Main Content

Thought followership

colourfulbuildingblocks_l_62594174_originalDespite the volume of thought leadership that is created, not all of it delivers as it should do. A recent survey by Thoughtworks360 found that less than a third of organisations who invest in thought leadership successfully generate leads and close business from it.

This is not because thought leadership does not work. Done well, it can be highly effective, but it must be done well. Much of what presents itself as thought leadership is uninspired, “me-too” thinking. It is bland “content” that fills space but offers little genuine insight, much less leadership. In doing so it can do more harm than good to an agency’s reputation. 

Why does this happen? After all, this is the creative industry. Day in, day out we conceive and implement brilliant ideas that transform clients’ businesses – thought leadership ought to be second nature to us. To some extent the issue is that agencies are so devoted to client delivery that we lack time and attention for our own self-promotion. 

Conception, creation, distribution

Yet the issue is about more than mere lack of resource; it is also about skills. There is a subtle but critical difference between creating thought leadership for clients, and creating it for ourselves. Whilst we are typically experts in our clients’ businesses and issues, we tend to lack the broader industry perspective required to conceive the right topics. It also requires production skills – typically editorial writing – that we lack. Whilst we may be accomplished at crafting on-pack copy or compelling ad copy we tend to lack the editorial writing skills that are needed for thought leadership. Finally, B2B content distribution is a skill little in demand at most creative agencies, but is essential if any potential clients are going to see our carefully conceived and crafted thought leadership.

Many agencies choose to bring in experts to help them conceive, create and distribute thought leadership. Yet, it can be done in-house. The skills can be learnt. In the latest DBA – Red Setter Guide we detail the three key stages – conception, creation, distribution – that will result in distinctive, ownable material that will contribute to your reputation as a genuine thought leader and so help grow your agency.

Agency transformation

Thought leadership is not a short cut to agency growth and it is hard work. Yet, high quality thought innovation_l_54343736_155_02leadership not only has the potential to deliver short term returns; perhaps more important is the longer-term shifts that on-going thought leadership creates in the way agencies are viewed by clients, employees, and peers, as well as by future employees and clients. 

We worked with a top-five agency which presented a fresh view of the future of the spirits market in an article in a drinks industry publication and then emailed it as a PDF to potential new clients. It got them in front of one of the main global drinks players, and they picked up the brief to create a more contemporary visual identity for one of the world’s most famous spirits brands. 

And a thought leadership article we developed with a small regional agency, following months of researching the UK’s further education market, was used by the Times Educational Supplement as a cover story, and led to an event attended by dozens of education marketers and addressed by our client. The agency picked up significant new business as a result. 

Done right, thought leadership can be powerful

redsetterblack-copyIf the potential of thought leadership seems enticing, but the time required seems intimidating or inconceivable, consider instead how you can create an agency of thought leaders. The agencies that do this most successfully, do not rely on just one person. They instil a culture where everyone is involved in the ongoing conception, creation and distribution of thought leadership. The agencies that begin this process today, will be tomorrow’s industry success stories. 

About: Alex Blyth

A widely published journalist and book author, Alex Blyth has also helped global brands such as Deloitte, Dell, and PwC produce thought leadership reports. He now brings this experience to the design sector, helping Red Setter’s clients create thought leadership that grows both their reputations and client bases.

Image credits: © Rawpixelimages | Dreamstime.com

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About: Nick Howe

Nick is Managing Director at design and innovation agency Uniform.

Long-standing members of the DBA, Uniform have offices in both Liverpool and London. www.uniform.net

Image credits: © Zimmytws | Dreamstime.com

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Design in context

Design is central to the British economy, helping to drive innovation and improve productivity. Recent research by the Design Council shows that the design economy alone contributes 7.2 percent to the total UK economy.

Central to the submission is the message that ‘Design does not exist in isolation’. It works across all levels of the economy, allowing for innovation to take place in sectors ranging from agriculture to robotics. As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, it is vital that design is seen both as a major contributor to the British economy in its own right, as well as a driver for growth in terms of both commercialising innovation and manufacturing.

Member consultation

In order to secure the best possible outcome for the UK economy, the DBA, APDIG and BIDA held an open consultation with the design sector, requesting their views on how the Industrial Strategy should work to:

• Embed design principles at the heart of British industry

• Promote R&D funding and tax credits for innovative companies and contractors

• Work towards a targeted sector deal for the creative industries

• Give people access to education and training to develop the skills needed for the industries of the future

• Develop Britain’s infrastructural capacities by investing in reliable communications, transport and energy

In carrying out this consultation – the DBA, APDIG and BIDA asked six open questions to members. Full details of which can be read in the submission. 

