There’s no need to rush into marriage

As the traditional distinctions between design, advertising and management consultancy continue to blur, clients are demanding that consultancies manage increasingly broad chunks of their marketing strategies.

Richard Watson, partner of client services agency GDR, says it’s now common for packaging design consultancies to work alongside ad agencies, for example.

Design consultancies can broaden their offering through mergers, acquisitions, expansion and alliances. Ian Cochrane, chairman of strategic management consultancy Ticegroup, says consultancies forming cross-sector alliances are best placed to claim the new ground.

“I’m a great believer in alliances as opposed to mergers and acquisitions, which are cemented in stone and are often more to do with management’s egos than the interest of the client,” he says. Cochrane has managed a whole range of strategic relationships in the design industry.

He believes alliances are more successful because they bring teams together for specific projects and are therefore driven by the interests of the client. The relationship can be informal, with groups getting together for the odd project requiring the others’ capability, or can be a more official arrangement.

This might comprise a branded network, with a name, corporate brochure and its own staff. Either way, the system is far more flexible than a merger. And if it ceases to work or things turn sour, it can be dissolved with relative ease.

Alliances in the design industry are nothing new. In 1989, industrial design group Jones Garrard teamed up with graphics consultancy Roundel Design, interiors group Tilney Lumsden Shane and engineering group RFS to form the Transport Design Consortium (DW 4 August 1989). The consortium pitched for integrated transport projects and operated alongside the consultancies’ individual projects. It has not worked together since 1992, although it has not officially disbanded.

Siebert Head and Elmwood have also set up multinational networks – International Global Brand Services Network and Totem respectively – to give them a global design offering.

But recent alliances have been driven by a desire to offer clients a more comprehensive consultancy service, rather than to increase global reach or broaden design capability.

“Clients’ drive to create an overall strategic look is heralding a new era. The way forward is to offer clients tailored solutions,” says Joe Tibbetts, creative director of marketing communications and business development consultancy Abet CMC.

Tibbetts’ group is part of The Millennium Projects Consortium, launched earlier this year to service clients wanting to celebrate the millennium (DW 9 January). It comprises Abet CMC, graphics group Dew Gibbons and exhibition design specialist Association of Ideas.

The consultancies retain their separate identities and clients but will work together, in various combinations, when appropriate projects arise. They also have an outer ring of associates who can provide expertise in certain areas.

The consortium is owned by the six principals of the three member groups and the administration is shared between the groups’ existing staff – the media is one of Tibbetts’ responsibilities. Whichever consultancy initiates the project owns it and invites the consortium members it judges appropriate to participate. A percentage of the fee goes into the consortium’s coffers and the rest is allocated according to input. The consultancy that wins the business does not get a bonus.

The recently formed consultancy Circus has taken the procedure a step further, acting as a facilitator of short-term alliances. Circus comprises members from marketing, design, communications and advertising and puts together teams of consultancies for each project it wins.

“Our structure makes concrete what is happening in the industry around us. It is the industry shape for the future,” says Circus associate David Prideaux.

Wickens Tutt Southgate has operated a similar service for around a year using its “brand soul” model to evaluate a client’s brand and putting together a team to work on it.

WTS creative director Mark Wickens says around a third (and growing) of his clients use the brand soul service. He has brought together people and groups specialising in advertising, event marketing, public relations, product design and interactive media. Wickens is also convinced this is the model of the future.

While the arguments for forming an alliance appear strong, success is by no means guaranteed. GDR’s Watson says people should be wary of any business arrangement involving personalities.

“Alliances are fine as long as there is clear leadership. But they can be a recipe for disaster if people do not know what they are doing and if egos become a problem,” he says. Consultancies looking to form an alliance must think carefully about exactly what they want to achieve and who they are dealing with.

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