Where small design firms struggle – growth strategy ‘implementation’

Strategy-implementation-process

Today, there’s a wealth of free resources and advisers in the market offering growth-related support and strategic guidance to owner-founders and leaders of the many small firms in the design industry.

Some of the many invest time and money exploring these resources and/or engaging an adviser to help them develop a strategic growth plan which is all well and good for those firms that are going to ensure they do manage to successfully implement the plan.

My day-to-day conversations with these size firms frequently reveals just how many struggle to implement a growth strategy in the ongoing consistent manner that’s invariably required. This is all so familiar and often painfully clear to see how a change of mindset and more structure can help those that do struggle to get out of the blocks and purposefully drive the marketing and business development function/s to help deliver on their plan.

This may seem blindingly obvious, but it needs saying because I see the same problems today that I saw back in 2002 when I started my consultancy by writing an article called Development Policy. This was published in 2003 by newdesign and made reference to how…”creatives get wrapped up in what they do best – using their skills to meet the day-to-day demands and deadlines of their ‘here today’ clients – yet in doing so, they neglect NBD, the essential driving force behind any business.”

Around this time, I offered design firms a combination of research, strategic thinking, planning and implementation. This worked well for small design firms as it allowed them to concentrate most of their time on what they often do best and enjoy most – client projects.

Today, advisers typically don’t put into practice and implement the plans they shape for design firms. Some design firms simply don’t engage the right marketing and business development resources or structure any resources at all to put the strategy to work. Others see themselves implementing the plan but fail because they become consumed by or choose to focus their time on client projects.

These are just some of the realities and pinch-points I see, and many will be aware of, that influence the successful implementation of a growth strategy.

So, if you’re mulling over the subject of growth and need a plan, think ‘long term’ and think as carefully about the ‘how’ and ‘who’ will put this plan to work as you do about what strategic advice you might engage to help you shape the plan.

Design Agency Owners and Leaders: Succession Planning to-do?

Forward-Planning

This may be on your list, but are you making the necessary time this needs to; ask yourself the right questions, find the right answers and formulate a plan?

How and when you start to build this picture is clearly a significant consideration that warrants engaging some external perspective to; hear your thoughts, observe your set-up and help you explore the options to bring clarity amid the day-to-day challenges of running the business.

Here are some testimonials to evidence the value of external perspective if you see the need to plan and could use a sounding board that understands the business of design.

Designers: are you Working Proactively?

For years, the typical mindset and prevalent behavioural characteristic of many designers towards agency-client relationships has been ‘reactive’ and not ‘proactive’. Why, and to what extent has this changed? With the right guidance, working proactively can transform work-life experiences for the better, and put designers more in the driving seat.

The trouble with conventional new business exploration

New research published by Design Week (20 March 2017) reveals that 70% of clients still expect designers to free pitch.

The What Clients Think 2017 report, which is based on interviews with 455 clients of design consultancies, shows that while nearly 90% of clients surveyed value design as important to a brand’s success and see the standard of UK design consultancies as “very high”, almost 70% of clients say they would not expect to pay for a creative pitch.

If you’re a designer, you’ll know that agencies have, for years, invested significant business development time and resources in the tendering process and pitching for new business, whether paid, free or otherwise. There are obvious benefits here: primarily, the agency knows there is a real opportunity of winning a fee-based project and the potential of a new ongoing client relationship. But there are obvious downsides too.

The tendering process is time-consuming, and pitching usually involves three to six agencies, often including the incumbent who can be better informed and often hard to dislodge. Based on agency research I commissioned in 2007, the average win rate was one in five – I doubt this rate will have changed a great deal. That’s a lot of work for often modest returns, so is there another, better, less conventional way of exploring new opportunities?

Well there is, but how naturally it fits with the typical mindset and behavioural characteristics of many designers I’m not sure. Allow me to explain.

The trouble with being reactive

I’ve worked with designers in different ways for over 30 years – as a client, in agencies and as a design agency owner. As a consultant, mentor and coach to designers since 2002, it soon became clear that designers were quite often found somewhat stuck in conventional and quite ‘transactional’ client/agency relationships – invariably sitting back waiting for client-initiated projects to be handed out or tender invitations to land and react to.

This reactive behavior would often lead to unsatisfactory project experiences for designers with clients (and vice-versa) and general discontent: ill-fitting client relationships, unrealistic project budgets and/or timescales, clients lacking ‘ambition’ in projects, differing strategic or creative ideas and opinions, and more. Things needed to change.

The opportunity with being proactive

My thoughts around this time seemed logical – that if designers had more clarity about themselves and their purpose, and they worked more proactively, they could elevate their standing in the relationship and, in doing so, potentially enhance their work-lives.

