Crossing the line

Some direct marketing agencies now offer design services. But should dedicated design consultancies be worried?

Postmen get taken to court for helping people avoid it; politicians compare it to the arms trade and people tape up their letter boxes with stickers saying ‘no junk mail’ – but it seems direct marketing is busily carving out a niche for itself on the design community’s territory.

The grubby world of mail shots and gatefold inserts might seem a million miles away from the elite position which designers occupy in our society – but design’s gilded fortress is being broached on all sides by companies that, ten years ago or less, would have described themselves squarely as direct marketing or sales promotion agencies.

Last week, customer relationship management agency Hicklin Slade was awarded the task of redesigning and launching the brand identity and retail space of trendy Indian street food chain Tiffinbites. What began as a basic relationship marketing brief to help Tiffinbites communicate effectively with its clientele has now been broadened out to include developing and implementing a new brand identity across all the company’s takeaway and restaurant businesses, and all print collateral, as well as all restaurant décor.

It was only after the original deal was struck that the company’s owner, Jamal Hirani, decided to expand the brief to the current £2m account, but the fact that the interior of each new restaurant includes a 12m-long wall mural suggests that this is not just about revamping the company’s logo – rather, Hicklin Slade has been given the same kind of brief as dedicated design consultancies receive as a matter of course.

Although Hicklin Slade creative director Andy Barwood admits the business came to him accidentally, he says the propensity for direct marketing agencies to swipe designers’ business is actually nothing new.

‘Every agency has a design capability. For example, when I was at TMW, the design department created all the collateral for Reed Exhibitions. It is not uncommon for direct marketing agencies to have a massive design department and for these creatives to enjoy a much wider brief. Sales promotion agencies have always dabbled across creative surfaces,’ says Barwood.

While this is true, to some extent – OgilvyOne was asked to design the identity for restaurant 101 Knightsbridge several years ago, while data behemoth EHS Brann has done a lot of branding work in the whisky sector – it is only recently that we have begun to see direct marketing agencies making an overt play for design work.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this trend is Proximity London, which recently appointed Alex Normanton to beef up its design capabilities. Normanton, who is building up the company’s current design department, reveals he has plans to launch a graphic design company from within Proximity, which will actively compete for business alongside dedicated design consultancies.

‘We are missing out on opportunities within our existing client base because of not having a graphic design department,’ says Normanton. ‘With the new company, we’ll be looking at working with our existing client base, but also working on interesting niche projects with arts organisations, restaurants, that kind of thing.’

Normanton previously worked at Saatchi & Saatchi, which also has its own design unit run by Ashley Goodall. ‘What I saw inspired me – I saw it could be done,’ he says. Proximity is not the only agency redefining its sales promotion roots. Below-the-line agency Joshua rebranded last summer as Joshua G2, precisely to try to shake off the sales promotion tag and help its four-year-old design department land even more business.

‘We’d increasingly find clients, like, for instance, Royal Mail and Cobra, that were looking for design in the retail sector as well,’ explains Joshua business development director Dick Bloomfield. ‘This approach offers new clients an extra access point, as well as giving our current clients an added service, so it’s the best of both worlds.’

This sea change is part of a wider shift in the world of advertising, where endlessly changing technology means agencies need to break out of their niches and persuade prospective clients that they’re actually line-busting polymaths.

These days, it’s rare to find a below-the-line agency that describes itself as such, because they’d lose business. Clients want a one-stop shop. As a result, direct marketing agencies must develop or die, and part of this means offering brand consistency by doing all the design work themselves.

Should design consultancies be worried? Perhaps. Bloomfield claims he has not seen a trend going the other way, with design consultancies suddenly developing data analysis and mailshot expertise. So are designers resting on their laurels, while their business is pinched from under their noses?

Proximity’s Normanton doesn’t think so. ‘We will never be an Interbrand or a Landor. We’re going after the kind of work that larger design groups would not touch,’ says Normanton.

Aside from this, says Bloomfield, ‘There will always be a market for the dedicated specialist.’ The message is clear, however – when they go to pitches, design consultancies must be increasingly prepared to face an unlikely competitor.

• Hickin Slade does branding for Tiffinbites
• OgilvyOne branded restaurant 101 Knightsbridge
• Proximity London appointed Alex Normanton to beef up its design
• Joshua G2 says Royal Mail and Cobra demand design

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