The role of design

The DBA, APDIG and BIDA’s submission calls for the Government to think carefully about the role of design and its potential contribution to a positive future for the British economy.

In developing a good working relationship with the design profession, the new Industrial Strategy can work to support and reward this vital sector of the economy, giving it the potential to grow itself, and to facilitate the development of businesses in both a sectoral and regional way.

The submission also calls for the Industrial Strategy to recognise the unique characteristics and tendencies associated with the design sector. In particular:

• It’s a diverse sector comprised of a range of firms, ranging from large-scale conglomerates to microbusinesses and independent consultants.

• Design is often under-represented in statistics and government discussions owing to its ‘hidden’ nature, oftentimes within other sectors of the economy. IBM, for example, employs 1600 designers in-house in the UK but they are included within the employment statistics of the Technology Sector and not Design.

• Growing the UK’s manufacturing base by improving or creating new and innovative products which has a major knock-on benefit to their supply chains and the export potential of growing businesses.

• It encompasses nearly all sectors of the economy – from agriculture to management to robotics and AI.

• Design is a cross-cutting enabler in business – working from the inside out across the entire supply chain for major manufacturing projects.

• Crowdfunding increasingly forms part of the business plan for many businesses and agencies.

• It’s a sector in which UK is world-leading and which also provides a huge amount of ‘soft power’.

The submission outlines that in all these areas design is the perfect sector to assist in increasing the UK’s competitive nature – achieved both in terms of itself, as well as designers working to increase efficiency and drive innovation for other sectors of the economy.

You can read the submission in full here.

With thanks to all those who contributed valuable comment to the consultation.

Further information on the Government's Industrial Strategy

In January, the Government announced a consultation into building a new industrial strategy, where the public sector works with private companies to promote economic development. The initial views of the government outlining the way forward have been published as a so-called Green Paper, which is available here.

The strategy has highlighted Ten Pillars, summarised below, that show the range that the new set of industrial policies will focus on:

  1. Investing in science, research and innovation
  2. Delivering affordable energy and clean growth
  3. Driving growth across the whole country
  4. Upgrading infrastructure
  5. Supporting businesses to start and grow
  6. Encouraging trade and inward investment
  7. Creating the right institutions to bring together sectors and places
  8. Developing skills
  9. Cultivating world-leading sectors
  10. Improving procurement

The Government announced that the Creative Industries will form one of the first five specific “sector deals”. 

Image credits: © Robwilson39 | Dreamstime.com

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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. 

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 some design firms I’ve 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

The inspirational words of Seth Godin are worth a mention – he 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 chosen 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. 

 

Further reading 

The What Clients Think report 2017 is a fascinating snapshot of the client viewpoint and provides important pointers for how agencies can strengthen their client relationships. Here, the DBA’s CEO Deborah Dawton takes a deeper look at some of the issues behind the results. Read more 

Proactive Working – Simon Teer outlines seven tips for proactive working. Read more 

About: Simon Teer

Simon is a Consultant, Mentor and Coach at Teer. 

Teer is a strategic consultancy that coaches and mentors emerging and established design firms that typically specialise in products, furniture, graphics and interiors.

E: simon@simonteer.com

Image credits: © Dennis Van Duren Dreamstime.com

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Client world

88% OF CLIENTS EXPECT THE BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT TO BE TOUGHER THIS YEAR THAN LAST YEAR

88% OF CLIENTS STATED THAT THEY ARE ‘UNDER SOME PRESSURE’ TO REDUCE AGENCY COSTS

Deborah says: “It’s no surprise that clients are under pressure to reduce agency costs given that they’re under pressure to reduce all costs. We’ve seen a global slowdown that has led to low growth and consequently low returns. And when that happens, every area of a business comes under the spotlight, not just agency fees. If you’re in this position as an agency, then it’s more important than ever to demonstrate the tangible value you add. So if you’re not in the habit of hanging around long enough to measure the impact of your work, I would suggest that your days are numbered. There’s been an explosion in the desire to measure and evaluate, and a creative positioning alone is no longer enough. Brands need great creativity and design effectiveness.”

Winning clients

86% OF CLIENTS PERCEIVE THE CREATIVE STANDARDS OF UK DESIGN AGENCIES TO BE ‘VERY HIGH’

68% OF CLIENTS WOULD NOT EXPECT TO PAY FOR A CREATIVE PITCH

Deborah says: “The UK has the largest design sector in Europe and is second only to North America globally, and what Up to the Light’s report reinforces again this year is that the quality of what clients get from UK agencies is extremely high. This puts us in an enviable position. Design is understood to be a very important contributor to brand success and the DBA’s Design Effectiveness Awards prove that. So it bowls me over that we’re still facing the issue of a sector whose overwhelming instinct is to give work away for free, to be in the running for a brand’s patronage. Designers have a responsibility to fully diagnose the situation they are faced with and prescribe the right solution in their expert opinion and that cannot happen without considered thought, and a good working relationship based on mutual respect. 68% of clients would not expect to pay for a creative pitch and it’s our job to explain why that could be their undoing. Let’s celebrate the 22% that demonstrate best practice in their selection process, and probably have the business results to show for it.”

