How to stop a brief taking over your agency, by Coley Porter Bell’s Vicky Bullen

Vicky Bullen, Coley Porter Bell chief executive, talks about the Morrisons redesign brief, and the lessons learnt in managing large design projects.

Do you remember Dave and Angela Dawes, the couple who won £101million on Euromillions last month? A couple of days later a reporter asked Angela how she was feeling about her win. ‘It’s fantastic ,’ she said, ‘but you wouldn’t believe how much work is involved.’

I know how she feels. Last year we won one of the biggest and most sought after design briefs of the year. Morrisons, the UK’s fourth largest and fastest growing supermarket chain chose Coley Porter Bell from a long list of agencies to lead the redesign of its own label range consisting of more than 17,000 different skus.

Vicky Bullen
Vicky Bullen

Our dream win has not only enriched our cash flow – it has given me some invaluable and sometimes painful lessons in managing large design projects along the way.

This task was always going to be a huge, multi-headed beast, involving thousands of products with complex pricing architectures, complex design architectures, multiple stakeholders and significant resource issues.

The big danger of such a brief is that it takes over the agency. It’s hard to regulate the work flow because it arises from commercial considerations beyond our control. But the sheer volume of work and the fact that it tends to come in bursts can overwhelm everything else unless you are very careful.

This meant we had to be able to flex our resource model – sometimes in a matter of hours. So we put a lot of effort early on compiling a bank of tried and trusted freelancers who we can use to meet the peaks and troughs of the project. We reconfigured desk arrangements to squeeze more people in when we needed them and invested in expensive production equipment.

Morrisons soups
Morrisons soups

With this project we have a complex network of decision makers, the trading team, the marketing team, the brand team and the design team. Lines of communication with the design team are key – they are the voice that represents us and our designs to all those other audiences. Forget weekly or even daily meetings – the level of work means that we are working alongside each other hour by hour. Forget the temptation to do it all by email – make sure face to face time is built in wherever possible. We had an account director work from our client’s office for the four most intense months of this project.

To make this work you at the same time as taking on new blood, you have to have dedicated resource, a really strong core team to hold it all together. And don’t forgot that you don’t only need steely team leaders, you need strong number twos able to step up in case of illness and holidays.

We have put in place tight internal processes, water tight version control, filing and naming conventions, daily meetings with key team members, a separate resourcing model for Morrisons, daily status sheets and real ownership for different parts of the project spread across account directors and senior designers.

Morrisons Bistro packs
Morrisons Bistro packs

A huge project like this should improve your figures no end. But this will only happen if you get the finances absolutely straight. The retail business model involves passing on design costs to suppliers and so our financial models had to make it easy for our clients to keep track of what was being spent literally on each SKU. Rather than negotiate every brief and piece of work we have evolved a matrix with the client that sets a fee per SKU dependent on the complexity of the design.

The other critical thing for us was to do work that we were really proud of. We celebrate the work regularly. We share it with the rest of the agency, we are monitoring the results and celebrating every success – the biggest whoop came when we heard one week after launch that the new pizzas alone had seen a nine per cent increase in sales.

Keeping morale high is key. The pressure on staff can be intense, with long days and lots of frustration. Your people need support and a place to let off steam. At CPB we drink lots of wine to keep the team happy until late in the evening. So prepare your FD for a large wine bill.

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