Special relationship

Alliances between PR companies and design groups produce co-ordinated campaigns that can strengthen the client’s image.

There is a corner of the design industry which has the ear of some of the most covetable FTSE 100 companies, but it has such a low profile that it is largely ignored by the outside world. These groups are consistently well placed in business surveys, but are still poorly perceived. Not every group in this niche suffers like this, but issues of self-perception are familiar to all of them.

These consultancies are each part of a bigger, stronger, richer animal – the corporate communications group. Fishburn Hedges, Citigate Lloyd Northover, Marsteller (formerly Marsteller Giant), Merchant, AMD Brand Evolution (formerly Smithfieldesign) and College Design are in this niche, with varying remits and with varying success. But why do PR outfits like Chime Communications, Brunswick and Burson Marsteller see the need for a design capability and how do the two disciplines get along?

It is easy to imagine how design could be seen as the poor relation in a multi-million pound organisation. According to Marketing magazine’s latest PR Agency survey, Bell Pottinger Communications – the subsidiary of Chime which includes AMD – posted a fee-income in 1998 of more than £34m. Citigate Dewe Rogerson’s fee-income for the same period was just over £30m. Design fee-income contributes only a fraction of this, so those on the design side must have their work cut out fending off the poor relation image.

This fee-income is derived from long-term relationships with major clients. Fishburn Hedges works for Microsoft and Xerox; College Hill clients include Coca-Cola and Lloyds of London; Friends and William Asprey Esq are AMD clients. It is the PR agencies which tend to bring the clients in, and the design groups which may then get their hands on an annual report, literature project or corporate identity. The referrals never go the other way round, it seems.

But all these PR companies have actively added design to their portfolio, either by growing their own or buying up an existing consultancy. It is all about offering an integrated approach to communications. This often means finding design groups and PR consultants on the same pitch list, a joining of cultures which a pure design group would never have to manage.

Paul Owen, managing director at College Design, says College Hill’s integrated approach is a “big advantage for clients, as they haven’t got two separate groups that they have to bring together. College Hill is about what companies say, College Design is about how they look, which is why they fit together so well.”

Chris North at Fishburn Hedges expands on the benefits a more broad-minded approach can have for clients: “If you go to a pure design consultancy with a brief to do a brochure, the designers will start thinking [in terms of] pure visual material. But we will ask why, what are you going to use it for, what’s your positioning, what’s your communications plan,” he says.

Marsteller’s Mark Rollinson echoes this: “The merger [with Giant] allowed Burson Marsteller to offer its clients truly integrated communications solutions which would be a seamless blend of PR, design and advertising.

“This allows Marsteller to approach every project from a neutral perspective, which we believe few competitors can match,” he says.

“We work closely with brand strategists from around the group to ensure we offer the best strategic advice, as well as the best creative solutions,” says AMD managing director Lin Roworth-Stokes.

However, Julie Giddens has seen it working both ways. She has worked in the design departments of Fishburn Hedges and PR group Valin Pollen, and was part of the buyout team of Grandfield’s design arm in 1997. “Clients quite often take the view that they want to employ a series of niche specialists and recoil from the one-stop-shop Wash’n’Go approach, feeling that they don’t do either job as effectively as two separate products,” says Giddens.

And integration of offers means integration of disciplines – no mean feat when they are the unlikely bedfellows of design and corporate PR. College Design creative director Guy Lane sees his role as bridging that gap. “They think I’m the resident comedian,” he says of the PR consultants. North at Fishburn Hedges admits it can be hard to find good people who will fit into this environment, and “be comfortable as part of a multidisciplinary team”.

A truly integrated approach is surely hard to maintain, when the balance of staff numbers and income so often swings in favour of PR, but it goes some way to improving the design © arm’s credibility. For Merchant managing director Robert Moser, a lot depends on whether the relationship is one of father-child or brother-sister. “We share a common vision [with Brunswick] which is to do with absolute integrity of advice and effectiveness of communication,” he says. “We are chasing the same thing but using a different set of tools.”

To achieve this integration, College Hill, Brunswick, Lowe Bell, Fishburn Hedges and Citigate grew their own design capabilities. Interestingly, only Lowe Bell (with Smithfieldesign) and Brunswick branded their design offers separately. Merchant, set up by Catherine Samy in 1987, is slightly different from its peers, managing projects in-house while design work is farmed out to an outside consultancy.

