Blurring borders

With design consultancies and ad agencies frequently crossing over into each other’s domains, the distinction between the two is becoming ever fuzzier. It’s all about finding the perfect configuration for thriving in this intermediate terrain, as Clare Dowdy discovers

Design groups and ad agencies trespassing on each other’s territory is nothing new, but nowadays people are talking about an increasing blurring of the boundaries.

Historically, the perception is that the ad guys had the upper hand, what with their hefty retainers and access higher up the food chain to the client. ‘While design groups like to go into advertising, it’s more of a one-way street the other way,’ is the personal experience Ian Kelly, co-founder of design group Yin & Yang.

Those on the advertising side of the fence admit that they sometimes do have an unfair advantage. ‘We’re closer to the client,’ says Mark Elwood, head of art, partner, at Fallon, which handles advertising and design. ‘Clients are more receptive to an ad agency designing their work. Clients have always thought about design, but would have gone to a different shop. We can design the logo with one eye on how it’s going to look in advertising and across lots of platforms.’

And that is the key driver to this current blurring – the number of platforms in which any execution may have to perform, namely the rise and rise of digital.

This was why Origin Creative Design moved into advertising. ‘When we started ten years ago, we were purely about design,’ says managing director Mark Bottomley, who previously worked in the design department of ad agency Cheetham Bell. ‘The marketplace has got a lot fuzzier for clients to pinpoint where work falls, so we’ve expanded the range of what we do. It’s about equipping ourselves to service those clients who have traditionally used ad agencies, and now find design consultancies more appealing.’

Origin’s output now comprises 70 per cent design work and 30 per cent advertising, though the consultancy would never deign to suggest it could get into TV commercials. A more realistic crossover is its campaign for Merseyside Police to increase public confidence, which is hooked to Origin’s slogan, ‘It all adds up’. ‘The breadth of the solution in terms of where it could be applied took the client to places it didn’t think it could go. That’s more than a [conventional] design consultancy could do,’ says Bottomley.

Conversely, clients need to make a smaller leapof faith when offering design work to ad agencies. Both Fallon and ad agency MWO can point to recent ‘design’ work – though of very different sorts.

Fallon was responsible for the BBC Radio idents, says Elwood, which has rolled into ‘a lot of other branding and identity work for them, plus poster and TV campaigns’. In fact, Fallon is unusual as it’s on both the BBC’s design ident roster and its ad roster, ‘so there are two doors in for us’, he adds.

Fallon comprises Elwood’s 16-strong design studio, which does design, digital and press for the agency, and has 24 people in the advertising creative department.

Meanwhile, MWO’s press ads and posters for the Food Standards Agency demonstrate what Mark Hurst at MWO describes as the importance of craft and design in advertising. ‘The ad agencies that are doing well are the ones that better understand the role of design,’ says Hurst, meaning ‘the lost art of advertising: commercial art’.

Along with MWO’s Dan Edwards, Hurst cites BBH’s head of art, Mark Reddy, Saatchi & Saatchi’s newly appointed design director Steve Davies, and Nils Leonard, joint creative director at Grey.

In the meantime, it’s the blurred areas where the best work happens, Hurst believes. ‘The agencies which understand design can approach any channel that touches us and raise the bar with a crafty – or craftbased – approach,’ he says.

Regardless of the execution, there are fundamental differences in the approach of advertising-educated and design-educated practitioners. And clients should know what they’re getting into when they cross the boundaries.

As far as Kelly at Yin & Yang is concerned, advertising is narrative, whereas packaging is symbolism in a static environment. ‘And consumers’ mindsets are operating in a different way with each,’ he says.

There’s no doubt that designers are taught to communicate differently, with each other as well as with the public. Ad teams, says Bottomley, work in silos, locking themselves away and not speaking to each other. ‘Design is the opposite to that. There are opportunities for an idea to come from anyone,’ he adds.

Regardless of approach or execution, as long as the mediums continue to evolve and proliferate, savvy businesses from both sides of the fence will be forever searching out the perfect configuration. To this end, Fallon is planning to grow its digital and design areas.

‘Everyone’s looking for the perfect ad agency model and design and digital will be part of that,’ says Elwood. ‘We’ve definitely stolen a march.’

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