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Common threads: Five top issues for design leaders

I talk to hundreds of design leaders like you each year. Here are the five top issues members are currently talking to me about.

As we come to that crunch part of the year where design leaders look to review how their businesses and teams have performed, at the same time as they plan for the next 12 months, I have noticed a few common threads in the conversations I have been having with members as they find themselves caught between post-covid optimism and impending recession wariness.

Staff pay

This is on the minds of agency leaders across the board. At one end of the spectrum, there are concerns about staff expectations during high levels of inflation. At the other end, the issue is how to reward staff and help them with the cost of living increases, but in the best way possible for the team and the business. In both instances, members are looking for context – what are other agencies doing?

Pleasingly, I have spoken to a number of agencies who have been doing very well and are trying to help their staff struggling with rising costs – but they are slightly nervous about the recession on the horizon. Increasing pay is a ratchet – it only tends to go up – so ways of honestly helping staff without increasing the exposure of the agency to a wage bill that is potentially too high next year have been highly sought after.

Culture/ ways of working

Agencies are still struggling to settle on ways of working within the new flexible, hybrid model most are now using. Getting the balance right to allow flexibility alongside support for the younger team members should be your focus. Senior staff need to be prepared to spend more time in the studio to mentor their teams. But as many businesses are finding, it is their senior staff who are most comfortable working from home.

Staff benefits

Coupled with pay-rises, agency leaders are looking at new ways of adding to the benefits packages for their staff. The biggest issue by far since the start of the Covid pandemic has been mental wellbeing and how businesses can help their teams manage the mental impacts of our current working environments. My prediction for the future is an increase in dental cover being added to benefit packages, as the struggle to register with NHS dentists increases.


Maybe it’s because we have just had the entry deadline for the DBA Design Effectiveness Awards, but I have also had a lot of conversations with agencies keen to understand the secrets of “measuring design” (SPOILER ALERT: there are no secrets). It is a simple process of asking the right questions at the right time to formulate a brief which has clear objectives with measurable outcomes.

I am constantly shocked by how many agencies are not asking clients for clarity around this. If you’re not yet doing this, make 2023 the year you start. It will transform the way you work and the impact you have on your clients’ businesses. Even if you have no plans to enter the DBA Design Effectiveness Awards, we can help you with this (email if you want to find out more). And you never know, maybe you will have an award-winning project or two on your hands in 2024.

New business

As for the biggest concern for agencies right now, that’s new business – illustrated in a recent straw poll of members attending the launch of the DBA Annual Survey Report, where it came out as the most immediate, medium and long-term concern.

As you plan for next year, there are a few things I would recommend to everyone:

Subscribe to podcasts such as the Small Spark Theory podcast and David C. Baker and Blair Enns’ 2bobs podcast, covering a range of thinking around agency new business. 

If you are in a new business role look up the BD Matters Community.

And if you need external support or advice check out the DBA Experts Register for a fantastic range of individuals accredited by the DBA who are experts in PR, marketing and new business. In fact, our Register features Experts in a wide range of fields who can help you with all of the areas above and much more. If you don’t know where to start or would like to talk through any issues that are on your mind, book in a call with me.


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