Blasting Sands

Like the proverbial policemen, those taking the top posts in the design industry seem to be getting younger. – Jonathan Sands begins his two-year stint as chairman of the Design Business Association this week at the age of 34.

Like the proverbial policemen, those taking the top posts in the design industry seem to be getting younger.

Jonathan Sands begins his two-year stint as chairman of the Design Business Association this week at the age of 34. While that doesn’t eclipse the Design Council’s appointment of the 29-year-old Sean Blair as design director, Sands’ relative youth gives his ascension to the DBA throne that same edge of expectancy. His youthful energy will make things happen, won’t it?

Youth is, of course, no match for experience. Sands cites the experience of such DBA board members as Colin Porter, Chris Thompson, John Harvey and Dick Powell as a great comfort to him as he approaches the DBA chairmanship, self-admittedly “absolutely terrified”.

To suggest that Sands is short on experience would be a mistake, however. Now synonymous with his role as managing director at the Leeds consultancy Elmwood, Sands only got into the design industry 12 years ago when he went to Elmwood as an account handler. He thought that he would stay “for a couple of years” and then head back to the Manchester ad-land from whence he came.

Sands had gone into advertising at the age of 18 after completing a course in business studies at Stockport College. Before that, he was “born and bred” (as they say in those parts) in the spa town of Buxton, Derbyshire.

Anyone who knows Buxton will tell you that its people are a breed apart. Sands calls Buxton “the land that time forgot”. But it’s an entrepreneurial town (it produced Dave Lee Travis, for goodness sake) and given a father who ran his own small business it’s not hard to see how Sands became a business success.

After becoming Elmwood’s managing director at 24, Sands led a management buy-out from its mostly indifferent parent, the Charles Walls ad agency. The rest – including a trebling in turnover and a doubling in staff – is history.

But the drive which took Sands from office junior at 18 to managing director at 24 is not something that everyone born in Buxton is blessed with. His desire to succeed, and more crucially, not to fail, is tangible. Fear of failure openly fuels his life. It is that drive which the DBA can harness to give it forward momentum. He sees his main target as the challenge of increasing the DBA membership to an all time high before the two years are up. That works out as increasing numbers from the 200-plus at present to more than 330. Roughly, that’s one new consultancy joining each week.

Quite simply, Sands understands that more members equals more services equals more members, and so on. It’s how to start that ball rolling which is key.

First off, Sands is enthusiastic about the DBA’s new all colour directory. One will go to each of the Government’s Business Links advice centres, and one to each of the UK’s top 1000 companies. Sands reckons that 50 consultancies are joining the DBA thanks to the new-look directory. Sands describes it as a 15 000 gamble. If it hadn’t worked, the DBA would have lost a hefty stake. That he is prepared to risk some of the 76 000 that the DBA has stashed in the bank makes Sands compelling viewing.

“The brave decision is to dip into the bank and spend. I’m always accused of using football analogies,” he says – which is true – “but I feel like a new manager of a team with some money to spend. It does require some bottle.”

Hearing all of that posed the question of whether he saw the common view of the DBA chairmanship purely as a figure-head as being somewhat outdated. He’s been planning for a year, re-organising Elmwood to allow himself the “luxury” of spending two days a week hands-on at the DBA.

“I spoke to David Pocknell and John Sorrell about this,” says Sands. “Sorrell made sure that he could go away and do what he is doing at the Design Council without the business [Newell & Sorrell] suffering. Elmwood still pays my salary, so that comes first, but I passionately believe in the DBA. If you take on such a mantle you have to put the effort in.”

It was Sorrell who first asked Sands to get involved in the DBA in 1988. Sorrell wanted a rounded board for his reign. Then 28 and the youngest DBA director, Sands saw himself as “the regional one”. His early experiences of the DBA included the joys of “that horrible word” networking. Projects, staff and the like are all there to be had, ideally. But the networking card is one that Sands sees as a real benefit.

Consultancies who pay their fee, join the DBA and then sit back and moan about what they are not getting for their money are just not getting “stuck in” enough, he suggests.

“I want to make being a member of the DBA so valuable that the membership fee is seen as minimal,” he says. “One of the things the DBA has never really done is vigorously promote itself to clients. If we are really going to do something about speculative pitching… we have to educate clients and that will be an increasing focus of our activities.”

The DBA’s involvement with the Department of Trade and Industry’s export initiatives, most notably through the North America Now drive, is cited as an example of how hard the DBA and its board members have been slogging away: “We have brow-beaten them to a degree.”

So what skills other than the ability to brow-beat civil servants will Sands bring to his new role? “Commitment and time,” he says, before following up with something more revealing: “I’m not a John Sorrell or a Ken Grange. I don’t think there are many people I admire more than John Sorrell. I wish I could be like him.”

He continues: “I’m passionate about the industry, but I’m no designer.” Does it bother him? “Yes, it bothers me not being a designer among all those designers. The DBA’s board is full of bloody good designers. The skills I bring are different. I can manage others. I feel I do that quite well.”

Sands holds his forearm at the angle of an acute accent and says the fact that he managed Elmwood through the recession on such a slope of growth should bode well for the DBA. “I can offer hard work. And northern grit. I like to make sure that things get done. I’m very proud and pride will not let me fail. It frightens me witless to take over from peers like Ken and John, this northern oik who isn’t a designer.”

Talking of things northern, Sands is keen to expand the regional content of DBA activities. He wants to use the experience of the Andrew Hunter-led DBA Scotland Best Practice Initiative. An extension of the voluntary ban on speculative pitching to consultancies south of the border is a Sands aim. Another, somewhat controversial aim, is to limit “more and more” DBA initiatives to DBA members. “Why should DBA fees subsidise non-members?” asks Sands. “In the longer term, the Design Effectiveness Awards should be purely for members. I would like to see North America Now restricted to members.” The DTI might have something to say about that.

An industrial tribunal in May this year almost certainly had something to say about the DBA’s actions in making its projects manager Morag Russell’s post redundant last year. Russell’s claim for unfair dismissal was settled behind closed doors, but undoubtedly in her financial favour. Asked what he feels about the incident, Sands used the word “sad” at least a dozen times. “It was sad for the DBA and sad for Morag. I’m sorry she felt let down by the DBA but it is never as black and white as that. We came out of it looking like a bad employer and I don’t think we are. Sometimes the right thing to do is the tough thing. If that’s what it takes to take the DBA forward, that’s what it takes.”

So how would Sands like to be remembered once his two years are up? “A lot of people in the industry don’t know me yet. I hope the actions I deliver will be all the proof I need.”

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