Design: Design Agency Leagues - Marketing League Table

Marketing, July 9, 2008 | Go to article overview

Design: Design Agency Leagues - Marketing League Table


Design agencies have an important and enduring part to play in the marketing mix, but proving the ROI they can offer is vital to the industry's continued success, writes Scott Billings.

It is perhaps a little unfair to start by evoking a design project that emerged in a flurry of controversy, but last summer's furore over the London 2012 Olympics logo clearly demonstrates the power of design.

Significantly, it illustrates the passion for and involvement with a piece of graphic communication people can feel, and shows that an emotional connection lies at the heart of design's power to influence The level of both criticism and defence that the Wolff Olins-designed motif drew shows that people instinctively relate, one way or another, to the creative ideas it presents, despite it being 'only a logo'.

Consumer reaction to design can have a profound influence on the fortunes of the business behind the product, even if designers have often found the extent hard to quantify. This is one of the major challenges facing the industry.

The response to the 2012 logo also highlights a problem that has long beset the branding industry in particular - the emphasis placed on a logo or corporate identity, to the virtual exclusion of any other work the design agency may have carried out for a client. However, whatever the design discipline - retail, product or packaging - the most successful executions are much more deeply rooted in the brand's values.

Focusing on the physical manifestation of design work can sometimes belittle this depth, leading to it becoming a commodity purchase, which is another obstacle for design agencies to overcome. 'The value of design and design thinking tends to get lost or overshadowed when people view it as a commodity, which is something that even some within the industry do,' says Jim Northover, chairman of branding and design consultancy Lloyd Northover, whose clients include Lexus and Royal Mail.

The 2012 logo also demonstrates the relative longevity of designs, in this case it will be used for at least five years. Although design may provide some of the materials used for marketing, it seldom forms a campaign in itself; typically, then, design lasts much longer than ads or direct creative.

The importance of good, well-managed design over the longer-term is therefore high, yet many agency-client relationships continue to be short-term. Conversely, advertising accounts often remain in the same agency for years.

The design industry is also different from other marketing services in its culture and structure. To many, its micro-business set-up is that of a cottage industry, populated by independently-minded 'creatives' whose lifestyle proclivities and ambitions often eschew huge growth or empire-building. There has been nowhere near the levels of agency consolidation experienced in advertising and, according to Design Council research, about 60% of UK design agencies employ five people or fewer.

'It is an industry that has traditionally focused on excellence of product, rather than profits,' says Tony Walford, a senior consultant at Results International, a consulting and finance business specialising in the marketing industry. 'There are many small agencies run by designers who are passionate about their product, rather than the commercial aspects.' While ad agencies do not necessarily place profits above creative quality, it seems that design shops often find it more of a struggle to balance the two.

Business value

As the importance of design continues to grow, there seems to be one cardinal challenge; it must communicate and demonstrate the real depth of value it brings to business. To do this, it must strike up long-term relationships at boardroom level, breaking free from project-based, commodity-bought work and forging deeper partnerships with clients. As Scottish & Newcastle chief executive John Dunsmore notes, continually running with project-based work means that design agencies 'have to roll sixes every year' to survive. …

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