Size really is important

Consultancies are already alarmed at the size of the COI’s nascent creative services roster and it’s a month from completion. Ruth Nicholas puts their concerns to its architect, Michael Reid

How many design consultancies does it take to form a roster? And at what point does a roster cease to be a roster and become a directory of design? These questions are occupying the 200-plus groups that have applied for a place on the Central Office of Information Communications creative services roster.

So far the COI has appointed 22 groups, up from the 18 of a few weeks ago, and it has at least another 100 applications to go. “Just how many more are there going to be?” questions one of the successful applicants. It is not a question the COI wants to answer.

“We never established or desired a set number,” says COI director of publications and digital media Michael Reid. “We have no intention of tying ourselves down to a set number.”

Reid bristles at the mention of specific figures. “We are not extending it willy-nilly. It is not as if one day it was 18, then it grew to 22 – it is not remotely like that. We are not at the end of the process. We received well over 200 applications and we are now looking at all enquiries in quite a lot of depth,” he says.

Reid declines to disclose how many applications the 22 appointees have been drawn from. He points out that the evaluation process is not just for design services, but it includes an editorial element. “We are not working on a quota system,” he notes. Reid dismisses dark mutterings about the £

50 administration fee the COI has charged consultancies that applied for consideration for the roster. “It can’t be helped. We pitched [the amount] right. We are not penalising the industry and we are talking about a tiny amount of money,” he comments. He is less forthcoming about why the print roster, which has just been advertised in the European Journal, does not carry an administration charge. That’s just the way it is, apparently, and Reid declines to comment on the matter.

“We are also working on the principle that while we wish to have a central core of companies we will work with, we must also must allow for quite a significant number of consultancies with expertise in specialist areas, such as young people and drugs,” Reid continues. “The Government covers a phenomenal range of subjects and segments. We deliberately set out to put together a roster that represented a comprehensive sweep across [creative services] to deal with the needs of lots of specific audiences. Until the evaluation process is complete we have no way of knowing how many consultancies will end up on the roster.”

Given the COI’s position as the procurement agency for central Government, it is not surprising that everyone wants a piece of its action, but design consultancies are concerned that the size of its roster may devalue their places on it. They accept that the roster has never been a guarantee of work and that credentials presentations would be held, but they question their roster status if it involves full-scale pitching.

Competition is no bad thing in Reid’s view and he ventures that some of the concerns expressed are perhaps from groups that are frightened of facing a bit more of it than usual.

“It should be of some reassurance for the design industry that the roster will not be restricted to a limited number and that we are opening it up very, very widely,” he comments. “It is a first-time opportunity for consultancies and individual suppliers which have never got a sniff of COI work before.”

The COI represents a Government resource rather than an obligation. Departments don’t have to use it and several operate their own rosters, such as the Home Office and the Department of Health, which is in the process of constructing one (DW 28 June). Figures are not available as to how much of the total Government design spend goes through the COI.

Reid argues that a place on its roster is of immense value to the design consultancies concerned as it is in a unique position, not only to give them access to prestigious Government projects, but to “take a tremendous amount of hassle out of dealing with Government work”.

“We know the territory well, we have worked on a wide range of Government communications activities and we can help streamline the process. The process from Government policy, to strategy, to creative brief, can be an incredibly complex and messy affair. We are in a very powerful position to help get [suppliers] through Government processes in a streamlined fashion – particularly individual suppliers,” he says. “We will have to demonstrate that we are adding value.”

There may not be a cut-off point in terms of numbers, but the “current best guess” for completing the evaluation process is the end of July. Government work that comes up for grabs through the COI between now and then will be offered to previously approved suppliers and newcomers already on the roster and about to be appointed to it.

The COI will not be releasing the names on its creative services roster when it is complete, on the grounds that it considers it to be its intellectual property. It appears to be one rule for design and another for media given that it has just published the shortlist for its strategic media planning roster.

Design consultancies will be left to ponder who is the competition and how many it numbers.

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