If anything sums up the changing climate for design it is the shock demise this week of digital network Deepgroup, and with it high-profile digital design consultancy Deepend.
Not that long ago Deepend was deemed a hot prospect for takeover by a bigger marketing services conglomerate. It ranked in people’s minds alongside identity giant Wolff Olins and events specialist Imagination as among the last great UK-based independents. But, having avoided speculation about potential mergers and having up to now survived the worst ravages of the dotcoms crash, Deepend is gone, along with the other Deepgroup offshoots.
Deepgroup’s management was seeking an investor to bail it out until the end. Obviously, that trawl didn’t yield anything in time and 180 jobs are lost worldwide. It is easy to criticise under the circumstances, and critics will no doubt focus on Deepgroup’s rapid global expansion over the past three years, saying it was too much too soon for an independent.
But was it so wrong? It’s like saying that Fitch was wrong to buy the former Kings Cross London headquarters that took it to the brink of receivership in 1992, before Terence Conran and Paris agency Brand Trust stepped in as investors. It was a good idea at the time of buying, when no one could have predicted property would so quickly become a bad investment. Deepgroup went global at a time when that was deemed to be the best way to expand and digital design was booming.
It is tragic that Deepgroup has failed, not least because it set up a new model for design consultancies. Gary Lockton and Simon Waterfall, who along with David ‘Gravy’ Streek founded Deepend in 1994, are outstanding characters who’ve given to industry in an unprecedented way for a newish business. They managed to blend size with creativity, and, committed to hiring and retaining full-time staff across a range of disciplines in a world where freelance contracts abound, they fostered talent in an exemplary way. A visit to the studio was always stimulating.
We will see more of Lockton, Waterfall and Gravy. Though still in their early 30s, the product design-trained trio have shown tremendous entrepreneurial skills. They are committed to design, having created websites for most of its key players and spoken out for design at conferences and in the media. We hope that they and the staff who helped them build world-class status in such a short time soon find new outlets for their incredible talents. Meanwhile, our thoughts are with them.
The tragic thing for design is that maintaining fierce independence and trying a different way hasn’t paid off for Deepend and Deepgroup – for now.