Calling in outsiders is serious business

Consultancies big on creative input often lack the business acumen needed to win jobs. But external agencies may provide an alternative option, reports Bhavna Mistry

Getting the right mix of creative ability and strong marketing skills in one person is rare in any industry, not just in design. Yet many heavyweight consultancies recognise that winning solid, on-going business depends upon just this combination. And as design has matured, consultancies of all ages and sizes have been looking to develop the magic mix as part of their new-business strategy.

So given that a creative with selling and strategic skills is a rare animal, design groups have to consider other options of developing new-business prospects. One such option is getting strategic and marketing help externally to either support existing new- business staff, or provide a service for which you don’t have in-house talent. Job-getting agencies are one of the routes consultancies look to take.

But how do you decide whether this is the right route for you and whether these agencies actually deliver value for money? How do you measure the returns on your investment? And might you not be better off investing internally in training the people you already have to deliver new business services?

Most design heads agree that buying these services outside the consultancy is usually more expensive than cultivating them in-house. There are advantages to this extra layout, not least the immediate return. Or so you’d think. But as renewal subscriptions to agencies like the British Design Initiative, EDR and The New Business Consultancy come up, consultancies are unsure about the value of any return.

According to Rune Gustafson, one-time partner at EDR and now with retail design consultancy 20/20, “working with an outside agency is a long-term investment which takes time to pay off. You shouldn’t be expecting a short-term fix”, he says.

Allison McDonnell, formerly at BDI and now handling business development at Minale Tattersfield & Acton, agrees. She adds that establishing a close and consistent relationship with the agency is key to getting a long-term and profitable return. But, as Gustafson comments, this does not mean bombarding the agency with calls asking for new work, appointments or briefs. “Cultivating the relationship is about inspiring the external agency, feeding new ideas – design is, after all, an ever-changing profession.”

Before appointing anyone, you need to be sure the personalities are compatible. “Design is a people profession and that is no less true when working with an external marketing and new-business supplier,” says McDonnell. You must get on with the people who are selling your offer to clients, so the agency needs to understand your creative and strategic strengths and be able to communicate them to clients. The agency also needs to be confident of your ability to convert once through the door, which again boils down to communication.

For EDR, the client relationship “overwhelmingly supercedes the consultancy relationship”, says founder Richard Watson. “If we don’t get that right, nothing else will fall into place.” EDR is currently considering paring down its consultancy membership roster significantly. Watson claims that his principal loyalty to clients pays off both for design and the client. “We educate the client in best practice and design management, and that trickles down to the industry,” he says.

But he also claims that EDR provides an effective service to consultancies: “When we’re working on putting together rosters, we go outside our membership, mainly because the client wants us to.” And while “we don’t fix meetings with clients for consultancies, we work with clients who have live projects and want a consultancy to work with them”.

BDI leans more towards the consultancy, and has recently restructured so that design groups pay for the services they need and select, rather than a retainer fee. This is also the way the New Business Consultancy works, so consultancies have ways to pay for a selection of services from marketing and strategic advice to public relations.

And, of course, there are the telesales companies who specialise in cold calls and setting up initial meetings with a wide range of firms who may or may not be looking for design input in the foreseeable future.

The bottom line has to be whether you can trust an external agent to represent your consultancy at a very sensitive point – the first contact. And that is something only the consultancy’s managing team can decide.


Be clear about what you are looking for and what you expect; it’s not enough to have a single new-business goal, you need to think of long-term strategy rather than making a fast buck.

Be clear about who you want to work with and in which sector and geographical area; don’t expect new-business people to make a big leap of faith and sell you in a sector in which you have no experience

Recognise that working with external companies requires as much time and effort as internal new-business. Create solid, close relationships with your chosen agency.

Don’t expect a short-term fix; working with an external new- business partner is a long-term investment which will take time to pay off.

Find out who is most compatible with the way you work and look very carefully at what the agency has to offer.

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