Minding your own business

Losing senior multimedia staff is putting the future of digital work by traditionally print-based consultancies in jeopardy, says Mike Exon

The heavyweight design consultancies once looked set to enjoy their share in a new era of digital design, but complacency and the failure to compete with modern working practices is resulting in a staff drain.

Larger forces are at work now from outside the traditional design sector, which threaten to pull digital branding creatives into fields controlled by unfamiliar hands. Only last week Fitch multimedia head Steve Potts became the latest to decide to jump ship.

The opportunity stems from the UK and particularly the US e-business sector, which has been scouting for UK talent for a couple of years. Scarcely a day goes by without the headhunters dangling the bait. And, if you hadn’t heard, the phones of the UK’s multimedia designers haven’t stopped ringing.

A minor exodus of senior design staff to the “new side” poses some hard questions for established groups. Unless they are prepared to be taken over, or go fully digital, how do print-based design consultancies welcome the newcomers, establish working partnerships and learn to survive symbiotically? On the other hand, how do they assure the survival of their existing multimedia output if there is so much pressure on team leaders to ride the new wave? The answer is to modernise and offer incentives.

Digit founder and creative director Daljit Singh draws attention to the line separating dedicated digital media design groups, and print-based consultancies with digital media departments. The latter he identifies as no threat to his design business.

“The traditional design consultancies, like the advertising agencies, have been trying to set up digital branding departments, but people are just leaving them,” he says. “There is too much of the old system in place to slow their development – too many unnecessary processes.

“If you are setting up a digital branding design department, it has to be a separate entity from the rest of the business,” he advises. “If you are going to do it you have to take it very seriously, not just tag it on as an extra.” As a consultant for IBM, Singh advised his former employer to go down such a road seven years ago.

Talking to departing designers it becomes apparent that “established consultancies” are vulnerably distanced from some of the rumblings in the digital arena. There is uncertainty among consultancies about how to deal with the “new side” arrivals. Result – a worrying lack of contingency plans. On top of this, many design staff employed in the “old side” are concerned their employers will miss out on important work: this is not good for career prospects.

Interbrand Newell and Sorrell director Jez Frampton agrees that consultancies will miss out. “If I was a design company operating in this arena that was not responding to the new economy, I would be very worried. We are certainly reviewing our own situation,” he says.

“You can’t easily overlook a Wolff Olins, Fitch or Landor because of their reputation,” says Deep Group chief executive Gary Lockton, although, like Singh, he sees some of the established consultancies “treating digital as another department. If the big consultancies were to take it seriously they would be a force to be reckoned with,” he says. Lockton reckons if multimedia managers at big consultancies had the autonomy required to develop departments into businesses, nobody would be leaving. “They have to give these people real autonomy and let them run the business in the way they see best,” he concludes. It is clear that this is a board level problem.

Concern has been expressed by some who have left that former employers have failed to look for a future niche in the highly competitive digital arena. With so many global e-business and e-branding giants now emerging, says one designer, design consultancies need to rethink their digital offer before it is too late.

What do they have to do? How do they “take it seriously”? Well, to compete they will have to offer end-to-end solutions, he advises. Consultancies that choose this route will have to develop strengths in business strategy, technology and creative branding.

Only then can a digital business be conceived, built and branded by one company – and this is the next gold mine. “That way, if things go wrong there is only one person to fire, not a branding consultant, an IT consultant or an ad agency,” he adds.

For digital design staff the “new side” might look as if it is paved with gold. It has the modern work culture (share options galore), levels of pay more in line with IT consultancies and the ability to offer designers the opportunity to sit at the hub of business creation.

The shift is reshaping the sector in which designers are being asked to work, according to one departed creative: “We are not finding ourselves on the same pitch lists as the traditional design consultancies. Instead of coming in at the brand level, we come in on the business strategy level.”

His advice to the top ten is that in order to win and retain clients, established consultancies will have to offer integrated design services. “I see a time when graphic design and retail teams all have a couple of Web designers in. It will not just be about asking a Web department to ‘do a website’,” he says.

Some design consultancies may not want to get heavy with the e-business boys, some will be content just to offer high-level design and branding. But, if they cannot keep their digital media staff, is it surprising that e-business consultancies are muscling in as guardians of the digital brand?

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