It’s the first time we can say with any real confidence that design has turned the corner and is heading for profitability again. We’ve detected an upturn in work for a while, but the 9-10 per cent growth in staff and fee-income reported by Top 100 consultancies during 1994 is conclusive proof.
A sigh of relief? Yes, but only for a moment. The industry can’t afford to bask in glory, in the way we might have five or so years ago. Current success has been won in a tough battle, not just to survive, but to learn new business methods and gen up on the directions clients themselves have taken to bounce back from recession. It’s no surprise those groups that have failed to grasp this are now in decline.
Clients no longer bring in a designer just because it is voguish so to do. Retail, for example, is returning with a vengeance. But trail-blazing retailers aren’t looking for a stylish paint job or the prettiest pack, as they might have done in 1987. They’re demanding strategy and commercial thinking – at a price they deem realistic, and with design as just a part of the mix.
If retail is typical, how can you continue to woo clients and fuel your own growth? A short-term trick is to argue purely on price, winning the job – though not necessarily the follow-on business – by being the cheapest . Much of the challenge to consultancies from design-and-build merchants and printers has emanated thus, but those who follow suit do themselves and design a disservice.
A better way is to pitch on service, offering true consultancy from the start of a project and solid implementation skills. Many one-time greats left with little more than physical muscle have survived through an ability to do this.
Better still though is to couple good service with great work – it’s a difficult combination to achieve, but one which will guarantee success. If you look at groups such as Pentagram or The Partners, you’ll see that creativity doesn’t exclude commercial prowess. They maintain profitability without dropping quality. Use these as your role models and you might be on to something good.