News that Interpublic Group identity arm FutureBrand is to extend its reach to take in global packaging and branding groups within The Coleman Group Worldwide throws up the old question of whether or not size is a deterrent in creating quality design.
There is no doubt that global conglomerates such as WPP Group have increased influence for the creative industries. By focusing on identity, networks such as WPP’s Enterprise IG have taken design into boardrooms, partly by piggybacking advertising agencies and other consultancy services within the parent group.
But there is also no doubt that the best creative work rarely comes out of these stables. Independents like Wolff Olins and The Partners still tend to generate better visual solutions than their “owned” rivals, which are generally in a culture that puts financial performance first.
We might expect the scenario to change as the global players expand. While Australia and the Far East are the targets for major growth – witness Enterprise IG’s deals announced last week with Pacific Rim consultancies Springham Anderson and Horniak & Canny – there is still the question of how long creatively driven independents such as Wolff Olins can hold out against takeover.
Wolff Olins acknowledges that acquisition is one way of growing globally to compete against supergroups such as Enterprise IG, Interbrand and now FutureBrand. Meanwhile, smaller branding and interiors specialists are admitting that they too are up for sale to the right buyer, albeit off the record.
We might expect groups with a reputation for great work to be top of the UK shopping list for global predators. Already a few star turns have attracted merger deals – FutureBrand UK has the former Davis Baron, Interbrand bought the former Newell and Sorrell and, last year, WPP acquired The Brand Union and through it screen branding supremo Martin Lambie-Nairn. If a group is profitable and has a sound reputation, it could be a target.
But is it desirable for the UK design industry for so few groups to wield so much power? Will expansion at the rate projected by FutureBrand limit the chances of smaller, creative concerns on the global stage? Or will it mean greater polarisation with an even greater opportunity for the likes of Frost Design, Mark Farrow and Johnson Banks to ply their art in a smaller arena?
All the signs point once more to Pentagram as a rare group that has managed global expansion well, retaining its reputation for great work and not appearing too greedy. Now there’s a great buy for someone – assuming it ever goes on sale – and a fantastic model for the rest.