setting up your own business? There are a lot of good people out there these days and differentiation is seen as key to getting noticed by – and hanging on to – desirable clients. Plenty of start-ups claim to have found a way of doing things differently, but it may not be so easy to actually deliver an alternative when clients have a certain view of what design can deliver.

For relative newcomers such as The Fourth Room, Ergo, Circus and Factory Design, the balance between design, strategy and marketing has been reviewed to such an extent that some of them barely do their own design at all. This is hardly surprising, given the founders’ mix of backgrounds. The ad industry gets a high billing at all the consultancies except for product design group Factory, with strategy, marketing, research, public relations and planning also in founders’ credits.

Circus, Ergo and The Fourth Room are more than happy to take on the non-design end of projects. They are much more interested in delivering a complete, original and effective solution. In order to do this, all four groups readily team up with, or bring in, outside companies, be they point-of-sale, exhibition specialists, event organisers or designers.

These groups don’t all have plans to expand rapidly and take on the world. For the most part they intend to keep their teams small, and keep drawing on outside expertise. What matters most is the relationship with the client. Not all clients have been quick to grasp the value of these alternative offers.

What makes this lot stand out from the traditional consultancies is their unconventional way of problem solving – putting non-speaking actors on London Underground to promote an event, for example. Hardly a design solution, but definitely creative.

The Fourth Room

When rumours started in late-1997 about the formation of The Fourth Room, the media interest was that it appeared to be a high-profile breakaway from Newell and Sorrell soon after its merger with identity group Interbrand UK. The Fourth Room chief executive Piers Schmidt had helped to put together the Interbrand Newell and Sorrell deal while director of strategy at N&S, where he’d worked for five years. He was to be joined by former N&S finance director Russell Lloyd and market research specialist Wendy Gordon, formerly with The Research Business International.

For design, the big news when the consultancy officially launched in January 1998, was that Michael Wolff – a former non-executive director at INS – was part of the line-up, taking the unusual title head of imagination, while retaining his own company Newhouse Associates and his consultancy with WH Smith.

What was particularly intriguing, given Wolff’s involvement, was that at the outset Schmidt described The Fourth Room as ‘a futuristic think tank’ that would be involved in publishing its projections on various topics. It would not, he said, be a design consultancy – though it is building a design team with former INS creative and associate director Garry Blackburn, who joined late last year as creative director.

Last spring Schmidt spoke of employing ‘as many good people as we can find’. Since then it has risen to 20. But aspirations to be ‘a fast company’ became evident early on. A trawl by Schmidt and his colleagues for ‘a benevolent parent’ to invest in the business led to a tie-up with global product design group Ideo last autumn.

Ideo, itself largely owned by US office furniture giant Steelcase, took a 25 per cent stake in The Fourth Room, worth ‘closer to millions (than thousands) of pounds’, according to Schmidt. The deal will allow The Fourth Room to expand internationally, and it is already working with Ideo’s teams in the US. Ideo, meanwhile, gains what head of Ideo Europe Tim Brown describes as a ‘strategy house’ with expertise in brands.

As for the work, apart from its own grasshopper letterhead, The Fourth Room has steered clear of design as an end in itself. It is used instead as a way of communicating with clients. It has, though, ventured into publishing, with its first FutureScape report hitting the street last November. Titled Radioactivity Warning and designed by The Attik, the report looks at the future of digital audio broadcasting – a topic The Fourth Room has since developed with Ideo through the latter’s work with the BBC.

Even in its new business push, The Fourth Room dares to be different. Rather than bombard clients with new business pitches, it invited them to become part of a ‘business development network’. More than 80 of the 250 clients invited to become ‘members’ have expressed an interest. Whether this will convert to projects remains to be seen, but it shows what can be done with conviction and the bravery to see it through.

Circus

Most of us know something about Circus: that it was set up to bridge the gap between management consultant-type ‘thinkers’, and ‘craft providers’ like design groups and ad agencies; that it creates outside-the-box ‘media-neutral’ communication strategies and collaborates with relevant consultancies to manifest them; or, that it was founded by four partners with a wealth of experience gained in public relations, advertising, design, internal communications and general marketing.

But is Circus really any different from any other consultancy?

Circus partner Paul Twivy says the group views the brand as a community, comprising staff, consumers and shareholders. Addressing their concerns in this order – ‘from the inside out’ – makes for the most effective strategy, he argues.

