12 April 2011
Running an agency

Selling Design

As the managing director of a design agency, it's my job to bring in the business. That means talking to prospective clients, writing proposals and running pitches...

I'm lucky to work with some amazingly talented people and together we've developed a strong reputation in the industry. I've got a huge amount of faith in our team and really believe in what we can achieve. This makes meetings prospective clients for the first time really easy. I simply channel our passion and expertise in the hope that they'll be convinced by our experience, buy into our vision and be infected by our love of good design. This isn't a particularly sophisticated sales approach, but then again I'm not a particularly sophisticated salesman, being first and foremost a designer.

I have a good understanding of where our strengths lie, the kind of clients we work best with and the type of projects we excel at. I'm also aware of our limitations and know the type of projects and clients we should avoid. This is partly though intuition and partly though experience. We've resisted the urge to grow, so aren't forced to take on every project that comes our way simply to pay the bills. We're proud to be a lifestyle business, so it's as much about doing good work as it is making money.

This puts us in the enviable position of being able to be selective about the work we take on. So when I meet prospective clients it's as much about assessing the appropriateness of the project and the cultural fit as it is about selling our services. This may sound a little arrogant, but it's a sellers market at the moment and we want to lend our services where it's going to find most value and deliver the biggest reward. Too often have we taken on the first project that came along, only to have to turn down our ideal project two weeks later because we no longer have capacity. So one of my biggest recommendations is to be selective about the work you do and don't be afraid of turning things down. If anything we've gained more respect and referrals by turning inappropriate work down than by taking it on and doing a half hearted job.

For a long time I assumed that all design agencies took a similar approach to sales, outlining their abilities in an open and honest manner and letting their clients choose the right company for the job. However the more clients and agencies I speak to, the more naive I realise this assumption has been.

For many people the sales process is seen as a game, and like most games the ultimate goal is to win, irrespective of whether you're the right person for the job. So I've seen lots of projects won by inappropriate companies because they've come in with a convincing presentation and a hard to beat budget.

I've talked with large London agencies who apportion up to 20% of a projects potential earning to the pitch. One agency head proudly explained how they researched every person at the pitch meeting in order to find their weaknesses. For example in one instance they found that the MD of a company to which they were pitching was a fan of a particularly expensive watch, so they went out and bought the same watch for their MD so they could bond during the break. I spoke to a client handler at another big agency whose sole value seemed to be the fact that she was a member of the exclusive Ivy club where she would wine and dine prospective customers.

If you think this sounds a little "Mad Men" you'd be right. However cunning sales techniques aren't the preserve of the big guys. I've come across numerous small agencies with equally cunning strategies, like the company who insists on pitching first so they can lay "traps" for the agencies that follow. Plenty of agencies will overstate their experience or promise things they know they can't deliver, just to win the work. It would seem that game mechanics are in full force. Whenever people are pitched in competition against each other the desire to win will often take over.

As an agency we are often asked to provide creative solutions as part of the pitching process, if only to give our potential clients an understanding of our abilities. To this I refuse, explaining that good design comes from a deep understanding of the problem and close collaboration with the client. We're not being difficult, we just don't work that way. We'll happily show off previous work and explain how it solved our client's problems, but we hate turning design into a beauty contest. It can demonstrate craft, but shows none of the underlying thinking.

We even hesitate at giving out ideas. Not because we think ideas are precious, almost the opposite in fact. A myth abounds that good design is about creativity and there is nothing more creative than a unique idea. This may be true in the advertising industry where novelty is a key factor, but it could't be further from the truth in digital product design. The best ideas are a product of insight and understanding rather than a flash of creativity. The most appropriate solutions come from evaluating and synthesising these ideas based on a deep knowledge of the problem. By providing ideas during the pitch process you run the risk of being judged on something you know to be shallow and inappropriate. Even worse if these ideas become accepted and form the basis of your whole approach. So we feel that it's much better to resist the urge of premature ideation and focus on how we get these ideas instead. One method is explainable and repeatable, the other is magic.

The problem is that a lot of people are looking for magic and drama. The pitch is a performance after all, far removed from the skills and abilities you need to actually deliver the goods. So is it any wonder that clients prefer to see an agency creative in colourful trousers and designer glasses excite and enthuse their audience through the power of their ideas alone. That sounds a lot more exciting than an agency explaining that they don't have the answer to your problems but know how to get it. The first process sounds effortless and fun while the second feels uncertain and potentially hard work. "How do we know if your ideas are going to be the right ones if we can't see them in the pitch?" A perfectly valid question and one that can only be partially answered, thought our experience and track record.

Is this gradual realisation going to change the way I present our services? Probably not! I admit that our sales strategy is incredibly simplistic and naive. I also realise that we lose more work than we could by steadfastly refusing to play the sales game. However I think designers have an obligation to their craft and a duty of care towards their clients, which goes above and beyond their desire to win work. A sort of Hippocratic oath for design. By sticking to your principles from day one I believe you attract the right projects and the right clients, while maximising your chances of success. Let's hope that I'm right os the salesmen will have won, and who wants to live in a world designed by salesmen? Not me, that's for sure.