Spinning in virtuous circles

Jeremy Sice reveals his all-encompassing strategy for running a design consultancy: make long term goals and try not to stretch yourself too thin.

So many decisions related to running a design consultancy come round time and time again. Back in 1989 we thought setting up in business was the biggest decision we’d ever make. The reality is it was just the first decision, not the biggest. In fact, running a design business, like any other business, is about constantly making difficult decisions. Things are rarely black and white, more often they are shades of grey.

One of the most important decisions to make is whether to run a specialist design consultancy, or one that ‘does everything’.

Nowadays there are thousands of designers with varying degrees of skill and competence, all trying to earn a crust. The question is, why should a client choose you?

Is it your processes, your creativity, your technical competence? My view is that if you go the generalist route you end up a mile wide and an inch deep, and there’s little you can bring to a project. Many groups will turn their hand to anything, but few can bank on their creativity as a true differentiator.

When you are a focused business you build experience and knowledge and have something to add. If you can add a spark of creativity to your specialism you have something that is potentially interesting.

Pitching for work is another one of those monster questions. Frankly, the best way to get a design group in trouble is to pitch for everything that comes your way. Pitching for business is a time-consuming, costly, often unpredictable experience that can sap the energy and adversely affect the confidence of the studio.

Probability of success should inform every decision you make. If the pitch doesn’t fit your specific skill set, if you haven’t got the resources needed to do the project justice or if the pitch process looks shaky, just say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks’. It’s a question of knowing when and how to say no. Ultimately, clients will respect you for it.

It’s tough turning down a pitch, but it’s tougher still regrouping after you’ve lost a pitch you know you shouldn’t have gone for.

If I was asked to give just one tip for running a consultancy, it would be to make sure you regularly question how robust your business is, that way you ensure you make the most of your strengths in the good times and don’t experience such difficult conditions when times get tough.

When you are caught up in the operational merry go round it is far too easy to be internally focused and to lose sight of economic, market or creative trends. And if you’ve not set a clear strategy with two- to three-year goals it is impossible to know if you are on course.

We’ve found that looking ahead often brings us confidence and inspiration. You must stay in touch with the world outside your studio. That said, don’t get wrapped up worrying too much about things you can’t control, as it only distracts you from being as good as you can be.

The hardest thing about running a consultancy is finding good people. This is a tough, competitive industry, where people give an enormous amount and where the success of the group depends on the success of each individual. So why is it that so many businesses seem to believe that the traditional ‘work-hard play-hard’ attitude is enough to motivate, inspire and retain their staff?

If you don’t want to constantly be in churn-mode, invest in learning, help your people build their strengths, help them develop their qualities, knowledge and skills. And always treat people with respect and good humour, no matter how big the issue or tight the deadline.

Design consultancies generally make the decision to fall into one of two broad camps: to be creative-led or business-led.

We take a different view, believing that design and business aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, in our experience the tension between the two is inevitable and healthy. It creates a virtuous circle: you’ll be successful because you create great work and opportunities to create great work come from being successful.

We’re a design business and we never lose sight of that, but nowadays being designers, in the conventional sense of that term, is rarely enough. We exist to help other companies achieve their objectives.

Fifteen years after we set up the questions keep on coming. At least we’ve found that the answers are becoming easier because we are clear as to why we are in business and what type of business we want to be.

Jeremy Sice is managing director of SAS

Is your consultancy robust?

• Do you have a two- to three-year business strategy?

• Are your profits steadily increasing, not in complete flux?

• Can you articulate your consultancy’s strong points?

• What proportion of clients are satisfied with your work?

• Do you rely heavily on a few clients for most of your income or do you have a wide range of clients to rely on?

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