This approach may put Circus in the minority, but it is by no means unique.

However, in the partners’ mix of experience and range of collaborators they genuinely appear to be at the forefront of a new approach to the communications process.

Between them the four partners have worked for pretty much everyone. Dilys Maltby’s credits include Fitch, Imagination, Habitat and The Body Shop; Tim O’Kennedy has worked for Nike, Wieden & Kennedy and The Lowe Group; Tim Ashton has worked for DMB&B, Lowe Howard-Spink, Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury and Bartle Bogle Hegarty; and Paul Twivy for J Walter Thompson, Bates Dorland and as a consultant to the BBC.

Collaborators to date include multimedia groups Studio Digit, Deepend Design and Think New Ideas; exhibition designer Peter Brookes; branding consultancies Lambie-Nairn, The Partners, Pentagram and Turner Duckworth.

The group has also teamed up with ad agencies Ammirati Puris Lintas and Leagas Delaney, and multimedia event organiser Lively Arts.

‘We don’t have an official group of partners, because we believe you shouldn’t have a vested interest [when deciding which media to use and which consultancies to work with] and that can put clients off. We want to be genuinely neutral,’ says Maltby.

Circus prides itself on its unconventional approach to problem solving. A recent project to promote the revamped Museum of London saw it letting a group of actors loose on the London Underground. Verbal promotion is not allowed on the Tube, so the actors drew attention to themselves by wearing elaborate dress and reading mocked-up newspapers.

Twivy says clients have responded well to Circus’ approach – at least after a little reassurance and an explanation on the group’s work practices.

Circus partners have relationships with groups across the communications industry. However, Twivy says it is building relationships with new consultancies all the time and is always on the lookout for potential collaborators.

For example, the group recently had a session with MetaDesign, its next-door neighbour in London’s Hardwick Street. As a result the two businesses may well work together when the appropriate opportunity arises, says Twivy.

Circus now employs 16 full-time staff and has worked with NCR, Virgin Vie, the Museum of London and the Princess Diana Memorial Museum. It recently launched a multimedia advertising campaign to establish BBC Sport as a brand in its own right.

In the longer term, Circus hopes to broaden and strengthen the mix of employees through new appointments – an intention backed up by the recent appointments of former creative consultant to London’s Blue Note Gallery music venue Sophie Webster, and Emma Atkinson, a former underground arts and music entrepreneur.

But Circus has no plans to grow significantly, preferring the flexibility of a small operation. Collaborations will remain a key element of the Circus formula for the foreseeable future.

Circus’ dedication to mould-breaking multi-disciplinary communications solutions cannot be disputed. However, despite claiming to be media-neutral, one cannot help thinking the group values advertising more highly than design.

Ergo

Ergo is building itself a reputation as a trouble shooter. ‘We get involved in tough projects,’ says partner Simon John, where a client might have been trying to make changes for a year or so, it’s not working, and Ergo is brought in to sort it out. And design work does not necessarily take a major part of Ergo’s solution.

‘A lot of us think we are different,’ concedes John. ‘But the area we think we can advise clients on is understanding their brand across all media, because of the experience of the people on our team.’ John and partner Stuart MacKay don’t balk at advising clients to use PR or advertising instead of branding, making Ergo’s position with clients quite strong, says John.

Clients are coming to appreciate the benefits of creative teams, and more and more Ergo is working alongside point-of-sale, direct mail and promotions companies.

Ergo’s work tends to be self-generated. ‘We create most of our projects – defining the issues for a client, rather than clients coming to us saying “I’ve got a problem”,’ says John.

Indeed, much of its work is behind the scenes and it is genuinely happy to bring in specialists to work alongside it. ‘We are great believers in the adage, if your only tool is a hammer, the only problem is a nail,’ says MacKay. And client relationships tend to be long term.

MacKay, a strategic brand planner with an advertising background, set up Ergo in West London in late 1996 after working at The Identica Partnership and Michael Peters Group. His co-founder John spent 12 years at Coley Porter Bell, where he was creative director. They plan to grow the brand identity consultancy from eight to about 12 people in the next nine months, with a 50/50 split between designers and strategists.

The group is currently working with Publicis, Saatchi & Saatchi and two other major ad agencies. It brought in AM Design to create merchandising units for Hempel Paints, the third biggest producer of ship paints, as part of its work to create a consumer brand for the company. Ergo’s marque, featuring an abstract ladder for the H of Hempel, forms the basis for the unit’s design, and the project is rolling out to Spain and China.

