Amid headlines of staff cuts, office closures and pay freezes, the past few years have seen many consultancies significantly growing their offers, taking on bigger clients, more staff and opening international offices.
But it’s no mean feat to move from the survival mode of a small fledgling team to a business-minded consultancy with the confidence to carefully select clients, take on new staff and expand while maintaining integrity, creativity and a warm working environment.
Since Jonathan Sands led a management buyout of Elmwood in 1989 (aged just 28), the consultancy has grown from its Leeds-based roots to comprise more than 150 staff across six offices worldwide, with a London office and outposts in New York, Hong Kong, Singapore and Melbourne.
‘When we started we definitely had a view of what our culture was all about, but we certainly didn’t have any view of the end destination’, says Sands. ‘I don’t think we ever thought, even in our wildest dreams, that we’d be international.’
The early days of any consultancy are all about winning work – whether through endless telephone calls, imaginative mailshots (Elmwood’s formative years saw it posting Lego spacemen out to potential clients in an attempt to win annual report work), and ensuring the work you’ve done is recognised.
Spencer Buck, creative director of Bristol-based Taxi Studio, says, ‘We had a very simple strategy from the start – to PR ourselves like whores. We entered as many awards as possible to try to get a name for ourselves.
‘We wanted to establish a creative environment that would rival London, but in an area that we wanted to live in.’
Sands also sees being an initially non-London- based business as crucial to the fabric of his consultancy. ‘We started out aiming to create an ethos that was truly home-grown,’ he says. ‘We weren’t part of a London scene where clients went from agency to agency, and I think that DNA is still part of our culture today.’
Since forming in 2002, Taxi Studio has expanded from three people to a current total of 25 staff. The catalyst for its drive to become more business-minded came in about 2008, when it
was approached to take on a Coca-Cola project, so it decided to recruit a strategy director. ‘We’re creatives at heart’, says Buck. ‘We know how to run projects and deal with clients but needed another skill-set to drive us forward.’
Alongside ensuring that you have the right staff to deal with the business of attracting more and bigger clients, consultancies speak of the importance of adapting a flexible approach that remains true to their core beliefs.
Chris Conlan, managing director of Manchester-based Love, says, ‘Love’s key differentiator from day one was to be about ideas for brands and looking at how a brand can connect with its audience. We haven’t just been about style over substance – we’re not just a graphic design company; we have the freedom to work in several media.
‘As different trends come and go we’ve never put all our money on one of those trends.’
BrandOpus managing partner Nir Wegrzyn, who founded the consultancy in 2006, also sees a clearly-defined offer as crucial. He says, ‘The idea from day one was to work with the client, understand their commercial business and find ways to get their brand to actively participate in the commercial drive.
‘We go quite deep to the root of the brand itself and use a balance of science and creativity. We don’t do traditional research. We use disciplines like neuroscience and economic behaviour and incorporate that into our creative work.’
Wegrzyn says most of BrandOpus’ clients have approached the consultancy directly, and it seems many consultancies often win work through recommendations rather than – as Buck puts it – the ‘if you throw enough shit some will stick’ strategy.
Buck says, ‘In the early days we used direct mail and some targeted stuff, but we’ve generated a lot of new business from being contacted directly by people. We rarely struck it lucky sending things out. It was word of mouth, reputation and visibility in the press, as well as awards.’
But, once you’ve got a potential client, what’s the best way to win a pitch?
‘You need to do what you can to ensure you have the consumer insight and do your homework on the brand’, says Conlan. ‘Find something latent with that information that people haven’t picked up on before and turn it into a really compelling story.
‘Popular culture is so important – you have to acknowledge the brand’s place in popular culture and capitalise on it in a creative way.’
Buck points to a very thorough and strategic approach to pitching. He says, ‘We made a decision to ask rigorous questions upfront and ask for a pitch-scoring criterion.’
Taxi Studio, he explains, asks the client what they will base their decision on – for instance, what weight will be given to creativity, what weight to strategy – as well as asking who else is pitching.
Buck says, ‘You can fall into a pattern if you pitch and pitch and pitch. It’s a bit of a dance – you need to satisfy yourself you stand a good chance and you want to go in with a 50/50 mentality.
‘It doesn’t make you work harder; it makes you work smarter.’
While Taxi Studio has remained in its original Bristol base, since Love began in the early 2000s it has opened a London office and a Shanghai outpost. ‘The key motivator is about recruiting the best talent’, says Conlan about opening the London office. ‘We’re in Manchester and there’s some great creative people here but not enough to help us grow with all the opportunities we have.’
The consultancy has just appointed Phones4U marketing director Trevor Cairns to the new role of chief executive – he joins next month.
Love opened its Shanghai outpost having worked with a client there on a project for Johnnie Walker. ‘What [working in Shanghai] did was focus our attention on how much growth there is in the economy there,’ Conlan says.
‘You hear about it in the news a lot but seeing it firsthand really brought that home. The client saw something in our work that wasn’t readily available, so that differentiated our thinking.’
A key factor to expansion is constant reviews of the consultancy’s offer. Elmwood, Love and Taxi Studio speak of working around a ‘five-year plan’ detailing headcount, the client work they are targeting, new outposts they intend to open and their portfolio to date.
While Sands says he aims to maintain Elmwood’s current growth rate (the company has doubled in size in the past five years), and is looking to open at least two more offices to become a ‘truly global brand agency’, and Wegrzyn hopes to open further international outposts (BrandOpus’ Melbourne office opened last year), Love and Taxi are more cautious about expansion.
‘We think of ourselves as a brand and what we want to achieve’, says Conlan. ‘We’re in a growth phase but we don’t want to grow at the expense of everything else. We only want to grow as quickly as the best people allow us to do.’
Buck shares a similar view. ‘We have a limitation on size’, he says. ‘We know the names of our staff’s partners, children and pets, and enjoy the community we’re creating.
‘I want our legacy to be that people reflect upon their time here and think of it as the most enjoyable part of their career. Business is business and creativity is creativity but with this sort of environment you can get great creativity.’
Tips for growing your business
Make every piece of work count. In the early days, recommendations from clients are crucial for winning new work.
Do your homework before pitches. Find out who you’re pitching against, how they will judge your pitch, and learn about their brand. Only then will you be able to bring something new, creative and interesting to the table.
Enter awards. It’s an easy way for clients to see your successes and a good way for you as a consultancy to take stock of your work and that of your peers.
Don’t try to grow too quickly. You risk losing sight of what your consultancy’s all about. ‘One thing we are told is special about Taxi by the people who work with us is that we are very open, transparent, honest and friendly, which can be eroded once you grow beyond a certain size,’ says Spencer Buck, creative director of Taxi Studio.
Constantly address your strategy. Planning in both the long term and short term for things such as new roles, potential new clients and examining what’s working and what’s not for the consultancy is essential.
Aim high. Jonathan Sands of Elmwood mentions a ‘positivity conference’ where the speaker asked about his ambitions. Sands said he wanted to be among the top 20 UK design consultancies. The speaker replied, ‘If you aim for number one, you’ll definitely get into the top 20.’