Do all creative things come in small parcels?

Design consultancies will always argue whether big is best or small is beautiful. Richard Clayton introduces four points of view on the great debate

Ever since David took on Goliath, it’s been the contest that everyone would pay to see. And even if you haven’t bought a ticket for the latest round, you’re bound to have a point of view.

The plucky little guy may have won the biblical match-up, but the giants of the design and branding world aren’t about to be so much of a pushover.

A debate organised by the Packaging Solutions Advice Group tomorrow (Thursday) will see FutureBrand chief executive Charles Trevail and Interbrand strategic director Graham Hales rebut a motion, supported by Atelier Works founder Quentin Newark and Dew Gibbons director Steve Gibbons, that ‘Creative value comes in small packages’.

On closer inspection, battle-lines are not quite so clear-cut. While Trevail has long been an advocate of ‘big is best’, which doesn’t necessarily imply creative working goes out the window. Hales admits Interbrand’s project teams are relatively small. And Newark and Gibbons both acknowledge the need to collaborate is natural law for smaller

consultancies. No one is denying that a global reach doesn’t come in handy sometimes.

Perhaps the real issue is around whether creativity is sacrificed in any sense on the altar of capacity. Does bigger mean blander? Maybe.

Although, as Trevail implied in his introduction to The Top 100 survey (DW 29 May), client attitudes are often less precious.

Against the motion

Graham Hales

‘Creativity isn’t about size. It’s about talent, it’s about opportunity and it’s about determination. Creativity’s fostered, not sold by the kilo. The premise that small [is] beautiful is quite simply prejudice [against] the businesses that have seized the opportunity to grow.

‘At Interbrand, we work in small teams that add up to a big team. Small teams allow us to be fully immersed and dedicated to our tasks. The big company team gives us the scale and gravitas to break through hurdles and ensure we really make ideas come to life inside our clients’ organisations.

‘We can do anything, anywhere in the world. We have a collective experience that spans markets, geographies and cultures. We have huge diversity among our people. We’ve got pioneers, thinkers, oddballs, lunatics and dreamers.

‘But, above all, everyone’s a believer; believers who combine to have great ideas that push briefs to their fullest opportunities. Sometimes these ideas are lauded as creative, but we think it’s more important they’re right, because when a great idea is right it will add value to our clients’ brands.’

Charles Trevail

‘Creative value relates to the execution of ideas that make money for clients. These ideas are created by design consultancies, large and small. Big does not equate to lack of creativity. [Client businesses like] Microsoft, Disney, Nokia and Sony are large, highly creative organisations. They succeed because they care passionately about what they do, not because they happen to be large or small.’

For the motion

Quentin Newark

‘Big is better? Which would you prefer: the Electric Light Orchestra or Jimi Hendrix? Every small office begins with a creative urge, a dream of independence, of doing it better. Every big office is brought about by a financial urge.

‘An idea is a strange thing. However big its effects, it only needs one person to have it. Small groups are built around one or two key individuals who are great at having ideas, and a handful of people to help them.

‘Small means risk-taking [and] up-for-it design. Big means keep-the-client-at-all-cost [and] commercially acceptable solutions. The only argument for big groups goes like this: “We can offer integrated teams of packaging, retail and product designers, and a team of 42 trend-spotters, in four key geographic markets.” Isn’t this just the culture of billable bodies?

‘Small groups do have a natural need to collaborate, but it’s about choosing the right partners for the job. When IBM asked Paul Rand how it should implement his identity internationally he said, “Let’s pick the best designer in Europe and the best designer in Asia, and give them the problem.”.

‘So, Josef Müller-Brockmann managed the roll-out in Europe and Ikko Tanaka in Asia. Can you imagine one of the big groups fielding a team like that?’

Steve Gibbons

‘Big groups [claim] both the geographic reach and mix of skills to tackle any project. But there are times when a nippy speed boat is more appropriate than a ponderous ocean-going liner. And [sometimes] one speed boat won’t do.

‘Highly individual designers – Sebastian Bergne or Philippe Starck, say – don’t have the inclination or temperament to conform to corporate expectations, but they are more than happy to collaborate with [smaller groups].

‘John McConnell’s approach with Boots the Chemists – so successful for so many years – took that notion a step further. He worked with a roster of small groups, pulling in appropriate talent as and when it was required, mixing things up, keeping things fresh.

‘Collaboration – usually through temporary coalitions – is also a good way of servicing overseas markets. However, this strategy of sharing is integral to small group culture.

‘Small groups don’t tend to waste so much breath either. Big consultancies are very good at talking the talk. They [bring] in clever, articulate people – none of whom are designers – who can present compelling, highly polished strategic arguments. [But] it’s like cooking a meal in a restaurant – how many chefs can you get around a single pan? A small group can provide a bespoke service.’

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