Designers: are you Working Proactively?

For years, the typical mindset and prevalent behavioural characteristic of many designers towards agency-client relationships has been ‘reactive’ and not ‘proactive’. Why, and to what extent has this changed? With the right guidance, working proactively can transform work-life experiences for the better, and put designers more in the driving seat.

The trouble with conventional new business exploration

New research published by Design Week (20 March 2017) reveals that 70% of clients still expect designers to free pitch.

The What Clients Think 2017 report, which is based on interviews with 455 clients of design consultancies, shows that while nearly 90% of clients surveyed value design as important to a brand’s success and see the standard of UK design consultancies as “very high”, almost 70% of clients say they would not expect to pay for a creative pitch.

If you’re a designer, you’ll know that agencies have, for years, invested significant business development time and resources in the tendering process and pitching for new business, whether paid, free or otherwise. There are obvious benefits here: primarily, the agency knows there is a real opportunity of winning a fee-based project and the potential of a new ongoing client relationship. But there are obvious downsides too.

The tendering process is time-consuming, and pitching usually involves three to six agencies, often including the incumbent who can be better informed and often hard to dislodge. Based on agency research I commissioned in 2007, the average win rate was one in five – I doubt this rate will have changed a great deal. That’s a lot of work for often modest returns, so is there another, better, less conventional way of exploring new opportunities?

Well there is, but how naturally it fits with the typical mindset and behavioural characteristics of many designers I’m not sure. Allow me to explain.

The trouble with being reactive

I’ve worked with designers in different ways for over 30 years – as a client, in agencies and as a design agency owner. As a consultant, mentor and coach to designers since 2002, it soon became clear that designers were quite often found somewhat stuck in conventional and quite ‘transactional’ client/agency relationships – invariably sitting back waiting for client-initiated projects to be handed out or tender invitations to land and react to.

This reactive behavior would often lead to unsatisfactory project experiences for designers with clients (and vice-versa) and general discontent: ill-fitting client relationships, unrealistic project budgets and/or timescales, clients lacking ‘ambition’ in projects, differing strategic or creative ideas and opinions, and more. Things needed to change.

The opportunity with being proactive

My thoughts around this time seemed logical – that if designers had more clarity about themselves and their purpose, and they worked more proactively, they could elevate their standing in the relationship and, in doing so, potentially enhance their work-lives.

Designers are naturally creative and curious – their skillset is perfectly suited to working proactively. For me, it made sense that designers invest more time to applying their natural skills to self-initiate research and idea development. So, from around 2005 I set about encouraging design firms to embrace and integrate a more proactive way of working into their behaviours and activities.

What is Proactive Working?

Proactive Working is designers taking more control over their destiny and making things happen more on their terms.

It’s self-initiating research to inform, shape and own ideas and intellectual property. It’s proactively reaching out to and instigating conversations with selected clients (existing and new) that designers are potentially well suited to working with. It’s ‘partnering’ in the true sense of the word – in a co-venturing commercial context. It’s putting the designer more in the driving seat. It’s being less client-led. It’s leading and hunting, and not just being conveniently fed. It’s elevating the designer in the agency-client relationship by building perceived value through your actions.

Proactive Working is shaping your future, not allowing others to shape it for you.

Working proactively is a mindset and a behaviour that can be effective and rewarding, but it takes courage, and won’t be for everyone. The challenge for designers with establishing and running a programme that explores the potential of Proactive Working is largely the commitment to and recognising the need for; discipline, open-mindedness, perseverance, determination and not making premature judgements about whether it works or not.

As for the rewards, well, they can be transformational.

The benefits

By working more proactively, designers can enhance their work-lives in many ways. It’s an uplifting and dynamic experience to be the driver of a new initiative. The new skills, knowledge, confidence that can be acquired. The clarity of purpose, sense of freedom and controlling your own destiny is exciting.

Proactive working done well can be a powerful and purposeful new business driver. A great idea can propel a design business past the gatekeepers and typical barriers. The tables can be dramatically turned. Suddenly, the designer can hold the purse strings and choose which client they want to do business with, not the other way around. The potential rewards that can be derived from embedding this way of working – either in part alongside your more conventional business development activities, or as the standalone activity – are plain to see.

The example

In 2010, I found myself working with a small design firm to help them explore how they might develop their business and new opportunities. As part of this, and we took ourselves on a ‘journey of proactivity’. The results were fascinating. A big idea took shape and within just a few months we had secured the interest of a significant new client in a co-venture proposal, and my client had secured its place on their agency roster. The journey, experience and insights we gained are captured in this blog post.

How the land lies today

Armed with this uplifting example of how effective proactive working can be, the endeavor to encourage more design firms to embrace and integrate a more proactive way of working into their behaviours and activities would seem worthwhile and likely to click.

What I experienced, for the most part, was a reluctance to trial this approach, and so its potential was rarely tapped and explored. Six years on from this experience, ways of working may have changed and design firms I have worked with recently have been distinctly proactive by nature, but I ask these questions to hopefully shed more light on how the land lies today:

  • To what extent has the typical mindset and behavioural characteristics of many designers changed? Outside of fee-paying day-to-day client projects, are many design firms still working reactively?
  • How much time, effort and money does working conventionally – in the pursuit of new business tenders, pitches and growth – cost agencies today? What is the typical conversion rate and return?
  • Are alternative ways of working given the time and money they need to succeed?

Getting proactive

At this point, I recall the inspirational words of Seth Godin who says, firms need to avoid playing it ‘safe’, think differently and be less risk-averse. These are qualities that drive Proactive Working to transform work-life experiences.

Clearly this is challenging for even the bravest among us. Intrinsically linked to the act of ‘proactive exploration’ can, for some, be a significant change of mindset and behaviour. Embracing a complete change or shift in how you try to win new business can be uncomfortable, unsettling, even scary.

So how can designers set about embracing change? A starting point might be to ask yourself;

  • how accepting and comfortable do you feel with the familiar and typical client/agency dynamic of ‘client holding the purse strings’?
  • And is the uncertainty in the conventional tender/pitch process – not knowing whether your firm will be ‘the chosen one’ – really the best way to explore new opportunities going forward?

Objectively reviewing your current business development activities, outputs and behaviours is a logical next step. Who this applies to includes those that may be enjoying a margin of success with their outbound activities – be warned, complacency is the silent killer!

Are you Working Proactively?

Designers that strive to be more proactive, and less reliant on ‘client-led’ initiatives and project commissions, can open doors to more opportunities for leadership in their market sectors. And pave the way for building reputation!

After all, the client-agency relationship benefits when both sides put into it. Clients look to designers for inspiration, in fact they expect them (at times) to take the lead with fresh ideas for discussion and fuel the relationship more. But how often is this happening today?

In this dynamic, exciting, uplifting way of exploring new opportunities, imagine how clients could (in time) find themselves making more of the running to ensure they are on your shortlist to see and hear your reflections, ideas and visions and to be your preferred partner.

I’m not saying you can win all your new business by working in this way, but if designers mix up their approach, think differently and take the initiative more they’re likely to see big results. Working proactively can transform day-to-day work-life experiences, raise external perceptions and profile, and it can elevate designers in agency-client relationships.

For more information, check out my seven Tips for Proactive Working at the end of this article.