What clients really want from designers

Former Kimberly-Clark marketing director Jon White, now managing director at Elmwood, spills the beans about what’s really expected of design consultancies.

Jon White

I have recently come on board as the new managing director of Elmwood’s London studio. As the former marketing director at Kimberly-Clark I have worked with numerous consultancies to develop, craft and deliver my brands. As I have now ‘jumped ship’ (so to speak), I have been able to not just share my experiences but also provide some insight and understanding on what clients really want – but may not always get – from their consultancies.


The cardinal sin in my experience is that many consultancies sell to clients what they think they want to hear, or even worse what they have previously sold to others, without showing relevance to the new clients needs. The greatest turn-off in my experience is to be told by a consultancy they are fabulous at what they do because ‘look at the awards or PR we have received for Brand X’, which has no parallels with my challenges or category dynamics.

What clients are really after from a consultancy is a sharp and relevant understanding of what the brand and business challenges are, and a clear demonstration of how their experience, expertise and talent can unlock these and deliver greater effectiveness for the brand and business. Both client and consultancy want to work on a project that is relevant and will be successful for both parties.


Every consultancy wants to sustain a healthy and happy rapport with their client, but many need to take more responsibility to challenge their client’s requests. After all, expertise and knowledge is what the client pays a consultancy for. A client can be very blinkered to the outside world in its internal functioning, focusing on its brands and their immediate challenges. A consultancy is partly employed to bring ‘the outside in’ for a client, to help them see the bigger picture and ensure that the projects they are working on explore the best potential solutions, and are not just ‘good enough’.

Many consultancies are far too shy to question their client or challenge the obvious and are often scared to go beyond the specific brief in fear of potentially damaging the relationship. Clients appreciate bravery and honesty from their consutlancy, so push them and challenge their thinking. This risk will just highlight how well a consultancy knows its client and project and will develop and strengthen the relationship.

A sustainable relationship

The life cycle of new business for any consultancy can be defined as a whirlwind love affair: coffee, dinner, speed dating. A consultancy can be so excited after winning a new business pitch that they forget to lay down the foundations to build a strong and sustainable relationship. What many forget is that the most important time for any new client/consultancy relationship is the few days or weeks following the pitch. This is the time for both sides to properly get to know each other, agree the final contract details, align on process and best practice and go through the basics together. If missed it will not be too long before there is talk of a new pitch!

Both sides need to take the time to lay down these foundations; a client wants a sustainable model in its consultancy and the consultancy needs to put even more rigour in to this phase to ensure that the whirlwind love affair turns into a long-lasting marriage.

Continuous improvement

A client’s world and vocabulary is full of the principle of continuous improvement, the discipline of reviewing what has just been done and picking out what has worked well and what should be done differently to make the next project even more effective and efficient. However this principle is very seldom followed in the consutlancy world where the resourcing, pace and variety of clients and work supposedly hinders the chance to stop, check and adjust.

A simple way to overcome this is for the consultancy to facilitate a post-project evaluation with the client on all major activities. Clients want to know that consultancies have taken the time to identify and implement future project improvements. Instead of everyone getting frustrated by repeated issues and perceived inefficiencies we can all build more progressive relationships and likely all make more money through better executions and reduced costs

Nurturing existing relationships

When consultancies pitch for, win new business and gain new clients, they are seen as the shiny new toy and understandably attract disproportionate resource and focus. Pitching itself is an adrenalin rush for the consultancy team and often pulls in additional time and resource often away from existing clients and relationships. In general pitches are wasted time and effort for clients and distract them from the core of their jobs and objectives.

What clients want from their consultancy is the same pitch excitement and richness of attention to remain throughout the lifetime of the relationship. consultancies need to spend time looking after their existing relationships with clients. The new business effort needs to be incremental to the existing client servicing or there is great danger that all this effort is just to replace the lost business from dissatisfied existing clients. It is achievable and financially viable for a client to stick with a consultancy for a long period of time. Nurture and develop existing clients, they want a sustainable and effective relationship.

Jon White is the managing director of Elmwood’s London office, and a former marketing director of Kimberly-Clark.

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