Nucleus Design has always been one step ahead, it seems. It was one of the first consultancies to really tackle the new media market, it picked up strategic consulting speak early on, and it spotted and exploited opportunities in Portugal.
All this has been achieved under the helm of its founder and managing director Peter Matthews. A surprisingly corporate vision perhaps for someone who as a freelance designer created the identity for The Who.
While Nucleus may be viewed as a middle-ranking graphics outfit, it has a client list to rival many major players and aspirations to match.
“Our ambition is a big one. Within three years we want to be one of the top tier consultancies in each of our disciplines,” says Matthews. These expectations will be borne out later this month with the launch of a corporate identity for an unnamed global business.
This ambitious approach has only been made possible by some serious restructuring, a focused targeting of certain sectors, a concentration on three disciplines and a conscious shedding of existing clients who no longer fit with the consultancy’s profile.
It was four years ago that Matthews set out a long-term plan for Nucleus, and the change of direction which that involved led a number of staff to move on.
“It took 18 months to go through [the repositioning] and everyone faced up to where we were heading. We did not do it in a ruthless way, everyone got three months to make up their minds. I wanted to have a team where everyone believed in what they were doing,” he explains.
Now there is a consultant-led approach to winning business, with each of the three disciplines headed up by big hitters from topflight companies. Nick Sheaff is about to join from Siegel & Gale to take on strategic corporate identity consultancy. Tony Gawin, formerly at Microsoft, joined in February to boost the new media team, and the branding and packaging consultant position will be filled in the next month.
Much of Matthews’ approach has been client driven. “We have not been alone as a design consultancy in feeling the stark reality of aspects of design becoming more a commodity with clients being more sophisticated and less profitable. Fees are not going up but down.” Matthews saw no future in this and drew up a strategic plan “to differentiate ourselves and… to concentrate on lower volume and higher fee rate work”.
It was at this point that the Thames Ditton consultancy focused on the three disciplines of corporate identity, branding and packaging, and new media.
Nucleus also honed down its expertise to concentrate on five sectors: banking and financial services, retailing, telecommunications, technology and leisure. “That led us to look at everything about our business and prioritise clients, and we managed our way out of some client relationships.”
He predicts the consultancy will make waves first in new media (following its home shopping Internet site for Sainsbury’s and this week’s First Direct PC banking branding), second in corporate identity and third in branding and packaging.
And with this acknowledgement will come a serious shake-up within the major coveted pitch lists. “The status quo has not changed much for ten years,” bemoans Matthews. “But we will do it in a methodical disciplined way and it’s becoming easier and easier as our reputation grows.”
Nucleus considers itself unusual, not only in its relationships with clients but with its rivals. It was its sense of camaraderie which allowed it last year to help Superdrug put together its design roster, and then to appear on that roster, after creating the company’s new branding. “We are very good at working in teams and with other consultancies,” says Matthews.
Matthews set up Nucleus in 1979 straight after leaving Kingston design college and added the sister company Nucleus Consulting in 1992, in the belief that electronic media would become the important new medium.
A US consulting arm followed two years later, focusing on IT and networking based projects. “Challenges from clients require a combination of skill sets: strategic management consulting, technology consulting and design consulting,” says Matthews.
Meanwhile, he is weighing up the best way for the design consultancy to throw itself into the US market. As Nucleus is targeting clients whose headquarters are in London and New York, a North American base is a logical and necessary step.
“In the future we believe the US market will account for a great deal of our revenue, particularly in new media. The opportunities in the US are greater (than in the UK) and it is easier to sell high value consultancy there,” he says. “It’s a very expensive place to gain a profile; it is better to come up with a unique offer to sell to individual clients.”
All this activity has led a number of interested parties to approach Matthews, but he plans to stay independent. “I don’t want to be part of someone else. The next three years is a time when we can really build value, and in three years we will be worth ten times what we are now.”
The handful of top consultancies will have already come up against Nucleus on pitches, but whether their position is really threatened remains to be seen.