An African adventure

KSDP Design has spread from its roots in South Africa, to Australia and Europe and has set its sights on North America. Clare Dowdy charts the growth of its UK office

“Over there they are gods… over here I have no knowledge of them.” This is one UK designer’s view of South Africa-based KSDP Design, which has just rebranded express distribution service TNT.

Set up in Johannesburg in 1979 by Joe Kieser, KSDP has grown organically, opening a succession of satellite offices since 1995, in Amsterdam, Cape Town, London and Sydney. Kieser employs 170 people and is considering gaining a presence in North America.

While the Amsterdam operation is expanding rapidly on all fronts – client list, staff and revenue – the UK base has developed more slowly.

Kieser admits he has found it “extremely difficult” to break into the UK market, not just because of local competition, but because it is a trading base for international design groups. “They probably don’t even know us,” he says of his peers. Indeed, a straw poll of London designers confirms this – despite KSDP’s enviable multinational client list featuring the likes of TNT, Alfred Dunhill, KFC, Volkswagen, Coca-Cola and Audi.

However, Kieser’s aspirations for the operation were “humble” and it is already ahead of targets and “starting to perform as a fully-fledged design office”.

Two years since setting up, the Maidenhead operation is moving into London. It is headed by Richard Wood, formerly assistant chief executive of software developer Alphabox Corporation. The office was initially peopled with South African staff, but the mix now includes UK recruits and, in a year’s time, a creative director will be brought in. At the moment Mike King in Amsterdam is creative director Europe.

Wood plans to market the London outfit aggressively and wants to take on corporate identity work. “It’s a global market,” he says of the competition, “and the likes of Wolff Olins have a perceived advantage, but in credentials we are confident we can deliver a global design.”

Yet the London outfit does generate its own business. Last week it was appointed to carry out a brand review of UK car manufacturer AC Car Group and even to look at product design. The office also benefits from multinational project wins. A current Coca-Cola “presence programme” in Spain is being run out of London.

The story is very different in South Africa, where Pentagraph, as the group is known there, dominates every discipline. Driving down any city street, you are surrounded by the group’s identities, facias and retail interiors, from banks and petrol stations to fast food chains – even the post boxes. It seems to get the pick of all the best jobs – its new logo for Anglo Gold, the world’s biggest gold company, is soon to launch, and it also had a hand in South Africa’s prestigious Blue Train revamp.

In the post-Apartheid era, more work comes from overseas companies knocking on the door for local knowledge of branding in southern Africa. The consultancy is known for high quality strategic work, be it environmental, packaging or product design.

These international clients have been nurtured to foster the group’s expansion into other markets. It was on the back of an original TNT Express Worldwide branding project – before the company was bought by Dutch Royal Mail – that a Sydney office was set up. And now a retail design offer is being added to the Amsterdam office, following the contract to revamp KFC’s 110 South African outlets.

All this growth is funded internally – there are no outside shareholders and no backers. Expansion was initially difficult with the state of the Rand, but now nearly half the group’s income is generated overseas.

Before branching into North America, Kieser wants to raise the profile and create a conspicuous infrastructure in London.

And if the London office starts to generate more high profile local business, more UK design groups will find themselves rubbing shoulders with the group on pitch lists. They may even be in the unexpected position of losing to a rival with its roots in Africa.

Latest articles