Re-tooling the design firm and client relationship

(Originally written for the Biondo Group)

Unlike advertising agencies, design firms’ work on a per-project basis with clients. Projects are the bread and butter of design companies. Early on in the heyday of packaging design, it was common that a single design firm worked on a single brand over-time, and so that specific firm was responsible for that brand’s appearance. If a design firm worked on a brand, it could count on working on it for more than a single project if everything went well, and the brand flourished.

With fewer turns of management and leadership, there was continuity at client companies and relationships of all types lasted longer and had staying power. Design firms had longer tenured employees and everything moved at a slower, more informed pace – and over-time.

Well the business environment for design firms has changed in every regard; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that.

Step back for a moment and you’ll notice that brand marketing management moves around an awful lot. In the past it was not uncommon to get to know and work with an Assistant Product Manager and over the course of time see them rise within their company to be a SVP, EVP or even President; that’s no longer the case.

Additionally, the number of packaging design firms has grown tremendously. Social media, digital toolsets and the ability to craft content inexpensively have the combined effect of making it simple for small marketing service firms to present themselves as larger-faster resources than they are in real life. With this, the defining characteristics of a design firm resource become fuzzier and harder to pin down for the client who needs a vetted packaging design resource.

The concept of “over-time” has come up during internal conversations. We’ve seen a few failed-start packaging design projects that get punted from one firm to another from the same client. We’ve seen good clients turn to other firms when revisions or tweaks are required to design systems we’ve developed. Basically, the concept of working over-time has been forsaken.

What’s the big deal you might ask? Who cares if a client is a project client or a client “over-time”, what’s the difference? Well, there is a big difference and it is in the area surrounding the concept of Custodianship.

First off what is a custodian? The dictionary says: it is a person who has responsibility for or looks after something.

A design custodian is in it for the long run. A design custodian pays close attention to the inner workings as well as the façade and keeps maintenance top of mind. A design custodian is a partner through thick and thin and “owns” the results.

Some brands do not see the need for design custodianship, and so firms continue on the track of “project work”. What suffers from this short-term, project based approach? Well in our opinion, the Brand suffers; because thinking is in terms of campaigns, quarters and projects – not the arc of duration.

A brand is akin to a big ship in terms of navigation and directional changes. Swing the bow hard on a big ship and chaos can ensue – and the same holds true with a brand. Big changes are not generally a good thing for an established brand, they are simply too abrupt and violent. But there is very little sexiness in the ongoing need for small incremental graphic tweaks and adjustments. With every big change in terms of brand graphics there are usually a dozen or more small tweaks and adjustments – it is where the real work lies.

So how about this idea: Brand’s require and deserve Visual Custodians that serve them over-time.

Design firms do their best work when they are immersed in a category and work on a brand over-time, and so can take ownership of the brands appearance. A brand requires design check-ups and ongoing visual development in all regards: packaging, merchandising, POS communications, and those activities are the purview of the design firm. Competitive audits and category temperature taking are some of the ongoing “over-time” activities that we want to keep on the design docket.

But to do that, to be that proactive – we simply cannot work on a happenstance, per project basis.

What we’d like to see is a return to the idea of working on a brand for the duration. We’d like to see client companies work with us and commit to having us work on a brand “over-time” and by operating that way, we’d be able to allocate the time and resources to accomplish the tasks the best way we know how to – without compromise.

Who’s game? We are ready.