Form over function in the roster game

With clients commissioning more and more work from rosters, Tom Bawden asks if this is good news for designers, who are required to fill out increasingly detailed application forms.

Most of us hate completing application forms. It is no different with design groups and roster applications, except perhaps that the information required often seems to be excessively detailed and, at times, irrelevant.

The application form for the British Airport Authority’s “turn-key” roster is the most frequently quoted example of a client asking potential consultancies a little bit more than many regard as relevant to the job.

The document, nicknamed War and Peace by one applicant, comprises more than 20 pages of questions on areas including finance, environmental issues, computer systems and health and safety.

One question asks whether the applicant has a policy for reducing the use of ozone-depleting substances, another for details of “health and safety training methods to ensure staff are kept up to date on new products and trends”.

“BAA would be the first to admit that it was an exhaustive process, but it was the only way to find suitable suppliers at the time. In some ways we learned a lot about what not to do in the future,” says a BAA spokesman.

But since BAA is a big client, consultancies must answer the questions or else miss out on potentially lucrative business. Many feel that large clients are abusing their power, especially as appointment to a roster is not necessarily a guarantee of work.

While these are some of the extreme cases, there are many examples of rosters which are, quite simply, not doing anybody – client or consultancy – any good.

But rosters are here to stay, especially in the packaging and print sectors. The rise of the roster has several implications for design groups. Most significantly, they must operate more as businesses, which means treating the roster application process less like a chore and more like an integral part of running a business.

“While some clients are definitely too bureaucratic in their questioning on roster application forms, it is more often the case that design consultancies are not used to it. In other industries it is quite common to ask detailed questions, but design is not as professional as it should be,” says Nucleus Design managing director Peter Matthews, who helped put the Superdrug roster together.

If a client is to foster a successful relationship with a consultancy, it is essential it has a clear understanding of that consultancy’s strengths and weaknesses, he maintains: “If a consultancy goes bust, the client is in trouble.”

Apart from gaining a loyal group of consultancies, a client will often manage to swing a fee discount for work carried out by roster consultancies, according to Patrick Smith, formerly of client advisory group GDR and now at Sampson Tyrrell Enterprise.

The advantages to the consultancies of roster membership are more closely contended. For Matthews, it boils down to the quality of the roster. If the roster is well run, he argues the benefits to be derived by the designers are enormous. If not, the advantages are much harder to identify.

A well-managed roster essentially gives a consultancy greater continuity, guaranteeing it some work, helping it plan ahead and enabling it to build a stronger relationship with the client. It also reduces the time spent pitching for ad hoc projects.

Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks believes that far too many rosters are unsatisfactory: “In theory a roster can be extremely beneficial, but in practice it often isn’t – partly because they are badly managed and partly because the consultancy assumes once it’s on the roster, that is it. It isn’t. It still has to make regular approaches to the client,” he says.

However, Smith says badly thought out rosters are now much less common than a few years ago, with many clients now on their second or third, refining them each time.

A well-structured roster should have a range of consultancies with different capabilities. These should be encouraged to communicate with one another and with the client to ensure a consistent, well-researched stream of work. The roster should be reviewed regularly and the client should also use consultancies not on the roster, to ensure the regular injection of new views and ideas.

Many in the industry look to the Boots roster as the ideal. It is currently around 25 strong, comprising consultancies of different sizes and with different capabilities. The constituent consultancies are encouraged to interact with one another, with Boots and with its customers. It is continually being renewed by its managers, Alan Cooper and John McConnell, a partner at Pentagram, who are always keen to try out new consultancies and bring in fresh ideas.

Consultancies would be well advised to research the roster before approaching a potential client. If it is well run, it could prove invaluable, if badly run, it might be better to leave it and concentrate on something else.

Latest articles