Designers are naturally creative and curious – their skillset is perfectly suited to working proactively. For me, it made sense that designers invest more time to applying their natural skills to self-initiate research and idea development. So, from around 2005 I set about encouraging design firms to embrace and integrate a more proactive way of working into their behaviours and activities.

What is Proactive Working?

Proactive Working is designers taking more control over their destiny and making things happen more on their terms.

It’s self-initiating research to inform, shape and own ideas and intellectual property. It’s proactively reaching out to and instigating conversations with selected clients (existing and new) that designers are potentially well suited to working with. It’s ‘partnering’ in the true sense of the word – in a co-venturing commercial context. It’s putting the designer more in the driving seat. It’s being less client-led. It’s leading and hunting, and not just being conveniently fed. It’s elevating the designer in the agency-client relationship by building perceived value through your actions.

Proactive Working is shaping your future, not allowing others to shape it for you.

Working proactively is a mindset and a behaviour that can be effective and rewarding, but it takes courage, and won’t be for everyone. The challenge for designers with establishing and running a programme that explores the potential of Proactive Working is largely the commitment to and recognising the need for; discipline, open-mindedness, perseverance, determination and not making premature judgements about whether it works or not.

As for the rewards, well, they can be transformational.

The benefits

By working more proactively, designers can enhance their work-lives in many ways. It’s an uplifting and dynamic experience to be the driver of a new initiative. The new skills, knowledge, confidence that can be acquired. The clarity of purpose, sense of freedom and controlling your own destiny is exciting.

Proactive working done well can be a powerful and purposeful new business driver. A great idea can propel a design business past the gatekeepers and typical barriers. The tables can be dramatically turned. Suddenly, the designer can hold the purse strings and choose which client they want to do business with, not the other way around. The potential rewards that can be derived from embedding this way of working – either in part alongside your more conventional business development activities, or as the standalone activity – are plain to see.

The example

In 2010, I found myself working with a small design firm to help them explore how they might develop their business and new opportunities. As part of this, and we took ourselves on a ‘journey of proactivity’. The results were fascinating. A big idea took shape and within just a few months we had secured the interest of a significant new client in a co-venture proposal, and my client had secured its place on their agency roster. The journey, experience and insights we gained are captured in this blog post.

How the land lies today

Armed with this uplifting example of how effective proactive working can be, the endeavor to encourage more design firms to embrace and integrate a more proactive way of working into their behaviours and activities would seem worthwhile and likely to click.

What I experienced, for the most part, was a reluctance to trial this approach, and so its potential was rarely tapped and explored. Six years on from this experience, ways of working may have changed and design firms I have worked with recently have been distinctly proactive by nature, but I ask these questions to hopefully shed more light on how the land lies today:

  • To what extent has the typical mindset and behavioural characteristics of many designers changed? Outside of fee-paying day-to-day client projects, are many design firms still working reactively?
  • How much time, effort and money does working conventionally – in the pursuit of new business tenders, pitches and growth – cost agencies today? What is the typical conversion rate and return?
  • Are alternative ways of working given the time and money they need to succeed?

Getting proactive

At this point, I recall the inspirational words of Seth Godin who says, firms need to avoid playing it ‘safe’, think differently and be less risk-averse. These are qualities that drive Proactive Working to transform work-life experiences.

Clearly this is challenging for even the bravest among us. Intrinsically linked to the act of ‘proactive exploration’ can, for some, be a significant change of mindset and behaviour. Embracing a complete change or shift in how you try to win new business can be uncomfortable, unsettling, even scary.

So how can designers set about embracing change? A starting point might be to ask yourself;

  • how accepting and comfortable do you feel with the familiar and typical client/agency dynamic of ‘client holding the purse strings’?
  • And is the uncertainty in the conventional tender/pitch process – not knowing whether your firm will be ‘the chosen one’ – really the best way to explore new opportunities going forward?

Objectively reviewing your current business development activities, outputs and behaviours is a logical next step. Who this applies to includes those that may be enjoying a margin of success with their outbound activities – be warned, complacency is the silent killer!

Are you Working Proactively?

Designers that strive to be more proactive, and less reliant on ‘client-led’ initiatives and project commissions, can open doors to more opportunities for leadership in their market sectors. And pave the way for building reputation!

After all, the client-agency relationship benefits when both sides put into it. Clients look to designers for inspiration, in fact they expect them (at times) to take the lead with fresh ideas for discussion and fuel the relationship more. But how often is this happening today?

In this dynamic, exciting, uplifting way of exploring new opportunities, imagine how clients could (in time) find themselves making more of the running to ensure they are on your shortlist to see and hear your reflections, ideas and visions and to be your preferred partner.

