Higher influence can result in higher fees

If there’s one thing that separates advertising and design, it’s fees. Even when design groups win a bit of advertising work – as a few do, particularly for print ads – they just don’t seem able to command the same fees as ad agencies (see Fee Survey, page 13).

It has a lot to do with tradition and the way ad agencies tend to operate, compared to design groups. They are used to winning accounts and holding on to them for years, whereas it’s more hit and miss for designers, with long-term rosters a relatively new thing. There is more money at stake in advertising than in design and agency bosses can reasonably aspire to having the chairman’s ear.

This is not so for design groups, which often don’t even get close to the marketing director, let alone the more influential members of the board. And yet some of the best design work comes from a close relationship between design group and the boss of a company – usually a small company – where patronage is the issue, not standard practice. Take The Partners’ award-winning work for toilet stall manufacturer Thrislington Cubicles – an unlikely subject treated with consistent wit. When, as is more often the case for design groups, the contact is a lowly brand manager, the creative leap is not so great.

It is galling not to have the confidence of the client to break the mould and do great, original work. It’s insulting to be given the work, but not paid the going rate just because you sit on the design side of the creative fence. But, while designers grumble among themselves about this sorry state of affairs, few seem prepared to challenge it.

The design community is generally too polite to push the issue of fees. The industry bodies, meanwhile, rarely give worthwhile guidance, hiding instead behind the laws on fair trading which prevent anyone – including Design Week – from publishing fee scales.

But fees are actually a bit of a red herring. Money isn’t the only issue. It’s more to do with influence, and as the top design groups increasingly vie with ad agencies and even management consultants to win strategic work, the prime question for clients has to be which is best equipped to deliver the service.

Design is well placed to take the lead, if only we could build confidence in the industry’s talents, within the industry and among clients. The focus on problem-solving, creative intelligence and customers’ needs, coupled with the ability to deliver the goods, sets it apart from the rest.

Design could have a seat at the top table where it belongs. Let’s work on ways to do it. Any ideas?

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