Prize fighters

Our new digital creative awards league table reveals the strength of specialist consultancies, but ad-focused groups, media brands and some household names in the design firmament are holding their own. Lynda Relph-Knight takes the pulse of a thriving sector

What defines the key players in Design Week’s first interaction design listings is the broad spread of award-winning digital work that has earned them a place. Surprisingly few owe their standing purely to website design these days – perhaps now more the province of branding consultancies and traditional ad agencies.

There is a healthy representation through the likes of Imagination, All of Us and Brighton-based Cogapp that are more likely to create exhibition and gallery installations than just online communications these days. Meanwhile, several groups featured, like Agency Republic and Preloaded, count games design in their repertoires. Then there is mobile phone content, be it typography, pictograms or games, and we are seeing a massive rise in the design of apps for hand-held devices from phones to iPads.

Given this spread of activity, it is hardly surprising to see some of the bigger, more complex creative teams at the top end of the Top 50 table. Consultancies like the seemingly untouchable chart-topper AKQA, as well as Poke and Chi & Partners, cover a diverse range of digital communication platforms from advertising, to viral campaigns and direct mail. Their experiential campaigns tend to touch all media, using social networks alongside more conventional communication routes to engage audiences that are no longer taken in by ads that ’tell’ them what to think or static designs in which they have no involvement.

Meanwhile, media concerns like the BBC, The Guardian and Welsh TV channel S4C and specialist consultancy Red Bee Media have shown themselves to be at the cutting edge of digital design, through broadcast title sequences to online news and entertainment services – and have been hugely rewarded for turning out great work in the appropriate awards schemes.

Tate is alone in flying the flag for cultural institutions in the charts. But venues such as the Science Museum, a highly respected commissioner of digital installations to convey complex scientific principles, the controversial Public cultural hub in West Bromwich and New York’s Museum of Modern Art are among those represented by consultancies that work with them.

Then there is Apple. Never far from the creative awards scene, Jonathan Ive’s team and their partners have shown that great design isn’t just about product/ it’s about the best communication, too. Hence the company won a coveted Black Pencil for its website, Apple.com, in the D&AD Awards this year, boosting its position in the interaction design charts.

For the likes of AKQA, Mother-affiliated Poke and Chi, the crossover from design to advertising is an everyday reality. It is therefore inevitable that the adland culture of entering awards is rife among them – and that winning is a highly prized objective. So though we have focused here solely on the design-related categories of mixed awards like the Webbies and D&AD, they make a strong showing.

The same is true of groups like Fallon, Wieden & Kennedy and LBI London. Better known for their advertising prowess, they increasingly field great design work – in Fallon’s case across branding, print and digital platforms – and online interaction projects are the natural ’glue’ between advertising and design, according to All of Us founder Simon ’Sanky’ Sankarayya, who took office as D&AD president earlier this month.

Several consultancies listed here are household names in design. Imagination, The Partners, Start Creative and Moving Brands all take their cue from design primarily. For most, digital work is a development of what they were already expert at, be it branding or events and interiors. But it is of growing importance.

London-based Start, for example, draws more than a quarter of its fee-income income from digital work currently, for clients such as Virgin and Adidas. ThePartners – now owned by WPP Group, but deemed to be one of the top creative design consultancies over its 27-year life – has meanwhile added a digital section to its extensive trophy cabinet to house awards for projects as diverse as financial services giant Deloitte’s Planet Saver initiative and the simple, but quirky Eagleclean online communications.

The rationale behind Moving Brands was to bring brands alive digitally when it was established in 1997, so that is exactly what it does. Recent awards triumphs that have earned it a listing in the Top 50 include the Swisscom rebranding, on which it worked with UK-based Swiss typographer Bruno Maag.

But there are other groups that are associated mainly with digital work. Preloaded, Sennep, Unit 9, Dare and Lean Mean Fighting Machine are in this category, along with groups such as Manchester-based Magnetic North and Hertfordshire’s Clock, which show that, in the digital arena, you really don’t have to operate out of London to do great work or win the best clients.

And though the dotcom world only really came to life in the mid- to late-1990s, some consultancies are now in their second generation. De-construct this year merged with Glue Isobar and took its partner’s name, having been under the Isobar Group umbrella since 2004. But it was already one of the fall-out consultancies following the crash of seminal digital group Deepend in the dotcom bust of 2001, which eventually also led to the founding of Poke. All of Us, meanwhile, famously broke away from Digit in 2002 as its former parent was poised to strike a deal with WPP.

For supergroups such as these, business exploits haven’t dimmed creativity – not so far, anyway. According to Sanky and Deepend founder Simon Waterfall – arguably two of UK design’s top creative brains – business is but another creative challenge, and risk a great motivator to set up shop in different ways. It will nonetheless be interesting to see how such pioneers fare as the digital world becomes ever more inclusive.

As with Design Week’s main, cross-disciplinary Creative Survey, the charts presented here are based on three years’ performance across specified high-end awards schemes (see box on page 20). The high scores attributed to honours such as Best of Show in the Design Week Awards and a Black Pencil win in D&AD mean some groups shoot up the chart one year on the strength of a particular project, only to recede as others gain points in successive years.

The trick is to stay on top regardless, by producing great, award-winning work year-on-year. Next year’s chart will give us a better idea of which groups in the digital arena are in there for the long haul creatively.

What we did
The Top 50 chart for creative consultancies is based on their prowess in four key awards schemes: Design Week Awards, D&AD Awards, the Webby Awards and the BIMA Awards organised by British Interactive Media.

We have looked at consultancies’ performance over the past three years of each award scheme. For the DW, D&AD and the Webbies this covers the results from 2008 to 2010, but because the BIMA 2010 results are not yet available, we have taken account of results from 2007 to 2009. Points have been awarded for wins, commendations and places on the awards shortlist according to the scale (see above).

In all cases, we have included only UK groups, or international groups with significant UK offices. Though the listings include some names more familiar in advertising than in design, the ranking is based on interactive design projects only.

Points system
Design Week Awards

Best of Show – 25
Award – 10
Commendation – 5
Shortlisted – 3

D&AD Awards
Black Pencil – 25
Yellow Pencil – 10
Nomination – 5 I
In book – 3

Webby Awards
Award – 10
People’s Voice Award -5
Nomination – 3

BIMA Awards
Grand Prix – 25
Award – 10
Commendation – 5
Shortlisted – 3

Latest articles