The power of Proactive Working for designers

Design agencies are missing out on a simple and creatively rewarding way of attracting new clients. It’s nothing new, but it’s rarely used. I call it, ‘proactive working’. It’s all about seeing an opportunity for good design, arguing the case for change, then pro-actively approaching clients with proposals.

Almost every agency invests time and resources pitching for new business. Based on research I commissioned, the typical design consultancy will take part in between 10 and 20 pitches a year. There are obvious benefits to pitching: the agency knows there is an opportunity. Be it a new project or a new client relationship. But there are obvious downsides too.

As we know, pitch scenarios usually involve between three and six agencies, often including the incumbent who is better informed and often hard to dislodge. The average win rate is one in five. That’s a lot of work for often modest returns. But most design agencies continue to pitch. Perhaps it’s just the way they’ve always done things.

But there is another way. I advise designers on how to structure a proportion of their new business effort to proactive working: researching and developing speculative proposals that address challenges facing organisations or exploit opportunities.

It’s an uplifting and dynamic experience to be the driver of a new initiative. And it can be a powerful new business tool. A great idea can propel a design business past the normal barriers of rosters and pitch lists. The tables are turned. Suddenly, the designer is choosing which client they want to do business with, not the other way round.

Let me give you an example of how this works in practice. In 2010, I was advising a client, called Fourmation, on their business development programme. They agreed to allocate time to a proactive project. The first task was to target a sector based on their experience and expertise. Then, we began speculatively researching its most relevant trends, issues and challenges.

We were curious about the growing trend of working outside the office. Where do SMEs and university graduates starting their careers currently go for Wi-Fi access? The coffee shop? It’s not ideal. The real driver there is coffee and the atmosphere isn’t always conducive to working. Where else has Wi-Fi? McDonalds? The pub? They all have the same problem: they’re not dedicated workspaces.

Our proposal was a location where the working atmosphere was the driver of the environmental design. The coffee or food is secondary. Fourmation called them ‘High Street remote work spaces’ and developed a thought-piece around the idea. Within weeks, this became a detailed business proposition with a potentially significant fiscal value to everyone involved.

Now it was time to take the proposal to market. I researched and identified the decision-makers in the mobile communications sector and contacted them. By June we had met or had expressions of interest from all the major players. At this point we ensured they all signed non-disclosure agreements.

O2 were particularly interested in the concept because of its fit with their brand promise. We took advice from a leading negotiations consultancy and O2’s initial interest quickly developed into a collaborative partnership arrangement. In September 2011, O2 opened their largest ever store on Tottenham Court Road. It comes complete with a ‘revolutionary, walk-in workspace targeted at local small businesses’.

Success. My client, Fourmation, were placed on O2’s design roster and has since been commissioned for further project work.

This example shows the intellectual property potential and lucrative collaborations that proactive working can deliver. Perhaps best of all though, this approach to new business puts designers in the driving seat. The clients fight it out for the designer’s work not the other way round. How refreshing.

Of course, proactive working requires self-motivation and effort. But so does anything worth doing. It can differentiate you from the pack and make a client reconsider the position of a sluggish incumbent. Companies are always receptive to fresh thinking and new perspectives – in today’s market, they have to be. So you’d be surprised by how responsive they can be when approached in the right manner with a relevant idea.

I’ve been in this business since the eighties and have rarely seen 2D or 3D designers working like this. Agency owners and directors should be making it more of a priority. It’s time for designers to start backing their creative ability. They need to be presenting ideas to companies to spark conversations rather than waiting on companies to come to them. Agency and client relationships should be collaborative. Get it right, with proper non-disclosure agreements and contract negotiations, and designers can bring their destiny back into their own hands.

Tips for proactive working

1. Review how much your agency has invested over the last 2-3 years in pitches and other speculative new business activity. Work out the conversion rate.

2. As a 12 month trial, allocate 20-25% of this time to self-initiated exploration of new business opportunities.

3. Establish and schedule a small programme that explores the potential of proactive working

4. Identify the parameters for exploration and formulating your ‘brief’. These could range from your agency’s market sector expertise to global issues.

5. Treat this new business exercise exactly the same as you would a fee-paying client project. Give it a job number, a timeline and a deadline.