Retaining and growing clients

72% OF CLIENTS SEE THEIR DESIGN AGENCY AS A ‘PARTNER’ RATHER THAN A SUPPLIER

87% OF CLIENTS WHO HAD A WEAKER OR MORE VULNERABLE RELATIONSHIP WITH THEIR DESIGN AGENCY CITED CLIENT SERVICE ISSUES AS THE MAIN REASON

Deborah says: “Moving from being seen as a supplier to a partner is the Holy Grail for any agency. Client services teams if you have them, or your designers, have to understand that simply doing a great creative job isn’t enough. It won’t paste over the cracks in a relationship that is perceived by the client to have gone off the boil. Maintaining our keenness and commitment to our clients is our responsibility, and a mark of the respect that we have for them and their brands. It’s perhaps no surprise therefore that client servicing and project management are the two areas that the DBA does most of its training in.”

Head to Up to the Light’s website to download and read the full report here: http://www.uptothelight.co.uk/news

Further reading – Designers: are you working proactively? 

For years, the typical prevalent behaviour of many designers towards client relationships has been ‘reactive’ and not ‘proactive’. But, working proactively can transform work-life experiences for the better, and put designers more in the driving seat. Read more

Image credits: © Bbbar | Dreamstime.com

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What we are looking for

APDIG and the DBA want your views:

  • You tell us that you’re struggling to recruit the right talent for your business. What skills shortages do you have or expect to have? And what do you think has caused the shortage?
  • Does geography play a part and can we link skills needs of the industry to skills provision by educational institutions in local areas? Or do we need a radical rethink? How would you go about developing your future workforce?
  • The Government is offering the Creative Industries (CI) a Sector Deal. The design industry sits within this CI industry grouping but there isn’t a predetermined recipe for a Sector Deal as it’s not been done before. Given that the Government’s emphasis throughout the Green Paper is productivity and growth, what ideas do you have for driving growth in a) your business and our sector of industry (if that’s what you want); b) in your clients’ businesses; and c) more generally across the UK?
  • The Industrial Strategy also aims to cultivate world-leading sectors. The Creative Industries is generally thought of as a core strength of the UK so how might we protect our world-standing, how might we showcase it to the world and how do we grow it?
  • The design industry in the UK does a lot of work overseas. What could we be doing to enable you to grow your overseas markets?
  • How would you go about embedding design at the heart of all British businesses to help them grow or to help them export their products or services overseas?
  • We need to be bold in our ask of Government, so no idea is too big or too expensive at this stage. But we also know that the simplest ideas are often the best. So how would you kick-start growth and productivity in the UK that brings benefit to the design industry?

Your views can be as detailed or as brief as you feel appropriate.

We are also particularly interested in:

  • Case studies that highlight where design has had clear benefits to the wider economy.
  • Your views on where the government is seen as being particularly strong or weak in terms of promoting design and innovation.
  • Your opinions on what is unique about the design sector that cannot be replicated in other areas of the economy.

Next steps

The deadline for submissions is 5pm on Friday 24th March 2017

Evidence should be submitted by email to sally.lukins@dba.org.uk or in hard copy to:

Sally Lukins, Strategy Director, Design Business Association, 35-39 Old Street, London, EC1V 9HX 

 

Further information about the Government’s Industrial Strategy

In January, the Government announced a consultation into building a new industrial strategy, where the public sector works with private companies to promote economic development. The initial views of the government outlining the way forward have been published as a so-called Green Paper, which is available here.  

The strategy has highlighted Ten Pillars, summarised below, that show the range that the new set of industrial policies will focus on: 

  1. Investing in science, research and innovation
  2. Delivering affordable energy and clean growth
  3. Driving growth across the whole country
  4. Upgrading infrastructure
  5. Supporting businesses to start and grow
  6. Encouraging trade and inward investment
  7. Creating the right institutions to bring together sectors and places
  8. Developing skills
  9. Cultivating world-leading sectors
  10. Improving procurement

The Government has also announced that the Creative Industries will form one of the first five specific “sector deals”. A review, led by Sir Peter Bazalgette, will look into how the UK’s world-leading creative industries can lead the way in developing new technology and intellectual property rights, and it is expected that this submission will feed its way into this area of the economy.

Image credits: © Robwilson39 | Dreamstime.com

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