There’s a lot of talk in the design and creative industries about management consultancies moving into our space and cutting our grass. I want to know if it’s possible for us to cut theirs? And does it sound ridiculous to refer to ourselves as a management consultancy?
Management consulting is the practice of helping organisations to improve their performance. Organisations may draw upon the services of management consultants for a number of reasons, including gaining external (and presumably objective) advice and access to the consultants' specialised expertise.
That’s a definition straight off the internet. But it’s interesting how it perfectly describes the way we work with our clients, yet we’d never think of ourselves as a management consultant.
I think that one of the issues is that management consultants tend to focus on business problems. We, as an industry, tend to focus on design problems, which means our impacts are defined too narrowly. I think that we as an industry need to think more broadly about how we position and sell our services to clients, changing the narrative. Management consultants don’t sell design services, they sell holistic business solutions and are fluent in the language of the boardroom. They’re appointed by the C suite and they’re given bigger budgets to play with.
Our view was that if we could sound a wee bit more like them, then maybe we could get closer to their ability to charge!
And, let’s be honest, it is all about charge out rates:
Average daily rate for a design agency director: £900
Average daily rate for a management consultant: £2,100
(Source: DBA / ConsultancyUK)
The very fact that the management consultant can charge more than double that of the agency director tells you all you need to know about the value ascribed to both professions by business.
So what have we done to help shape the perception that we’re swimming in this pool and elevate ourselves above the narrowly focused, transactional world of design buying? Here are some thoughts:
1. Change the labels
For a start, we need to describe ourselves differently. As Consultants. Brand Consultants. That’s what we do. Consulting equates to listening, learning and offering advice to benefit the business. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to design some brochures. Well, not yet anyway. The term pushes us further away from the label of ‘designer’. And that’s a good thing. (I do need to stress the point that I’m not devaluing the design aspect of our business or industry here. It’s crucially important and central to our offer. What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t necessarily lead with it, or define our entire offering through it).
2. Talk more about brand than design
Design is an abstract, subjective discipline that has no intrinsic value in itself. It’s also not understood in the boardroom. Brand, on the other hand, is a real thing with a calculable value. A CEO is more easily able to understand the importance of investing in the brand, rather than in design per se.
3. Learn the language
Beyond brand itself, it’s important to be able to demonstrate that we understand how the work we’ll be doing will play into the broader business performance. To do this, we need to be able to talk the language of the boardroom. So, think about how ROI might work, KPIs on the project and how important it is to manage the various stakeholder groups.
4. Thinking over doing
Don’t rush to execution. We, as an industry, dilute a lot of our own value by rushing to switch the Mac on and design right from the start. The temptation to create is so powerful. It’s a great instinct, but it gets us into trouble, by not spending a decent amount of time thinking, planning and strategising our solutions. This helps to build trust in the relationship and will underpin the creative solutions, ultimately making it all more effective.
5. Stop giving it away for free
It’s the worst thing we can do and only serves to undermine our own value. Very often clients think that the free pitch is just the standard way of buying design, but by opting out, or challenging it, we help with the process of education which benefits client and agency alike in the long term. It’s difficult to turn your back on perceived opportunity, but it’s true that the agency will be stronger for it in the long term. I speak from experience!
6. Diversify the offer
Linked to the thinking piece - diversifying your offer into other areas is a sensible way of ensuring you’re not overlooked or obsolete too soon in the client’s eyes. There are lots of other add on areas that have a link to design, but are not defined by it. Customer journey audits, naming, brand architecture and market positioning can all be additional strings to your bow - providing you can deliver them in a credible and complementary manner.
Now, it’s really easy to say these things. To do them is tough and it doesn’t all happen overnight. There are consequences too - it means the make up of your team might change. Perhaps with a strategist or planner, a few account handlers and maybe a business analyst.
So, it’s a journey we’re on and you have to remind yourself of that every day. But, I firmly believe it’s the right decision for us and is proving so with better work, deeper client relationships and more profitable bottom line.