Niche or all-in?

Digital consultancies are a breed apart from those with a broader remit, and each caters for clients with different expectations. Here we piece together a ranking of the leading specialist players and a table of integrated groups working in the interaction arena

Interaction Top Ten
It is hard to paint a comprehensive picture of the state of interaction design, given the relatively small entry to this year’s survey that went into us collating a top ten. We knew the sector was diverse, with some of the best work coming out of tiny studios, but it merits acknowledgement as a business sector within design nonetheless.

It is not surprising to see digital supergroup AKQA topping a chart that represents only the bigger businesses. It was a pioneer in the digital arena and now covers all digital platforms with aplomb. London-based, but now with offices in the US, Europe and Asia, its client base includes Nike, Coca-Cola, Visa, Virgin and Sainsbury’s, among a host of international and national brands. Its work ranges from websites and apps to viral campaigns, often targeted at a younger market and aiming to create brand loyalty though mobile and social networks.

AKQA was one of only a handful of purely digital groups that made it into Design Week’s Top 100 Consultancy Survey this year – a trawl which takes in consultancies of all creative persuasions, including multidisciplinary groups that offer interaction design among a portfolio of activities. It ranked second to Imagination in that listing and was the top digital group there, with fee-income of £30.9m for the year to end-December 2009, compared with the £30.7m cited here.

The figures used as a basis for the DW Top 100 covered the year to end-December 2009, but those cited here take us through the year to June. AKQA therefore appears to have experienced a slight dip in the first six months of this year.

Reading Room, ranked third here, came sixth in the 2010 Top 100 with a fee-income of just over £9m. It has seen a significant drop of more than 20 per cent in fees so far this year.

But Pod1 and Pancentric Digital, the other purely digital groups that featured in the Top 100, have increased their income over last year’s total. Pod1’s fees have risen by some 20 per cent and Pancentric’s by a respectable 5 per cent.

If there are any themes to be drawn from the interaction Top Ten listed here, one is that interaction design is a separate entity to more traditional design interests.Several of the groups ranked in the Top Ten are subsidiaries of advertising businesses, for example, and very few are household names within the broader design community.

They aren’t necessarily London-based and are more likely to cross into other areas such as advertising, PR and marketing than, say, print design groups. Indeed, we know of strong digital communities in Bristol, the Brighton area – represented here by Cogapp – and the Scottish cities of Glasgow and Dundee, but few of their members chose to enter our survey this year.

It is also a community populated by groups with particularly strange names. Broader-based branding groups have long since abandoned the notion of having the founders’ names over the door, but interaction specialists seem to take the naming business one step further. The chart presented here is quite tame in terms of names, in that most of these groups are long-established and some have spun out of branding, but with the likes of Naked Penguin Boy, Design Haus and Carrot Media – all ranked outside the Top Ten in terms of fees – in this arena, it seems, anything goes.

Most of the groups here play a role in corporate communications and marketing. Creative pursuits such as games, interactive kiosks and retail and cultural installations are represented, but we would like to see more of them enter the survey in future, given the diversity of what interaction design could do.

Above all, we look forward to a time when these often highly creative people see themselves more as businesses, rather than one up from bedroom hobbyists. We would also love them to associated themselves more with the design community – surely a better fit for the user-interface aspect of their work than the ’messaging’ function of advertising or PR.

What we did
We invited UK consultancies that specialise in interaction design, from websites and apps to games and installations, to submit financial and other business data to form the basis of a listing ranked by design fee-income. Submissions came via an online form completed by the consultancy and signed off by a director.

The survey was open to all-comers and we communicated its existence directly to relevant consultancies on our database and via notices in the print magazine, the Design Week website and our blog.

We have collated and analysed the results on the basis of data submitted. This has been done in good faith, on the understanding that consultancies have been open about the figures they entered on the online form.

ItIntegrated Top 20
It is no secret that digital design is key to branding and communication programmes. For some time clients have demanded it, and consultancies operating in these arenas have had to offer it as part of the mix. In some cases, this has meant farming out the digital element to a specialist group, but increasingly digital capabilities are provided by building an in-house team.

Interactive installations in museums, galleries and retail environments are more likely carried out by specialists such as Brighton-based Cogapp, famed for its work with the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But things could change here, too, as the requirement for architects and interior and exhibition designers to incorporate interactive features in their schemes grows.

This Top 20 ranks consultancies – drawn from Design Week’s 2010 Top 100 consultancy survey of independent groups – by fee-income earned through digital work. The earnings were made in the year to December 2009, and we don’t specify whether the work was part of bigger branding projects or standalone digital commissions.

For two consultancies in the Top 20, digital design accounts for the lion’s share of the work. Thin Martian describes itself as a ’digital creative group’ – its small involvement with print merits it a place in this listing for integrated consultancies – and for Code Computer Love the balance of fees beyond digital comes from advertising, a crossover more common for digitally led creative groups than for more conventional design outfits.

A significant number of branding groups in the Top 20 derive about half of their income from digital projects. This is true of Corporate Document Services, Rufus Leonard, Brahm, The Workshop and Nucleus, for example, and gives a clear indication of the direction things are taking.

For broader ranging consultancies such as Imagination, The Team and Start Group, which take on branding through print to installation and interiors, it’s a smaller part of the business. But it is still a significant earner for them – more than 25 per cent for Start, for example – and their capability in digital design will have opened doors for them with big, multifaceted clients.

The nature of Imagination’s work – usually in events and exhibitions – has made interactive installations, videos and moving image generally a key part of its work for some time. Start’s digital team will, meanwhile, have contributed to its success abroad, in countries such as Russia, India and Dubai, where clients are often looking for a comprehensive creative package.

Interestingly, this trawl marks Imagination’s debut into specialist charts in any Design Week survey. Though it invariably tops the Top 100 trawl of independent consultancies, with earnings well in excess of £30m each year, it has not previously been able to break down its feeincome across the many disciplines it embraces for its ’experience’-led work.

We have excluded specialist digital consultancies such as AKQA, Reading Room, Pod 1 and Pancentric Digital from this listing because although their fee-income for digital work far outstrips that of many of the groups ranked here, it is their main business. The object of this chart is to demonstrate the proportion of creative work that is digital these days within a broader branding portfolio.

Nor does it include data from consultancies owned by global conglomerates such as WPP Group, Interpublic Group, Omnicom and Havas. These are prevented from submitting unaudited figures for our Top 100 survey by the Sarbanes- Oxley Act in the US, and any data we can publish tends to be 12 months out of kilter with figures provided by the independent consultancies.

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