At Fishburn Hedges, the PR and design businesses were founded in tandem in 1991 and the design side is a strong brand in its own right. “We have constantly looked at branding separately, but because it interacts holistically, we have shied away from separate branding,” says North. College Design was set up in 1992 by creative director Guy Lane. “Alex Sandberg [founder of College Hill] saw an opportunity to give clients corporate advice on what they say, so it was natural to look at how they present themselves in terms of design,” says Owen.

However, other companies have preferred to buy in a recognised brand. Citigate Design, which was heavily focused on literature, was subsumed into Lloyd Northover when the latter was bought in 1994. The reason for buying the branding consultancy was to increase client contact. “You don’t get big client relationships from annual reports,” says Citigate Lloyd Northover managing director Stuart Miller. Since then, Dewe Rogerson’s design arm has been merged into CLN with the acquisition of its parent company by Citigate. PR giant Burson Marsteller bought Giant in 1996 “to reinvigorate its offer in the UK, which had historically been focused on business-to-business advertising”, says Rollinson.

No designer would sniff at the chance to take advantage of the sort of client access offered by successful PR businesses – the “cross-selling opportunities”, as Roworth-Stokes says. “Brunswick has a fantastic brand. It’s amazingly useful to be able to pick up the phone,” says Moser at Merchant. It was AMV which introduced Fishburn Hedges to its BT accounts.

These introductions will also be at a higher level than a lone design group would often hope to imagine. “Brunswick is advising at director level so we are brought in at that level,” says Moser. “We are dealing with the people who are shaping the company and that’s a very privileged position to be in.”

Once the client has been won, Owen says the bond has the potential to last: “We generally have longer relationships with annual report clients, because of College Hill’s relationship with its clients.” Two of Fishburn Hedge’s original clients are still with the group – British Steel and British Gas, albeit in their new guises.

But getting the introduction does not necessarily get you out of pitching. “It’s still competitive and we are still pitching for the work,” says Owen. Moser has had the same experience: “Brunswick cannot be seen to favour Merchant, and frequently we will have to pitch.”

On the other hand, too many referrals could actually damage the design arm’s own brand. Most PR-owned consultancies want to increase the amount of non-referral work.

Currently, Burson Marsteller clients account for about 50 per cent of Marsteller’s revenues, says Rollinson. “This is falling as we establish more relationships with clients of Burson Marsteller, Y&R Group companies and long term links with our new colleagues in WPP.”

Moser wants both: more referrals from Brunswick, but also more of Merchant’s own clients, in order to “build an independent brand. One of the first [non-Brunswick] ones was the BBC annual report. Then the PR agency realised that Merchant is a respected brand and it has had a snowball effect”.

A strong PR name should not just bring introductions, but also allow the designers to approach other potential clients. To be able to say you are part of a massive organisation rather than a 15-strong design studio is bound to open more doors at a higher level.

Once you are through the door, are there any restrictions on creativity? Not according to Miller at CLN: “The way that you make more money is you let people get on with it.” But Rollinson admits: “It’s difficult to maintain our own integrity as a creative agency with a separate identity, while still being a powerful ally to our much larger PR parent.”

Fishburn Hedges sees it as an issue of perception, and recently brought in Carl Eisen as creative director with the remit of raising the level of creativity.

While most of these groups aren’t known for ground-breaking design, perhaps that is the fault of the clients, not the parent group. This was not always Giddens’ experience. “The work can be creatively limiting by the very nature of it, but also by the fact that the ‘suits’ on the consultancy side can be even more conservative in their vetting of the work prior to a presentation than the client is during it,” she says.

The combination of a weak reputation for creativity and a corporate environment has a knock-on effect when it comes to recruitment: “It’s quite hard to recruit good designers because they are turned off by the corporate and perceived non-creative culture,” says Giddens. AMD has recently brought in Lee Smith as its new creative director to expand the company. “And our graduate recruitment programme helps us attract the best new talent,” says Roworth-Stokes.

If these design departments lack creativity, they are awash with resources – whether that is corporate expertise, or the funds to grow the business. “We have the financial resources to make our vision a reality,” says Rollinson. And financially healthy parents means chunky remuneration. “As a designer,” says Giddens, “you are usually paid well over the odds compared to your peers in the design mainstream,” with a raft of perks on offer including pensions, shares and bonuses. Of course, the downside is you may find yourself priced out of the market.

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