TOP 100

With results rattled by the recession, there’s been an unprecedented reluctance to enter our survey this year – but groups will flock back as soon as their fortunes are restored, argues Lynda Relph-Knight

It has been the toughest year in the history of Design Week’s Top 100 Consultancy Survey. Just about everyone in design has felt the economic effect of the recession in terms of workload and fees, with the knock-on effect of full-time teams reduced in many groups and a raft of high-profile breakaways and start-ups.

A less expected outcome has been the reticence of some consultancies to take part in the Top 100 trawl this year. The argument put by most of these is that they have had a bad year, seemingly unaware that it hasn’t been easy for anyone in the creative industries, let alone in design, and that most consultancies’ figures reflect the downturn.

We hope to see them back in a blaze of glory next year when their fortunes are hopefully restored. Some non-entrants have offered more valid reasons for not taking part in the 2010 survey. Lloyd Northover says it has disposed of its architectural interests so year-on-year comparisons are difficult – though its Media Square stablemate Holmes & Marchant has submitted data.

Household Design too is changing its accounting framework. Dragon Rouge, broadcast giant Red Bee Media and Whitezone are, meanwhile, part of bigger international groups so couldn’t enter this year. Others, including Venture Three and Syzygy, take the myopic view that an appearance in the Top 100 charts isn’t important to their business.

Venture Three goes as far as to say that it wants to be seen as a creative group rather than assessed on its financial performance. We’ll have to see how it fares in our Creative Survey later in the year. There have though been a significant number of new entrants this year – 19 in total – and not just at the lower end of the charts, as the fee rate that qualifies groups for a position drops way below the £1m base rate in the 2009 trawl.

Top of these is digital supergroup AKQA, which reentered the survey this year after an absence, with fees starting to rival all-time chart-topper imagination. This says much for the strength of digital design, regardless of the recession, though groups such as Conchango and Syzygy are missing this year.

Digital has become a major force across all areas of design. It is no more about websites these days than print is purely about brochures, and it has huge potential for expansion with the emergence of apps and the iPad on the one hand and the growth in experiential design on the other.

It isn’t fully represented in the Top 100 charts, where it is more often part of a consultancy’s multidisciplinary offer than its main specialism, but we are seeking to remedy this with a dedicated listing in the Interaction Design supplement, to be published in September. We are also broadening the interaction categories of the 2011 Design Week Awards to include games, installations and apps (see www.designweek.co.uk/awards for details).

Once more, the Top 100 listing comprises mainly independent groups as those owned by marketing services conglomerates such as WPP, Omnicom, Havas and Interpublic Group are prevented by law from publishing anything but fully audited figures. The results posted by those groups for 2008 are featured on pages 53-55.

But the upside of this is that we see more non-London groups featuring in the charts at a time when the regions are one of the success stories for design. Within the top 20, Checkland Kindleysides, DCA Design International, 1HQ, Elmwood and Blue Marlin all have headquarters outside London, while lower down the charts we see the likes of Reach and Alloy making the grade. Long may this continue.

Nor is it all doom and gloom. Some groups are cautious about recovery, having been dealt a heavy blow by recession and, when they entered, with the uncertainty of a new Government. That uncertainty has lifted now, with the coalition Government, though the future is not yet assured. But it is worth remembering that the figures presented here are for the 12 months to last December.

For many the tide has turned since then. Check out the bullish projections of many Top 100 contenders. Therein lies the next chapter.

How we did it

The data presented in all the charts derives from a questionnaire published on Design Week’s website, www.designweek.co.uk, from January onwards and highlighted in print and online. All readers and site visitors were invited to take part and submit figures for the 12 months from January to December 2009. All figures have been verified by an independent auditor’s statement submitted by the group and signed off by a director.

The bulk of the Top 100 comprises independent groups. Consultancies owned by global marketing services groups like WPP, Omnicom, Havas and Interpublic Group are unable to present figures that haven’t undergone a full audit, under the terms of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in the US. They are therefore ranked separately in charts based mainly on 2008 figures registered in Companies House. The Top 100 is based on design fees billed through consultancies’ UK offices. These don’t include income from print handling, property, shopfitting and the like, which is covered by turnover. The ranking takes no account of physical size, which features in the staffing tables, nor does a place in the chart reflect creativity. Groups are also ranked by market share and specialism following the same principles.

There have been fewer entrants into the trawl this year, which puts the baseline for inclusion at £347 000 in fee-income, compared with £1m last year. The data has been analysed by accountant Amanda Merron at Kingston Smith W1, which also compiled the charts of groups owned by global networks from submissions to Companies House.

View the Top 100 Consultancy Survey

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