How to top the Design Week Top 100

The 2014 Design Week Top 100 lists the UK’s leading independent design consultancies, ranking them by the amount of money they make from design fees. For this year’s Top 100 survey, we have spoken to the three leading consultancies – Imagination, Design Bridge and Radley Yeldar – to find out a little bit more about their history and ways of working and to look at how they developed into design powerhouses.

Number 1: Imagination

This year’s Design Week Top 100 survey once again sees Imagination take the lead as the UK consultancy with the highest annual fee-income.

Its place at the top was secured by a worldwide total design fee-income of £63 million, up from last year’s £54 million.

The oldest consultancy in our top three, Imagination was founded in 1968 in London. 
The independent consultancy now has 20 offices and 555 employees across the world, in cities including Detroit, Singapore, Doha, Macau and Sydney.

Group chief executive and global creative director Douglas Broadley puts Imagination’s success down to its flexibility and its tongue-in-cheek promise 
to ‘never let a good recession go to waste’.

‘Since the company was founded, we’ve gone through a number of global and UK recessions,’
he says. ‘[During these] we have made a conscious effort to constantly rethink, adapt and innovate the creative service we provide our clients.’

Imagination’s approach to brand communications focuses on creating brand experiences, exemplified in its three-year global exhibition programme for Jaguar Land Rover. This has seen the consultancy work across brand strategy, digital, retail, visual and corporate identity, as well as events including a ‘Hollywood-style reveal’ of a Land Rover driven by actor Daniel Craig live through the streets of New York.

Imagination’s other clients are spread across multiple markets, including the public sector, financial, technology, media, leisure, FMCG, retail and pharmaceuticals. Clients include
 Shell, Westfield, Jaguar, BT, Harrods and Burberry.

Broadley says in the past 15 years the consultancy has shifted its approach in the face of rapid changes brought about through digital and technological advancements. He terms these ‘positive disruptions’, and claims they have allowed Imagination to better use data in its design processes.

‘We’ve developed greater skills in co-creation with our clients and ensured great experience ideas are formed using insights extracted from the beautiful world of data,’ he explains. ‘The shift in the way 
we bring creativity to life has resulted in more transformative work and significant growth.’

Digital is at the heart of Imagination’s projects for Ford, which it has worked with for nearly 40 years. At last year’s Detroit Auto Show, Imagination looked to position the brand as a technology as well as an automotive company, creating the Ford Blue Oval radio- frequency identification card, which visitors could use to collect videos and photographs of themselves at the Ford stand. Also, this year teams across the Americas, EMEA and Asia-Pacific worked together to launch the new Ford Mustang in events across all of those regions in a single 24-hour period.

However, Imagination’s success is not just down to its financial nous, but its optimism, says Broadley.

‘You cannot run a business without optimism – about the world, your clients, the future,’ he says. ‘Enlightened businesses believe they are capable of serving the economy and society.’

Number 2: Design Bridge

Design Bridge's new packaging for Tanqueray No.Ten, for Diageo
Design Bridge’s new packaging for Tanqueray No.Ten, for Diageo

Design Bridge – the consultancy taking second place in this year’s top 100 – was born in 1986, the same year Design Week launched its first issue.

Design Bridge executive creative director Graham Shearsby says it was also the year that marked the coming of age of the fledgling UK design industry.

‘It was a boom time for start-ups and we saw the shift from “commercial artists” to “agencies and consultancies”,’ he says. ‘In a pre-Mac age, the tools of the trade were 00 sable brushes, gouache and magic markers. There were an awful lot of egos, bow-ties and black Saab 900 Turbos around too.’

Packaging specialist Design Bridge started life
 in an allegedly-haunted space that once served as a Victorian debtors’ prison, with ten staff who met at Allied International Designers. Today, five of the original team remain and are still very much hands-on and at the heart of Design Bridge.

In the 28 years since it launched, the consultancy has evolved from focusing on packaging design
 to branding too. ‘This has resulted in deeper client relationships, richer and more challenging briefs and growing and developing talent from a broader creative background,’ says Shearsby. It now works in more than 40 countries, with offices in New York, Amsterdam and Singapore.

