The power of Proactive Working for designers

Design agencies are missing out on a simple and creatively rewarding way of attracting new clients. It’s nothing new, but it’s rarely used. I call it, ‘proactive working’. It’s all about seeing an opportunity for good design, arguing the case for change, then pro-actively approaching clients with proposals.

Almost every agency invests time and resources pitching for new business. Based on research I commissioned, the typical design consultancy will take part in between 10 and 20 pitches a year. There are obvious benefits to pitching: the agency knows there is an opportunity. Be it a new project or a new client relationship. But there are obvious downsides too.

As we know, pitch scenarios usually involve between three and six agencies, often including the incumbent who is better informed and often hard to dislodge. The average win rate is one in five. That’s a lot of work for often modest returns. But most design agencies continue to pitch. Perhaps it’s just the way they’ve always done things.

But there is another way. I advise designers on how to structure a proportion of their new business effort to proactive working: researching and developing speculative proposals that address challenges facing organisations or exploit opportunities.

It’s an uplifting and dynamic experience to be the driver of a new initiative. And it can be a powerful new business tool. A great idea can propel a design business past the normal barriers of rosters and pitch lists. The tables are turned. Suddenly, the designer is choosing which client they want to do business with, not the other way round.

Let me give you an example of how this works in practice. In 2010, I was advising a client, called Fourmation, on their business development programme. They agreed to allocate time to a proactive project. The first task was to target a sector based on their experience and expertise. Then, we began speculatively researching its most relevant trends, issues and challenges.

We were curious about the growing trend of working outside the office. Where do SMEs and university graduates starting their careers currently go for Wi-Fi access? The coffee shop? It’s not ideal. The real driver there is coffee and the atmosphere isn’t always conducive to working. Where else has Wi-Fi? McDonalds? The pub? They all have the same problem: they’re not dedicated workspaces.

Our proposal was a location where the working atmosphere was the driver of the environmental design. The coffee or food is secondary. Fourmation called them ‘High Street remote work spaces’ and developed a thought-piece around the idea. Within weeks, this became a detailed business proposition with a potentially significant fiscal value to everyone involved.

Now it was time to take the proposal to market. I researched and identified the decision-makers in the mobile communications sector and contacted them. By June we had met or had expressions of interest from all the major players. At this point we ensured they all signed non-disclosure agreements.

O2 were particularly interested in the concept because of its fit with their brand promise. We took advice from a leading negotiations consultancy and O2’s initial interest quickly developed into a collaborative partnership arrangement. In September 2011, O2 opened their largest ever store on Tottenham Court Road. It comes complete with a ‘revolutionary, walk-in workspace targeted at local small businesses’.

Success. My client, Fourmation, were placed on O2’s design roster and has since been commissioned for further project work.

This example shows the intellectual property potential and lucrative collaborations that proactive working can deliver. Perhaps best of all though, this approach to new business puts designers in the driving seat. The clients fight it out for the designer’s work not the other way round. How refreshing.

Of course, proactive working requires self-motivation and effort. But so does anything worth doing. It can differentiate you from the pack and make a client reconsider the position of a sluggish incumbent. Companies are always receptive to fresh thinking and new perspectives – in today’s market, they have to be. So you’d be surprised by how responsive they can be when approached in the right manner with a relevant idea.

I’ve been in this business since the eighties and have rarely seen 2D or 3D designers working like this. Agency owners and directors should be making it more of a priority. It’s time for designers to start backing their creative ability. They need to be presenting ideas to companies to spark conversations rather than waiting on companies to come to them. Agency and client relationships should be collaborative. Get it right, with proper non-disclosure agreements and contract negotiations, and designers can bring their destiny back into their own hands.

Tips for proactive working

1. Review how much your agency has invested over the last 2-3 years in pitches and other speculative new business activity. Work out the conversion rate.

2. As a 12 month trial, allocate 20-25% of this time to self-initiated exploration of new business opportunities.

3. Establish and schedule a small programme that explores the potential of proactive working

4. Identify the parameters for exploration and formulating your ‘brief’. These could range from your agency’s market sector expertise to global issues.

5. Treat this new business exercise exactly the same as you would a fee-paying client project. Give it a job number, a timeline and a deadline.

6. Focus on idea creation and market research to validate the subsequent ideas. Work through the commercial case as best you can.

7. After testing the water for interest, be prepared with non-disclosure agreements and contracts of engagement that set out what you require from the project.

© teer on design 2011