New year’s solutions

Design Week looks at the recent trend for design groups to restructure, and suggests that others should follow suit to be better prepared for the predicted recession ahead

The design industry would do well to heed predictions of an economic recession hitting UK business late next year. If we are to avoid the kind of massacre consultancies went through in 1989 when boom suddenly shifted to bust, then moves need to be made now to address a potentially hazardous situation.

Some are already on the way to rethinking the way they work, though not always through fear of an impending economic decline. The type of radical shake-up the likes of branding groups Siebert Head, Wagstaffs and Pearlfisher announced late last year are likely to become commonplace over the coming months. These exercises in “restructuring” – a term which once brought fear to the industry as jobs were axed and consultancies failed – are now sensible moves by design groups to grow their businesses, free up the key people to do the things they’re best at, and boost efficiency. They make good business sense.

Wagstaffs’ changes, billed as a “streamlining and restructuring exercise” by partner Jonathan Shaw, resulted in six redundancies and a new creative director in the form of Judi Green (DW 12 December 1997). Shaw was quoted as wanting to concentrate on being “more cost-effective and profitable, and focus more on creative output”. The consultancy is still believed to be looking to expand its offer through acquisitions.

Pearlfisher founder director Jonathan Ford describes his consultancy’s recent restructuring (DW 5 December 1997) as a move to reinforce Pearlfisher’s growing reputation, by allowing himself and fellow director Karen Welman the opportunity to reduce their management load and concentrate on creativity. “It makes a stronger platform for what we are doing,” says Ford, adding that the term restructuring can conjure up confusing images. “We’re not turning into Landor,” he says.

Siebert Head’s “streamlining”, as managing director John Parsons puts it, is more about targeting than reducing (DW 5 December 1997). It comes at a time when the 34-strong London consultancy has just recorded one of its best years in business, with repeat orders from clients such as Procter & Gamble, Safeway, St Ivel, United Distillers and Boots Healthcare.

This year 50 per cent of its work has come from the US and continental Europe, compared with 40 per cent last year. The success of Siebert Head’s work in Eastern Europe means it is currently finalising a joint-venture deal in Poland. “The changes come on the back of success,” says Parsons.

Ostensibly prompted by what was perceived internally and externally as a “tired” image, the makeover is about making the best of what is there and revitalising Siebert Head’s offer, not least to its staff. The management consultant’s trawl of staff, clients and other design groups threw up the need “to sharpen our roles and sharpen our focus”, says Parsons.

Key to this is the appointment of a new creative director, who Parsons sees as being “a name” or currently “working with a name”. If the consultancy gets the right person to head its team of 20 or so designers, it could help it change its whole culture, he believes, putting the essence of the vision in place. First interviews were conducted this week.

But image is only one reason why Siebert Head brought in a management consultant last September. There is the question of succession for the 25-year-old consultancy. Says Parsons: “Every so often a brand has to revitalise itself – or decide it doesn’t need to.” With Parsons, who has been at Siebert Head for 14 years, describing himself as “one of the oldest guys in the business” and outgoing creative director Tony Watts now approaching 60, change was inevitable fairly soon.

Siebert Head, Wagstaffs and Pearlfisher should find themselves up against other consultancies going through similar shifts of emphasis in the coming months. If 1997 has been the year of mergers at the top end of the design business, 1998 could mark a time of reappraisal and refocus for a number of middling, well-established groups whose image may have faded over the past few years. For the astute ones it will also provide a hedge against any financial downturn.

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