How can you stand out from the crowd?

Last week’s Design Show revived the issue of how design groups present themselves. Rarely do we have the chance to compare groups in such an impartial setting.

Sadly, the show demonstrated just how bad at communication those in the communications business can be. Though so many groups use the hackneyed phrase “outside the box” to describe their approach to projects, few Design Show exhibitors even managed to touch the sides, in terms of ideas, of the white “boxes” allocated as stands at London’s Business Design Centre. Not surprisingly, those that did tended to have connections with the ad world.

Multimedia group The Attik, for example, produced the brashest, noisiest and deliberately naffest stand, taking its cue for a kitsch domestic garden scene from the BDC’s Country Living fair. It also set its staff to work hard at pulling in the punters. Its reward was great popularity, benefiting less adventurous groups showing in the vicinity.

The Attik always goes for the big time, but bright ideas don’t have to shout. At the other end of the scale, The Open Agency, formerly Horseman Cooke McBains, shrewdly gave away postcards bearing intriguing photographs on the theme “open” on its stand. What a great way to run a cheap ad campaign, enticing visitors to spread news of the name by sending the cards on.

The overall standard was better than in previous years, but the uninitiated would have been hard-pressed to see the difference between most offers. In some cases, there was no one to tell them, just a bank of images and screens.

Designers don’t appear to realise what their rivals are offering. They are too often saying exactly the same thing and fail to point out their differences. Hence the over-use of phrases such as “outside the box” and “strategic” by consultancy bosses who think they coined them.

The same, say clients, is true in pitches. But how do you show a difference – without giving creative work away for free – when you’re up against rivals working in the same sector? However good your track record, what separates you from the rest?

If you believe the answer is personality and passion, heed the words of one-time client Paul King. Formerly design director of Tesco, then design manager at Woolworths, King advises design groups to take along projects that didn’t make it – the great ideas that weren’t adopted by the client. They’ll show the consultancy off at its rawest, and give the presenters something new to say.

If only one or two had taken that stance at The Design Show, what a fascinating event that might have been.

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