Hanging on to clients is a key to success

Our Top 100 trawl confirms that last year not only felt good for design groups enjoying bigger workloads, financial performance was on a roll as well.

With fees up 24 per cent for consultancies ranked in the Top 100 and staff members 22 per cent higher than in 1999, 2000 marked a turning point for many design businesses, not least because so many changed their names through merger, acquisition or repositioning. All this activity should have left the industry stronger in management terms, with new role models among the bigger players for small groups to copy.

The moves couldn’t have been better timed, given the downturn some client sectors are experiencing. We’ve seen a shake-up in supermarket own-brand work and the impact of dotcoms failures on digital megagroups such as Razorfish and Icon Medialab, which are among those to have made redundancies this year. Telecoms is now in decline – despite rebranding programmes by both BT and its mobile subsidiary Cellnet (see News, page 3) – and evidence that others are competing through design, and we have yet to measure the effect the foot and mouth crisis will have on UK tourism and the economy in general.

Whatever the outcome, there will be design work to be done, though competition will be high in some sectors. Regardless of the dotcom downturn, for example, there is still a healthy demand for website design.

A key to success is to hang on to clients beyond the immediate project. Wise groups have already moved to broaden their appeal, mixing in new areas of expertise, particularly in digital media, and extending their offer. Big players such as Enterprise IG and FutureBrand are leading the way here, but others are also doing their bit.

Clients, meanwhile, are showing new interest in rosters, particularly, albeit controversially, in the public sector. But are rosters enough of a commitment for consultancies faced, as ever, with a rollercoaster ride of peaks and troughs? Why can’t design groups be retained – and paid – as are ad agencies, rather than just contracted on a project basis?

The inbalance is obvious to design groups set within global marketing services networks, and several have managed to negotiate true “consultancy” deals with clients, regardless of any visual output. Perhaps the Design Business Association and other representative bodies should draw on these examples, listen to ad agency arguments and challenge clients to put design on a different footing. The DBA Design Effectiveness Awards have proved over time that good design pays on a project basis. Now it’s time to make the bigger case for creativity.

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