I’m not saying you can win all your new business by working in this way, but if designers mix up their approach, think differently and take the initiative more they’re likely to see big results. Working proactively can transform day-to-day work-life experiences, raise external perceptions and profile, and it can elevate designers in agency-client relationships.

For more information, check out my seven Tips for Proactive Working at the end of this article. 

Positioning oneself as an Expert

It’s a bold, confident word ‘expert’.

As for its literal definition, an ‘expert’ is someone or a firm with a high level of skill or knowledge in a particular field. For me this raises some questions…

– Is the very definition of the term ‘expert’ somewhat vague and open to interpretation? What actually constitutes having a ‘high level of skill or knowledge in a particular field’?

– Is being an ‘expert’ something that one can authentically declare of oneself?

– And is being an ‘expert’ something that is more appropriately bestowed upon you by others, like an award or privilege granted as a special honour or as an acknowledgement of merit?

So, for example, a client company that discovers whether or not they experience and regard a design firm to be ‘expert’ in their particular field and, if so, maybe referring to them as ‘expert’ in a testimonial? Or maybe it’s the preserve of industry awards or other independent bodies that are better placed to make impartial judgements and hand out such acknowledgements? After all, there are no real set criteria in the vast majority of fields as to what makes an ‘expert’.

Thinking about this in terms of people we would unquestionably regard as ‘expert’ in their field…

The obvious example would be German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, and there’s broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough who has served an industry all his life, has won awards and received a knighthood in 1985 in recognition of his services to television. And then there’s Stephen Hawking who knows a thing or two about science and the universe.

These people have undoubtedly earned their stripes, however, the point I wish to make here is that I doubt they would ever have referred to themselves as ‘experts’ in say a biography or in any promotional capacity. Equally, we don’t see long-established highly experienced firms that we could easily regard as ‘expert’ in their field – for example Apple, Microsoft, EY, Goldman Sachs, etc – describing themselves as such.

Interestingly I recall, when I joined the DBA Experts Register a few years ago, feeling the term ‘experts’ was not the best way for the DBA to be positioning the register. That’s just my opinion about the name, and I hasten to add it’s not a reflection of how I view the people on the register!

Maybe I need to get out more, but this is everyday reflection on the power of words, and the nuances and idiosyncrasies that figure in my work. Part of what I do involves helping companies to position themselves authentically. Blindingly obvious maybe, but the words we choose to describe ourselves speak for us, and must be chosen with due care and understanding of their true meaning and what they actually say about us.

Thinking objectively and contemplating those I see from time to time positioning themselves as ‘experts’, I wonder how this may be perceived by their existing and prospective clients, by stakeholders, staff, associates, etc.

Of course this is a personal thing, and some of you may not agree or particularly care about this either way. However, there are certain do’s and don’ts around positioning, and from experience my instincts prompt me to advise any client of mine against defining themselves as an ‘expert’. Why?

Because generally, those that are truly at the top of their game have a solid reputation and following anyway, and they don’t need to ‘shout’. Others experience their aptitude and speak for them. Qualities such as humility, calm, transparency and restraint combined with evidence of success make for a compelling, trustworthy and believable brand proposition.

You may see this differently, so please share your thoughts and ponder the following questions:

– Is it appropriate to self-proclaim and position oneself as an ‘expert’?
– Is it the role of others to decide or propose whether someone is an ‘expert’ or not in their field?
– How do design firms feel about the idea of engaging the services of an ‘expert’?

Retaining and developing clients – the designer’s Achilles heel?

Interesting to read and reflect on the findings of Up to the Light’s latest and very informative report What Clients Think 2016 published in March 2016 in association with the DBA.

For anyone unfamiliar with this report it presents the findings of 435 interviews, conducted with clients of design agencies during 2015, to monitor the health of client/agency relationships.

As I read through the section ‘Keeping Clients’ which covers client service and client development issues, I found myself recalling and comparing this to the key findings of a client survey I conducted back in 2001 at a time when I was running a design practice I set up in 1999. Our ‘Signpost Survey’ posed the question…Are you being served?…and explored marketers’ attitudes towards and their experiences of working with designers. Design Week published extracts from the findings in a piece they summarised as Poor show from consultancies which identified weaknesses in the way design firms engaged with and serviced clients at this time.

15 years on and I see the common ground between both surveys. One can draw conclusions around the apparent lack of progress being made by many design firms in their responsibilities to service and develop healthy client relationships. This is a service industry, and yet client service clearly seems to be an ongoing challenge for many design firms.

So what does teer bring to the client service and development challenge?

