DESIGN business is booming and the strong are getting stronger. But the sector acknowledges that it won’t last, and is preparing for an eventual downturn. This, coupled with an increased blurring at the industry’s edges, is leading to an unprecedented shift at the top.
As the design sector has grown up, it has increased its offer to include the lucrative service of strategic consultancy – not just pure, old-fashioned design work. Note the number of groups which have dropped the word “design” from their name or added the word “strategy”.
In the meantime, key ad agencies and management consultancies are increasingly offering branding services. This blurring is a major topic of conversation for the big branding and identity groups, many of which are going through their own changes. Interbrand Newell and Sorrell has merged to create a mega group within the Omnicom network; Sampson Tyrrell Enterprise and its sister identity consultancies at WPP are to drop their individual names to add weight to their global offer; Wolff Olins’ management buyout team has set up a host of task forces to move the consultancy – the only major independent remaining – on to the next stage; and Landor London, perhaps the group which has more need for concern, is going through senior level restructuring.
While some UK groups see a threat from other sectors on their traditional ground of identity and branding, others see an opportunity. John Diefenbach, founder of US group Diefenbach Elkins, which is part of The Interpublic Group, is optimistic about the changes.
“The big networks are buying design consultancies because they feel they want to be at the front end. Brand firms are being given ‘permission’ by the market place and by the networks to lead the charge on branding,” he says. He contrasts the big groups’ potential to compete with rivals from other sectors, to the “notoriously narrow” consultancies of ten and 15 years ago.
The key to keeping ahead is infrastructure and reputation, according to Diefenbach. “These people with powerful infrastructure and the best reputations should be in good shape and the others will be in trouble. The networks are fuelling the idea of building a reputation and that is a big opportunity for London companies because they are part of the networks,” he says.
Wally Olins made his own predictions in Design Week’s first anniversary issue 11 years ago: “In, say, September 2012, Design Week will be producing features on the work of some of the six major design offices employing thousands of people with hundreds of partners in 60 or 70 offices worldwide.”
In pure design terms his forecast now seems a little extravagant. However, the proliferation of global communications networks and the crossover between design and other disciplines are making this come true.