If you were a car, what make would you be? The age-old question asked by marketers positioning design groups was fuelled by a massive amount of movement in design last year. With so many takeovers and mergers of UK groups, often involving top global players, some traded in their image as, say, a Ford Sierra to join a Rolls Royce stable such as Interbrand or WPP.
Then there were the high-powered start-ups such as Williams Murray Banks that accelerated straight into the fast lane in terms of influence and client-base, if not in physical power. They’re at the starting line in this year’s listings, but we can expect to see them really revving up next year. And we’ll probably find them in the 1999 charts ranked alongside the new breed of small, strategically driven agencies such as Circus and Millennium Projects Consortium that seek to overarch design and other creative disciplines.
For the third year running, we’ve ranked groups in our consultancy survey by income from design fees, rather than by the size of their design teams. Again, the main Top 100 chart is based on fee-income earned by UK offices, regardless of where the client is based.
It’s about being able to compare like with like. But, given the increasingly global nature of the design business and number of big conglomerates entering the UK race, we’ve added a Top 20 global listing. This global ranking is based on design fee-income derived from offices outside the UK.
We’ve aimed to include all design’s big players in both the Top 100 and global listings this year. These groups are vital to the future of the design business, setting the scene on the global stage and wielding influence that will benefit the smaller, more specialist players. If design has a good reputation, there should be more work and designers are more likely to be treated as professional consultants rather than just as suppliers.
But still not everyone can comply. The notable exception is Landor Associates. It was omitted from the 1997 Top 100 because its accounting system did not allow it to separate figures for its London and Continental operations. Now the impending stock market flotation of its parent group Young and Rubicam has prevented it from publishing 1997 figures.
But others, such as Imagination, whose cross-disciplinary approach made it impossible to comply with our requirements last year, are back in the charts. We appreciate their efforts.
The other main shift this year is to list the Top 20 groups by discipline, rather than the ten we gave last year. The ranking is again based on design fee-income, but it allows many groups that fall outside the Top 100 to make a show.
We recognise that for many consultancies big business is an alien world. Design has a role to play there, but equally important to the industry are the smaller, specialist groups. They often set the creative standards – a trend likely to show in a new survey based on quality of creative output we will publish in June.
Indeed, in some areas of design – notably product design and multimedia – it is often the smaller team that makes the mark and is recognised by Government and others as a great ambassador for UK design. Only 14 of the Top 100 consultancies this year claim expertise in product design, for example, and for many of those it is manifested as structural packaging.
Some smaller groups have dropped out of our trawl since we opted not to publish data of all entrants. We maintain that focusing on industry leaders is the best way to project the design business, but smaller groups can feature in specialist discipline listings or the efficiency tables. It depends on how well they run their businesses, rather than their physical strength.
The refinements we’ve introduced serve to reinforce Design Week’s Consultancy Survey as a respected and reliable source of information on the UK business, at home and in the context of the global industry. It is regarded as such by Government, clients, the media and others interested in the business of design.
To give an accurate picture, we strive, with the help of independent management consultant Ian Cochrane of Ticegroup, to ensure all the key players are included and check any questionable data. But we rely to a large extent on the honesty and integrity of participants who filled in the survey questionnaire.
We base the listings on groups that conform to our definition of design. That encompasses graphics, branding, identity, interiors, exhibition work, product design and multimedia. It does not include architecture per se, and we’ve tried to eliminate businesses whose main thrust is not design, such as print shops, production houses, shopfitters and project managers.
A position in the charts does not reflect creativity or quality of service. But if a consultancy does well consistently, there has to be some merit in its work. Clients don’t continue to back racers known to crash at the first bend.