Among Design Bridge’s projects are work for Oxo; Pernod Ricard; Moët Hennessy; Tate & Lyle; Dulux; Walkers; and Diageo. Most recently the consultancy redesigned the Tanqueray No. Ten brand, which Shearsby feels represents Design Bridge’s philosophy of ‘bringing brands to life through great storytelling and design that reaches out and really emotionally connects with people’.

The project, he adds, included designing ‘packaging, glassware, theatre and rituals, and even an online film that captures the story of the bottle, all emotionally conveying the brand’s Art Deco heyday and fresh citrus and botanical distillation.’

Design Bridge believes that consultancies will succeed if they have a clear vision of who they are and what they stand for. ‘Your staff and clients need to believe and buy into what makes you special,’ says Shearsby. ‘Celebrating and understanding your company’s culture is key to its longevity. Be self-critical, stay youthful and don’t rest on your laurels.’

Like the other consultancies topping our survey, Design Bridge has succeeded in the face of the economic downturns of the past few decades.

And it is in no danger of slowing down, jumping four places in the Top 100 from sixth in 2013, with a reported fee-income over the past year of £30 million.

According to Shearsby, a harsh economic climate is an ideal time to go it alone, as redundancies force designers to start their own businesses.

‘My advice in 2014 is to still be cautious and 
don’t be lulled into a false sense of security,’ he warns. ‘High overheads and poor cashflow are lethal. Concentrate on your work output and your creative reputation and live frugally until you build foundations. We started out in a Victorian debtors’ prison, which sounds romantic but was pretty grim.’

Number 3. Radley Yeldar

Offices for GSK, designed by Radley Yeldar
Offices for GSK, designed by Radley Yeldar

Like Design Bridge (and Design Week), Radley Yeldar was founded in 1986 – as a printed communications specialist by a group of friends from Bishop’s Stortford in Hertfordshire, who set up shop in East London’s Curtain Road.

Taking third place in 2014’s top 100, the consultancy has moved up from fifth place in 2013 with a fee-income of £18 million for the past year.

Best known for designing annual reports, Radley Yeldar started life offering design services to financial PR agencies. Since then, it has evolved into a branding and corporate communications agency, working with clients including Balfour Beatty, P&O Cruises and the Home Retail Group.

‘When we started the business, privatisation and share-ownership were on everyone’s agenda,’ says consultancy co-founder Carl Radley.‘This resulted 
in a boom in the annual report market, which created opportunities for consultancies like Radley Yeldar.

‘There was no real magic formula to our success, just hard work. That and the ability to respond to the needs of the market and grow our offer accordingly. The entrepreneurial spirit that started the consultancy is still a fundamental part of its DNA.’

In 2014, Radley Yeldar’s approach is to ‘join it
 all up’ for clients, working across strategy, visual identity, creating assets such as websites, videos and advertising, and employee engagement. Such all-encompassing projects have been undertaken for clients including Severn Trent, Arqiva and GSK, for which Radley Yeldar also designed office interiors.

More singular projects include: creating an animation for the Fairtrade Foundation; designing digital communication solutions for Shell and Clarksons; and investor engagement work for clients such as Syngenta, Petrofac and Lloyds Banking Group. It also designed all the launch communications for Strategy&, the entity born out of the merger of Booz & Co and PwC.

In the 28 years since founding Radley Yeldar, Radley says the design industry has become far more sophisticated and competitive.

‘The rise in digital and social media, the greater use of film and video, and the continuing integration of design briefs have all resulted in a need to continuously review and develop our skill sets,’ 
he says. ‘We need to focus on adaptability and be fleet of foot in reacting to the evolving needs 
of clients, the changing nature of the markets they work in and the means by which they engage
 with their audiences.’

For those who feel they have what it takes to
set up shop in this ever-changing design landscape, Radley advises that new consultancies take it slowly, focusing on their core specialisms and resisting the temptation to grow too quickly.

‘Always keep an eye on detail and quality, listen to your client and make sure you both meet and manage their expectations,’ he says.

‘And don’t take your foot off the business development pedal – you have to keep feeding your business. Work hard, and enjoy the ride.’

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You can see this year’s Design Week Top 100 in full here.

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