Similarly, Hagger Studio was brought in to design interiors for 40 Savile Row. Shirt manufacturer Savile Row Holding Company wanted to develop its own brand, to compete with the brands it supplied. Ergo persuaded the company that a flagship store was the answer, but unlike other tailor’s outlets, the shop 40 Savile Row encourages customers to get involved in the design. Ergo’s original ‘big idea’ and brand identity will be followed by other ideas, such as visiting tailors who will travel to clients’ desks. The travelling service is currently being trialed.

Everyone in the design industry these days promises strategy as well as creativity, but Ergo attempts to take these claims one step further. The consultancy’s approach is about integrating strategy and creativity, something which MacKay feels is lacking in the design industry. ‘In nearly all the companies I know you go through a strategic process and there is a gap… and then there is a creative brief.’

He draws a comparison with the ad industry in the Fifties, when copywriters came up with a slogan which was posted to the illustrator, who then in isolation illustrated it. He admits that strategy and creativity are to an extent in conflict with each other, ‘but both have a common interest in getting the strongest results’.

The forging of strategy and creativity can be seen in Ergo’s recent projects. The partners are known as problem solvers and do not expect to get handed straightforward design-only jobs. They design their own research on trend analysis, or commission research specialists.

Factory

You can’t fault Factory Design’s pedigree. Just two years old, the London product design group was set up by former Seymour Powell partners Adam White and Adrian Berry, both of whom had previously worked with Kenneth Grange at Pentagram. A year ago they were joined by Gavin Thomson and Peter Tennent, also from Grange’s Pentagram team.

But what sets the seven-strong group apart from many other product groups is its philosophy and way of working.

Factory was founded on the belief that it should expand at a high level, by bringing in directors rather than just building staff. That is why White and Berry, both creative directors, brought in Thomson as a third creative director and Tennent, a product designer, as managing director. Each creative director heads a small team, but Tennent stresses that it’s Factory clients are buying, rather than individuals – repeat business might not mean the same team working for the client, but everyone chips in with ideas on every project.

The directors also share a belief in working co-operatively, not just within the group and with a network of freelances, but with like-minded consultancies in complementary disciplines which allow it to expand its repertoire. There are no formal deals, but Factory is collaborating with several consultancies, including multimedia group Deepend Design, branding specialist Williams Murray Banks, graphics groups Lippa Pearce and Ziggurat, and engineering design groups such as motorcycle specialist Tigcraft.

Pitches are done together and everything is agreed upfront with the client, says Tennent.

Factory is also working with Phil Gray of strategic product advisor Quadro Consulting. ‘He steers the strategy, Factory provides the front-end creativity,’ says Tennent.

Tennent traces much of the directors’ thinking back to the Pentagram heritage. ‘We share the same ambitions, attitude and approach largely because of Kenneth,’ he says. One common view is that the business shouldn’t grow too big, so that the relationship is maintained between each creative director and his clients. There is also a longer-term view that it might ‘follow the Pentagram plan’ and bring in directors from other disciplines. ‘It’s an ambition, but not one we want to force,’ says Tennent.

Factory prides itself on being ideas-led, rather than just processing products. ‘Technology has been used as a selling point by product designers,’ says Tennent. ‘Technology should be our tool – we’re actually selling creativity and ideas-generation.’ He says that in a world where there is no standard kit to suit all jobs, Factory has access to a range of technology through the equipment of its networking partners.

Given the time-frame of most product design jobs – and the need for confidentiality – Factory has little to show by way of work as yet. But it is busy, having so far more than tripled its turnover year on year. Projects range from transport to telecoms and domestic goods for clients as diverse as London Transport, Van den Berg Foods, pen company Montblanc, Motorola and Light Projects. It is also participating in the Glasgow 99 Collection.

And the name? ‘There’s the idea that factories are where products come from,’ says Tennent. Then there’s the Warhol-esque factory approach of bringing together expertise in a common environment. That environment for Factory is a former electricity sub-station in West London – a good place for bright sparks.

Latest articles

The biggest product launches of 2017

We look at some of the most exciting product design stories from this year, including a reincarnated version of the Nokia 3310 handset, a touchscreen projector from Sony and a smart