6. Focus on idea creation and market research to validate the subsequent ideas. Work through the commercial case as best you can.

7. After testing the water for interest, be prepared with non-disclosure agreements and contracts of engagement that set out what you require from the project.

© teer on design 2011

Help clients understand what makes you special

The question of whether an agency should position itself as a ‘specialist’ or as a ‘generalist’ remains something of a conundrum.

There is a dilemma for growing agencies – it is a mistake to be too broad/undefined in approach (no USP – just a design firm like others) but it can also be a mistake to be too specialised (cannot afford to rule out potential business).

An agency that specialises can be perceived as having real expertise and knowledge in its field, yet maybe a narrow offering. An agency that offers a broad range of integrated skills and disciplines can appeal as a ‘one-stop-shop’, yet may be perceived as a jack of all trades and master of none.

Defining succinctly who you are and what it is that makes you ‘special’ is a challenge for anyone in this industry, however, a clear positioning can deliver much-needed clarity in a time-starved world  and saturated marketplace.

First and foremost, prospective clients should have a clear understanding of what you offer from your positioning statement, and secondly/ideally, they should have a sense of what makes you stand out when compared with incumbents and other designers. Perhaps you offer prospective clients valuable insights to the market sector/s in which you specialise. Perhaps you have an in-depth understanding of industry issues, customer demographics, the competitor environment, and so on. Perhaps you simply have a wealth of experience and a proven track record.

Perhaps unknowingly, design agencies frequently make similar claims about what they do and how they do it – often claiming that the experience will be better, easier, more enjoyable or rewarding, but invariably failing to say how or why, or explaining the tangible benefits of the services they provide.

Agencies need to ensure they possess a clearly articulated compelling offer, business approach, collaboration model, capability, work-ethos, focus – call it what you will – that answers the question: what is different or special about you?

The ‘behaviours’ of an agency are the foundation when it comes to growth and business development. Having a collaborative attitude towards growth – your culture, your outlook and your actions – will also lead you to bigger and better things.

Successful agencies tend to focus on what they believe in or how they behave as opposed to what services they provide, or which clients they work for. Whether in advertising, media, research or design, those agencies that have enjoyed the most consistent success have powerful intellectual content – they’ve developed models, tools, structures and processes that demonstrate and articulate their beliefs. In making clear statements of these ideas, they not only position and differentiate themselves; they also create a culture that attracts like-minded employees and clients.

A good example of how it has been done well is Anomaly which called itself a ‘new model agency’, and which was set up with a totally different remuneration structure to the normal agency. They worked on the basis of a share in profits in ‘true partnership’ with clients. The agency launched with these principles at its core and I believe has stuck by them.

Setting up an agency with clear, intellectually driven positioning is one thing, but changing an existing positioning or developing a new one is much harder. A good example of this is Coley Porter Bell. CPB had led the way in talking about strategic design‚ but by the mid 90s that was not enough to create clear differentiation any more. They came up with the idea of Visual Planning – a visual interpretation of the client’s brief that would serve as a benchmark throughout the project – and started applying it to work with clients and talking about it in the market. It was immediately extremely successful and the agency went from strength to strength.

Other good examples would be ZenithOptimedia, the agency known for preaching and delivering ROI.

Or BBH, who have always been known for not doing creative pitches – they don’t give their ideas away for free. BBH used to (and may still) have its beliefs clearly on show in reception and use culture as a differentiator.

The climate in which you do the work is how you differentiate and how you convey what makes you special.

Charities | New financial year, new approach?

As a new financial year begins for many charities, thoughts turn to the impact this recession is having on charitable giving, and the subsequent effect on strategic management, planning and marketing budgets in the run up to 2009/10 annual reporting.

The annual report can be a valuable marketing tool, and more than ever in these recessionary times, clever and careful planning can maximise the impact and value of this mandatory publication. Rather than opting for the convenience of simply commissioning a rework of last year’s structure and design format with last year’s design partner take a moment to consider the following pointers…More

Ditch the pitches, OK, but where’s the proof?

Design Week | Opinion | 19 April 2007

As a business development consultant working with creative groups, I attended a recent ‘win without pitching’ lecture by Blair Enns with an open mind.