Occupying the space I have between agencies and clients since the mid-80s, you get 30+ years’ sector experience applied to methodologies and growth-oriented activities that are implemented efficiently, have a generally positive impact and are well received by clients.

1980s – Client-side product developer commissioning design services on behalf of toy and games manufacturers

1990s – Agency-side in Account Direction roles working for various creative agencies including Holmes & Marchant Group

1999 to 2003 – Design business owner serving mostly large multinational UK-based clients

2003 to present – Strategic growth consultancy trading as teer providing mentoring and coaching services to design business owners / leaders

We all have our experiences and hopefully learn from the often fickle nature of client relationships. Personally, I’ve developed and apply practical methodologies that help design firms adopt a more client-focused mindset and proactive behaviour that can shape or improve how they retain and develop healthy client relationships.

If you’re curious or suspect there is scope for improving your client servicing then a conversation could be your next step. On the other hand, if you’re sceptical or confident you have the client service thing all buttoned down, you might just want to check by asking yourself some questions, like:

  • Do we monitor and know how clients experience working with us?
  • How well do we engage with and manage the interactions we have with clients on projects?
  • How do clients feel we compare with their past or incumbent agencies they might work with?
  • Outside of fee-based projects, is our behaviour within client relationships mostly reactive or proactive regarding their challenges, needs and future plans?

Marketing Is Dead

A candid perspective by Bill Lee for Harvard Business Review

Traditional marketing — including advertising, public relations, branding and corporate communications — is dead. Many people in traditional marketing roles and organizations may not realize they’re operating within a dead paradigm. But they are. The evidence is clear.

First, buyers are no longer paying much attention. Several studies have confirmed that in the “buyer’s decision journey,” traditional marketing communications just aren’t relevant. Buyers are checking out product and service information in their own way, often through the Internet, and often from sources outside the firm such as word-of-mouth or customer reviews.

Second, CEOs have lost all patience. In a devastating 2011 study of 600 CEOs and decision makers by the London-based Fournaise Marketing Group, 73% of them said that CMOs lack business credibility and the ability to generate sufficient business growth, 72% are tired of being asked for money without explaining how it will generate increased business, and 77% have had it with all the talk about brand equity that can’t be linked to actual firm equity or any other recognized financial metric.

Third, in today’s increasingly social media-infused environment, traditional marketing and sales not only doesn’t work so well, it doesn’t make sense. Think about it: an organization hires people — employees, agencies, consultants, partners — who don’t come from the buyer’s world and whose interests aren’t necessarily aligned with his, and expects them to persuade the buyer to spend his hard-earned money on something. Huh? When you try to extend traditional marketing logic into the world of social media, it simply doesn’t work. Just ask Facebook, which finds itself mired in an ongoing debate about whether marketing on Facebook is effective….more.

A view through the client lens

Brief extracts from a recent talk by John Gleason from ‘A Better View Strategic Consulting’ (formerly 20 years at P&G)

Client challenges:
Speed (to market)
Scale (desire/need to grow…’being bigger is better’ thinking)
Complexity
Innovation (rarely delivered, more an aspiration)
Value (demonstrating/seeing this clearly for their company, and cost containment)

Agency pointers:
Engage your whole team.
Try to reveal/show/explain clearly how clients will experience your process.
Client lists (whether written or often presenting the client’s logo)….what does this tell a prospective client about your role/achievement/s for those companies – ROI?). Client logos can look impressive but they tell nothing.
Don’t try and be ‘all things’ or a one-stop-shop!
Agency awards don’t ‘buy’ clients.
Articulate what the client will ‘experience’ in working with you, and the reason/s to trial you.
Declare; Who you are, What you do, Why you’re a good fit for the client, What makes you the expert.
Your ability/credentials in the context of the client’s business.
Have a point of view – don’t be afraid to say what you really think.
Be bold and memorable! Believe that ‘fortune favours the brave’.
Larger clients generally seek focused/specialist external consultancy/expertise.
Be critical and challenge yourselves. Ask yourself ‘so what’ to the explanations you give and the way you present yourselves/your information.

To conclude:
Be a great brand / specialist.
Stand for something specific.
How you behave – does it make you stand out? Know this about yourselves – declare it loud and clearly!
Stop stating the obvious that every other agency is stating – clients are fed up with hearing all this.
Know your prospects – show this, do your research!
Who are we? What do we do? Why are we right for you? Make sure all this is relevant to the prospect!
Who are your competitors and why you’re better. Is what you offer what the prospect actually needs?
Learn how to say ‘no’ and walk away when necessary. You have more power / control than you think.
Plan, Practice, Prepare!
Everything is negotiable….provided your ‘advantages’ stack up favourably against the competition!
Become the client, and continually ask yourself…..so what?

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