The art of staying afloat

Having launched during the grip of the early 1990s recession, Caulder Moore is perhaps less phased by the threat of another possible downturn looming on the horizon than you might expect. Understandably though, for newer businesses which haven’t weathered

Worried about an economic downturn? Irene Maguire offers advice on how to develop a consultancy so that it stays strong during tougher times

Having launched during the grip of the early 1990s recession, Caulder Moore is perhaps less phased by the threat of another possible downturn looming on the horizon than you might expect. Understandably though, for newer businesses which haven’t weathered this particular storm before, this must be a rather more daunting prospect.

When we set up shop in 1990, the memory of the many overblown, flabby 1980s-boom design consultancies was still fresh in our minds. These groups tended to be driven almost exclusively by money, focused on stock market listings and aggressive growth aimed at satisfying shareholder aspirations and the egos of their creators, with design and creativity way down the agenda.

Our core founding principles were simple and set us apart from the plethora of these recently imploded groups. Our aim was to create a design group that put at its heart quality thinking and design solutions aimed at creating enduring success for our clients, with the assumption that success would naturally follow from getting that right. We’ve adhered to that principle for almost 20 years. Not only does it remain as valid and sensible today as it was back then, but it has proven to be central to our success.

Key to this was resisting the temptation to employ account handlers as an interface between our designers and clients. Experience has taught us that the best and most talented designers thrive and develop their skills and commercial acumen through direct contact with clients, and our clients enjoy being closer to the creative process. Attracting and retaining the best talent is key to the success of any design group and we’ve found that the depth and variety of experience afforded by this type of environment contributes enormously to our ability to attract and retain good people.

A balanced mix of leadership skills is also key to long-term success. Investing in this area, whether through internal recruitment or by commissioning external advice, has always delivered a healthy return. Even as a smaller consultancy, we recognised the benefits of employing outside help and expertise. Over the years we’ve engaged non-executive directors and consultants who’ve worked alongside our diverse management team to set new goals and introduce fresh thinking to the business.

Developing a robust proposition that sets the consultancy apart from the competition is vital in a challenging business environment, and getting external assistance to help objectively distil the essence of the group can be invaluable.

We did precisely this and found that having an objective, disinterested individual to talk to our clients, so they felt they could be open and direct, strongly reinforced our proposition because it was based on the experience of our clients, rather than just something we chose to say. This validation has given our message further force. We’re aware that we are not unique in this aspiration. Many groups employ external consultants, but in our experience it’s not seeking advice that’s key to success, but acting on it. Many groups pay management specialists and marketing gurus considerable sums from their hard-earned profits to help them drive their businesses forward, but this advice too often spends its life on a shelf gathering dust. Acting on advice requires significantly more bravery – and cash – than commissioning it.

To help with this, we’ve ensured that our leadership team have differing backgrounds, while being heavily rooted in the creative industries. Our creative director, Ian Caulder, is a designer of 30 years’ experience and our managing director, Colum Lowe was a design consultant for more than a decade before specialising in management in both the private and public sectors. I bring ten years’ marketing experience to the business. This combination enables us to respond better to the complexities of our clients’ businesses and, more importantly, to better understand our own.

So, take heed from these lessons from last time. Stick to your core principles, develop a clear proposition, put quality of thinking and design at the heart of the business, encourage designer/client interaction, assemble a diverse management team and draw on outside expertise. You’ll be well on course to charter any choppy waters that might lay ahead.

Irene Maguire is partner and new business director of Caulder Moore

Top tips

• Keep design at the heart of your business
• Encourage designer/client contact
• Assemble a diverse management team
• Draw on outside expertise

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