Enns’ talk was engaging, his theories prompted some challenging questions from reputable groups in the audience, and I left wondering how I can take something from this lecture for the benefit of groups I work with. So, was I actually convinced by all this theory, or left still searching for answers to the free-pitch conundrum?

Having subsequently read Enns’ ‘Ditch addiction to the pitch’ article, I must ask, where is the proof?  

Theory can draw you in, but proof is more convincing – let’s hear from half a dozen groups that have won without pitching. One testimonial from Studio LR in Scotland is all I’ve been offered.  

Despite how this sounds, I respect the work of Enns’ work and company, and I share the view that free-pitching is a flawed practice. With fee-paying clients on consultancy books, for example, how can clients feel assured that groups produce their best quality work for an unpaid pitch? However, a notable lack of evidence is where the theory starts to work loose.  

Proof of what I do is provided on my blog in the form of testimonials (and on my old Flash website in the form of e-mails received from companies I’ve approached on behalf of consultancies). Perhaps the ‘win without pitching’ theory would benefit from something equally transparent – maybe some of those case studies Enns talks about.  

The industry is crying out for a best-practice alternative to free-pitching – one that provides clients with ‘fit-for-purpose’ assurances while reducing the impact on consultancy (and client) time and resources.

In the meantime, groups should ‘think creatively’ about their terms of engagement, and consider proactively communicating their policy to prospective new clients.

Lead generation services must not exclude freelancers

Design Week | Opinion | 18 May 2006

As a business development consultant working with small- and medium-sized design groups, I use lead generation services to help me identify opportunities for my clients. 

Recently, I tried to subscribe to a well-respected service on behalf of a new client, but was turned away on the basis that I work with more than one consultancy and could potentially ‘share’ information with my other clients.

This ‘subscription sharing’ forced the service to protect itself by preventing freelance new business people from subscribing.

I’ve since learnt that other lead generation-based services targeting the design industry also experience malpractice by some users of their service.

Action has to be taken to safeguard the interests of these services. However, it seems to me that they also need to introduce more intelligent measures to address the problem – as opposed to operating a blanket policy that closes the door on those who don’t abuse their services.

Development policy

new design | January-February 2003

What are the new business development conundrums for the small-to-medium-sized design consultancy? Simon Teer explains why those consultancies that embrace change and achieve real differentiation in their service proposition and new business strategy can succeed in a tough climate – and why those that don’t must face the consequences.

When it comes to new business development, one thing that cannot be ignored is the significant rise in the number of consultancies that make up today’s UK design industry. More breakaways, more start-ups… and so the potential slice of new business cake begins to resemble a few crumbs.

According to reliable sources, since 1998 the market is estimated to have increased from 3,000 to well over 4,000 firms. Seventy-five per cent or more of these 4,000 plus firms are referred to as SMEs employing 20 or fewer staff.

So what does this tell us? On the one hand it’s clearly a healthy sign. On the other, it represents ever-increasing competition in what some would regard as an already overcrowded market.

Many of these consultancies are set up by designers with an unquestionable passion for design, yet less than a keen eye or interest in the dynamics of effective new business development (NBD). In fact, the clichéd inability of the creative to self-promote, or to build business opportunities towards the development of a tangible asset, can become a millstone around the neck.

Creatives find themselves 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.

The problem here is that, with occasional exceptions, good designers aren’t necessarily good business getters.

Yet to attract and win new business, consultancies must raise their game and step outside their ‘comfort zone’. They have to evolve new initiatives that attract interest and challenge incumbent consultancy relationships. Fundamentally, changing consultancy owner/manager attitudes towards the mechanics, timescales and resource needs of NBD is where the journey begins.

But what sort of NBD resource do you choose? Do you outsource a new business developer or employ in-house? Choose a specialist NBD consultant or an appointments arranger? A new business developer or a marketer? Heavyweight, middleweight or a junior? Do you choose a six- or 12-month performance review deadline?

Most consultancies have had their share of experiences trialing these resource options – and often find themselves dissatisfied with their return on investment. The battle for survival and growth places serious pressures on NBD. Eager for results, performance expectations are often set unrealistically high, both in relation to the actual competitive advantages of many creative consultancy propositions, and to the sheer volume of competition and general market conditions.

