Climate changes on the other side of the pond

It’s said when America sneezes the UK catches a cold. Will Travis assesses the health of the US design scene and what it might mean for UK consultancies

There are many lessons the UK design industry can learn from the way the US has coped with the worldwide economic downturn: the first being that it hasn’t coped very well at all.

As a Brit abroad, dealing with the massive surge of patriotism here has been extremely challenging. Only two months after 11 September 2001, when the economy forced us to reduce the size of our US teams, one executive seriously suggested we should send all non-Americans home. The tone of business culture changed overnight from being receptive to almost any entrepreneurial idea to being distrustful of every new proposal.

Some time earlier, the dotcom crash also affected mindsets. In San Francisco in 2000, the average age of the restaurant-goer was 24. Now, it’s back to 42, which was the 1995 average.

The paper millionaires that were being made every ten minutes have had a good slap across the chops. We have an abundance of available employees who think they ‘know how’, but come from an era where everything had an exuberant value. You have to spend twice as long sifting out the ‘think they knows’ from the ‘know they knows’ – a frustrating and often costly exercise that continues to be mirrored in the UK.

For clients, brand longevity has become far more important. Brand giants have slashed their vendor lists (or rosters, in UK English) to refine loyalty and invest both money and time educating those that remain. Professional learning curves have become acceptable once again.

Saying this though, the ease of then joining a client as its brand guardian takes you through a far more rigorous process of assessment and true-fit calculations. It took ten months to convince a recent client we were right for its project, where 20 months ago corporates were fighting to find any available consultancies to service their accounts.

Brands are reassessing their fat sub-brand portfolios and cutting those that don’t complement the mothership. This leaves consultancies on rocky ground when servicing certain clients under a major holding company. But the move from complacent single-service consultancies to a multidisciplinary roster of smarter, more aligned teams makes design pivotal to brand strategy in two ways.

First, designers have become more strategy-savvy – at last using commercial common sense in their design solutions rather than just the old gut-hunger to create. Consultancies have learnt, through employing more ‘right side brain’ strategists, to build a bridge between creative solutions and client needs.

Second, clients are briefing design groups to lead on strategy because of their passion for the brand, rather than just internal processes and functionality. Clients believe designers’ passion gives them the freedom to bring in other resources to express the brand, which will improve their brand longevity. As the Americans say, you have to create a love for the client’s brand rather than just a like for it.

Many notable trends have evolved over the past 12 months of market realignment, mainly due to the influences of economic pressure and the hunger for personal freedom.

As team sizes have had to come down (due to smaller client budgets), so the number of specialists in each division has shrunk. This has made individual talent far more accountable as an hourly billable resource and individuals’ ability to manage relationships has become crucial. Consultancies that are down to under ten people have had to reshuffle their employees from specialists to multi-taskers to survive. Closer-knit teams have resulted, but also higher tension and a flood of extremely talented freelances into the marketplace.

From this freelance pool, we now see more fragmented operations, with fulland part-time specialists dotted all over the country, who are called upon when the need arises. Clients are fully aware of this through multi-party conference calls and have accepted it with open arms.

All in all, this should increase the UK’s confidence in multi-talent collaboration, the positive impact it will have on your clients and the freedom it will give your consultancy to service clients outside your present target radius.

As for opportunities in the US, just 12 months ago, the market seemed awash with Brits and now it feels like everyone’s gone home. But there is still real business to be done here if you are good enough and have the right attitude. Remember though, the US has been bombarded by a ‘British’ design sensibility over the past five years. Americans are becoming a little bored with the cocky, Puma-dressed, ‘it’s cool coz I speak funny’ approach.

If you’re looking to win business in the US by offering creative design solutions, you’ve got to be prepared to live it out, ride the tough times and offer a premium service that you’re truly passionate about. But then you shouldn’t be in the business if you don’t do this anyway.

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