Many are called but very few are chosen

As major client companies continue to draw up design rosters, Bhavna Mistry explores reasons behind this trend and points out some of the pros and cons

RosterING is an aspect of the design industry which is taking off. It gained momentum in the client arena last year, with more major client companies – especially those with an fmcg offer – subscribing to this way of working. For design, the trend is important, not only because of the obvious limitations rostering is posing for new business, but also because clients are cutting the number of groups on their rosters.

In the advertising world, rostering is the established way of working. Clients, like Superdrug, SmithKline Beecham, NatWest, Bass and Nestl̩, are transferring the advantages of rostering to their design activities. For the industry, this way of working has its pluses Рbut also its drawbacks.

For the client, having a roster means ensuring loyalty from a list of groups which know the business they’re working with, and so are better able to produce work which the client feels comfortable using. Richard Watson, founding partner at client advisory service EDR, says: “The advantages of rostering are clear from the client’s point of view. They include better, long-term relationships, improved quality of work, effective management procedures, cost savings, reduction in the pitching process and speed.”

NatWest has a roster which was established in April 1995. The bank’s director of marketing, Raoul Pinnell, and brand advertising manager, Edward Pertwee, set up and now manage the bank’s list of brand communications suppliers, including advertising agencies and design consultancies.

Minale Tattersfield, Sheard Thomson Harris, Smith & Milton, Holmes & Marchant and Design House represent the design input on NatWest’s roster. Groups were chosen from those already working with NatWest at the time the list was put together.

The roster is reviewed every six months, based on performance ratios of the groups. NatWest’s assessment system is based on a model compiled by the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, the client-led advertising body. But Pertwee says the system has been fine-tuned to fit NatWest’s needs. Every project is assessed with a questionnaire filled in by the design buyer.

Pertwee says he is open to other consultancies, but adds that the roster has “enough designers at the moment. We’ve dropped Jaffé Design from the list at this review and, if anything, we’d be looking to reduce it a little more”. Design buyers at NatWest rarely choose groups outside the roster.

Packaging and print are the main areas where rosters operate. Retail and corporate identity projects tend to be commissioned on an ad hoc basis because of the infrequency of the projects. And outside the UK, the process of rostering is extremely rare.

Another plus side of rostering is that clients focus more seriously on what they’re paying for and what they get from design. “A roster makes them calculate their design spend, and most companies with rosters spend more than 1m,” says Watson.

But a rostering system can have its disadvantages. “A client can lock out talent as much as lock it in,” says Watson. “There are dangers of stagnation and complacency, both on the client’s and consultancy’s side. Often skills are not matched to real requirements; clients tend to think that once they have a roster they can get everything from that roster.”

Watson also adds that clients sometimes “don’t sell the roster concept properly internally. A lot of people like selecting consultancies – it’s an enjoyable part of their job, and they get upset when limitations are put on them”.

A roster also needs to be well managed. Nucleus managing director Peter Matthews sees both sides of the coin; his consultancy is currently putting together Superdrug’s first roster and it has also worked on other rosters. “If rosters are well set up groups manage themselves better than they would with an ad hoc commission. But that’s not to say all rosters work effectively – they don’t.

“As soon as you have rosters, you do need good design management. While I expect rostering to be a trend that continues, I also expect a lot of bad rosters, because of a lack of good design management,” says Matthews.

Like it or not, rostering is being established as the preferred way for clients to work – especially those with big design spends. Such a client-led drive is going to mean a major sea-change for an already turbulent design industry. How design handles that sea-change – and who survives it – will only be seen in time.

The effects of rosters on design consultancies will be analysed next month.

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