Client referrals and movers are always welcome, but cannot be relied upon, and project-by-project client relationships can be fickle things. Ensuring you strike a balance between evolving a sustainable new business strategy and the maintenance/organic growth of existing clients is the first step towards getting the internal framework right.

Yet while investment costs are a major factor and can be prohibitive for the smaller consultancy, these are not the only considerations when tackling the NBD conundrum. The other side of the coin is ‘differentiation’. Do you dare to be different?

To captivate you must truly differentiate from the rest. The vast majority of consultancies simply do not do this, or they pay lip service to defining their competitive advantage.

What is compelling, persuasive and distinctive about your business? What do you offer that no one else does? Does your consultancy aspire to lead and create new trends – or simply follow the pack and bolt on the latest fad?

Consultancies with a me-too proposition must establish more radical ‘differentiation factors’ within their new business strategy before they can expect interest to be shown and, in turn, reasonable returns from their new business developers. If you fail to truly differentiate your service offering, you risk costly NBD efforts and the potential to attract new clients.

There are many potential ways of differentiating business products or services – but it takes some soul-searching, courage, trust and a commitment to the process.

Those that do step out of the comfort zone and push the boundaries generally gain a high profile. First Direct pioneered stand-alone telephone banking in 1989 before reinventing itself as an Internet bank; Virgin first launched the much-followed Virgin One ‘offset’ account in 1998; Dyson has rejuvenated the humdrum domestic appliance market: and ‘AllDayPA’ was the first-to-market revolutionary ‘virtual office’ global business concept – brainchild of Reuben Singh.

These examples demonstrate the potential we all have to steal a march on our rivals by taking a recognised product, service or facility – much like design – and having the courage to explore beneficial change. No one says it’s easy: but it is possible.

The fact is, our new business target audiences are no different to you and I – we know they’re inundated with similar claims and offers from your competitors so we must spark their imagination with telling benefits. Over 70% of client companies already have partnerships in place with one or more of your competitors, offering more or less the same service as you. Yet according to Design Council research by PACEC for “Design in Britain 2001 / 2002”, change is proactively introduced and managed by just 20 per cent of UK companies.

Would you use a me-too supplier? Let’s take a simple scenario. You’re a small- to medium-size, relatively low profile creative consultancy knocking on doors. You have a website, loyal clients, and examples of work or case studies, news, client testimonials and all the usual trappings. Yet these component parts simply represent your credentials – they do not provide compelling reasons for companies to contact you. What’s more important is they also describe literally hundreds, if not thousands, of other design consultancies.

The irony is that most people in design consultancies spend their working lives trying to differentiate their clients’ products or services from their competitors. Yet how many do this for themselves? Most are too close to their own service proposition to make a judgement in the cold light of day and should seek independent objective advice. The trick is to stand well back from your business and look at it totally objectively – a process which, by definition, most owners/managers find very difficult to do.

Which brings us back full circle to the need for either a full-time new business developer or an independent that has the necessary objectivity, experience, analytical and planning skills to steer the formulation of a strategy that will work.

Differentiation is an important tool in your NBD arsenal, and NBD is not an optional function to be employed when you can afford it. They are both integral, permanent functions which will set you apart from everyone else and build your reputation in the process.

Addressing these problem areas will make the world of difference between mere survival and long-term future success.

Identifying irony in the way groups are marketed

Design Week | Opinion | 16 January 2003

How do design consultancy owners address the conundrum of new business development in such an expansive industry?

There were 3000 design consultancies in 1998 and five years on, this figure is fast approaching 5000. The more competitive the market is, the more compelling and distinctive the new business proposition must become.

Unknowingly perhaps, many design consultancies are just paying lip service to defining their competitive advantages and invariably fail to differentiate themselves from rival consultancies in any meaningful way.

The irony here is a painfully familiar one – design consultancy creatives spend their working hours in the studio each day trying to differentiate their clients’ products or services from their competitors.

Yet, while there are many potential ways of differentiating a business, few design consultancies go to any lengths to achieve this for themselves.

As I see it, fundamentally changing stereotypical attitudes towards the dynamics, performance timescales and resource needs of new business development is, for many, where the journey begins.

Isn’t this all blindingly obvious? Well, maybe it is, but what are you actually doing about it?

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