Profile: Nick Ramshaw

Strong organisational skills and business acumen make Nick Ramshaw a natural for the top role at the Design Business Association. Scott Billings talks to him about the relationship between creativity and profit margins

As a former chartered surveyor with a vocational degree in estates management, Nick Ramshaw’s route into the design industry is not a typical one. Nonetheless, he now runs the ‘mother-ship’ Leeds headquarters of Jonathan Sands’ branding and graphics group Elmwood and is about to take on the presidency of the Design Business Association, having been selected for the role by its chief executive Deborah Dawton and chairman Anthony Simonds-Gooding.

Despite dropping into design somewhat by chance (a friend ran a small group called Union where he began to help out), it seems that Ramshaw’s comparatively dry business grounding has proven to be something of a fillip for the creative, but sometimes flaky, world of design consultancy. ‘I’d been travelling and knew I wanted to come back and work in a more creative environment. Some friends were running this design group and I started to help out. When I got there, there were unpaid cheques, the phones were all ringing and the post hadn’t been opened. It was the real basics,’ he says.

Such a picture of a creative group lacking in business acumen and organisational skills is a recurring one/ the DBA repeatedly laments consultancies’ wincingly low profit margins in its annual member surveys. Given this, Ramshaw’s career move starts to appear beneficial for all. ‘It’s not as strange as it seems. Although chartered surveying is more akin to the legal industry than design, with a very challenging and professional management of clients, there’s more overlap than you’d think,’ he says.

After a scout around a few direct marketing and advertising agencies, Ramshaw settled in to the design industry with stints at MetaDesign and Identity, taking on strategic account director roles, as well as driving business development. A jump to Edinburgh consultancy Pure Design followed in 1999, where he grew the team from about seven to 15 people, as well as developing its digital offer. Then, four years ago, came the move to head up and build Elmwood’s Edinburgh office, with an invitation to join DBA’s board coming a year later.

Around this time, as Enterprise IG chief executive John Mathers was stepping up to the current presidency, the trade organisation was not in good shape, recalls Ramshaw. ‘John started at a difficult time, when the DBA was under pressure financially and membership was low. Much of his tenure has been about trying to get it back on track. He’s done a lot of work building regional communities and we are now financially much stronger, with events, awards and membership growth all producing a surplus,’ he says.

Ramshaw believes that his role is to ‘take on the mantle’ of the schemes set in place by Mathers and Dawton, and to push them into the next phase. For the first time, individual DBA board members will be assigned projects based on their specific skills and experience and there will be a greater focus on clients, helping them to find the correct design groups. As part of this, both clients and consultancies will be offered education and training to make the design buying process more effective and collaborative. It’s on this subject that we encounter the old industry bugbears, procurement and free-pitching.

‘Free-pitching is very often mentioned when we talk to members,’ he says. ‘And when people see the word procurement they immediately start to moan. We need to find better ways to communicate on this.’ To this end, the DBA has partnered with the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply to offer training that will leave consultancies procurement-ready. ‘It’s a bit like having sergeant stripes that they can display to clients,’ adds Ramshaw.

Another key concern is the continued push by the DBA into the regions. It’s perhaps significant that although chosen for president, Ramshaw is not based in London, but rather 300km away in west Yorkshire.

But driving the whole thing, says Ramshaw, is his desire to see creativity and effectiveness running hand in hand. It’s an objective already at the heart of the DBA Design Effectiveness Awards, which last year caused a bit of a stir when Grand Prix winner BR&Me’s Foster’s packaging was deemed visually derivative rather than innovative (although Ramshaw reckons the controversy was blown out of proportion by the press). ‘It can be a sensitive issue. People look at aesthetics and respond to that. But the awards are about effectiveness and we have to trust the judges to interpret that. When there’s something that looks aesthetically good and it really works, that’s when I start to get excited; that’s what makes me tick,’ he says. With that in mind, the top of the DBA is probably the perfect place to be.

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