The local designer versus big London agency

August 2017

There’s long been a perception with business owners and folk in the world of marketing management, that if you want a top job doing on your visual identity, new website, FMCG packaging etc. then you have to go to a big agency based in a big city – and notably London. Indeed, for many decades I was a proponent of such thinking and went that route when I was Corporate Design Manager at Argos, and for much of the time over the 17 years since then.

However, experience has shown me that such a principle is basically flawed, and indeed I believe it’s increasingly the case that large big-city agencies that position themselves at the top of the ladder, and with prices to match, are partly heading the way of the dinosaurs – or at least they are as far as SME clients are concerned.

Before outlining my reasons for that last statement, let me tell you a brief story: Against my advice, a previous SME-size FMCG food client I had recently abandoned their long-standing independent designer and, instead, went to a large London agency for a new visual identity and packaging for two of its brands. They did this in the firm belief that only such a ‘top London agency’ could turn around their fortunes and more specifically fight back against a new brand on the block which was taking market share.

The results of the work are okay, but really no better than okay. But the client thinks they’re absolutely great, and to my mind thinks so not because they actually are, but because they have to be given the reputation of the agency and the obscene amount of money the job has apparently cost. I’ve sometimes speculated on why such agencies often don’t deliver if the work is assessed on its real merit rather than perceived merit, and I have no doubt its around over-confidence and often arrogance preventing proper self-appraisal before the work leaves the MAC screen of the designer. So bottom line is they think they’re so bloody good they’ve lost any desire to be harsh critics of their own work.

What would have been the alternative? Write a detailed and fully-thought-through brief for the long-standing independent designer – whose work is actually outstanding (Google Sean Beardsley Magic Fox Design) – and a) get a better result, and b) pay a fraction of the money for it.

So the clue here is the quality of the brief, and this is where so many companies go wrong. Of course you have to have someone capable of delivering the work to that brief, but my ex-client most certainly did.

Which leads me back to the point I’d earlier deferred around the decline of large big-city agencies (many of which are owned by global giants such as Omnicom). In decades past and pre our digital age, independent designers and very small agencies had a hard time competing with the big boys – not least as the communication channels to do so were very limited (imagine no internet, no Google and no social media). But now, not only can smaller operators get their message and credentials out there, they can also more easily collaborate with other small operators on larger projects and where specialist skills are required (imagine trying to do that pre-email and Skype etc.). And of course, all of this has meant that being a one-man-band and working from home – provided you have a half-decent broadband connection of course – is now totally doable.

But don’t get me wrong: For the big corporate giants the only really viable route is big agencies, and not least because of the volume of work and the security element of ensuring it’s delivered when needed. So it’s a resource issue as much as anything, plus you need an appropriate depth of management at the agency side to match that at the client side – e.g. account director to present at board level and not get turned over in the process.

For everyone else though, don’t waste your money.

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