Designers are uniquely positioned to help big brands make sense to the masses and, as Mark Penfold has discovered, this relationship is changing the nature of design.
Working for big brands means better commissions, bigger budgets and greater challenges for designers. "It's why we're all in the business," says Alistair Sim, managing director at design agency, LOVE. "Everyone wants to do the best work they possibly can." A brand with a story to tell and a budget to match is what makes that happen.
Sure, you start off at the bottom, but even from the depths of the copyshop you can look up and see the neon shine of the latest Coke ad, or feel the backdraft of a passing Nike swoosh. Affirmation of your worth is at least partly what drives the desire to work for the big names. "There's loads of personal satisfaction involved," says Sim. "It's rewarding to know you're doing great work for great clients."
But it's worth remembering that working for big brands comes with its own set of challenges, criteria and ethical hurdles. First you must want the work, then you must win and deliver it, and the effect of scale on all these considerations is more complicated than it might first appear.
THE FULL SERVICE APPROACH
Syzygy (pronounced scissor-gee) is what's known as a full service digital agency. With more than 175 staff encompassing everything from information architects and designers, to copywriters and account handlers, it's an example of the new direction design agencies are taking in an effort to give the big brands what they need.
As Syzygy's European creative director, Matthew Bagwell handles huge clients such as Mercedes-Benz, Mazda and most recently the London 2012 Olympic bid. What Syzygy continues to aim for with clients of this scale is partnership: "We want to really get inside their business," says Bagwell. This way of working has creative economies of scale and consequently, "blue-chip firms tend to want to talk about this more holistic approach to corporate identity."
Once a big brand takes an agency on they must be sure they can cope. "When somebody like that needs us to make a big push, as the 2012 project did, they need to know the scale is there in the agency," Bagwell explains. Smaller studios can produce equally great work, but sometimes a big client will need room to manoeuvre. "A big project from a big client might consume the entire agency," says Bagwell. And that could lead to problems for a smaller design agency.
Like anyone, big brands need to feel they are understood, and it's that service that agencies such as Syzygy offer. "We can create a small website," says Bagwell, "but we add most value when we can do several things at once for a client - that's when we really get into our stride." The firm's work for Mazda started out as simple web design, and now it sits at the top table with their ad agency J Walter Thompson. This kind of pervasive work is a new direction for design.
But it's not just size that matters. Any brand, large or small, will approach people who can make it look good. Increasingly, though, if you want to play with the big boys you must show that your thinking is broad enough. "Design used to be looked upon as a poor cousin of advertising," says Sim. But it's starting to look as if the tables might be about to turn.
"A big chunk of advertising spend is being shifted below the line," says Sim. "All of a sudden, it's designers and brand consultants that are in the boardroom talking about the creation of brands and their future direction." The big names are coming around to the idea of integrating their thinking, and the natural place to look for that kind of approach is with the designers.
Designers are the obvious choice, says Sim: "They need to understand what a company is and does, how it acts and even how it treats its employees. They're used to distilling a number of quite complex messages into a simple solution." That solution could be as minimal as a single logo, but the designer is also capable of expanding that point successfully into a cross-media campaign.
Originally the brief for all of this would have come via an ad agency thereby restricting the influence of the designer, making their work reactionary. "It's really not about looking at things in isolation, it's about having a 360-degree perspective," says Sim - and that's a natural part of being a designer. "Interestingly, that's what many modern advertising agencies are now claiming they do."
DOES SIZE MATTER?
With just seven designers, LOVE is a smaller outfit than Syzygy, but it still practices the crossover approach. "For us, being a smaller agency and having witnessed how traditional ad agencies worked, gave us a chance to embark on some new thinking, and in many ways, cut out loads of the bullshit," says Sim. "Some clients are really impressed with that, and some aren't."
Brazilian illustrator Zed is smaller still, but you wouldn't know it from his client list, which includes Playboy, Motorola and Eurostar. It's really just a question of understanding how you fit into the picture, and as an individual you're much more likely to be dealing with a brief specified from the outset by an agency, than determining the nature of the brief yourself. But Zed believes this approach has its upsides: "A large client means you'll be dealing with professionals, and the chances are you'll get a better result in the end."
Zed is at pains to point out that you can't just coast; the need to promote yourself is ever-present. "You must make an effort to promote yourself at all times," he says. "A good agent with a strong relationship with top advertising agencies also helps." Because huge brands have so many levels of bureaucracy, it's hard for them to maintain a consistent focus; they need to be reminded.
"You always need champions within organisations who will push your work, even defend it, and be brave," says Sim. Just because it's a big brand doesn't guarantee there will be plenty of work on offer at the end of it. Naturally, there are perils associated with climbing into bed with someone this size. Big brands are not unknown to throw their weight around. The most obvious example? The demand for free work to be handed over at the pitching stage. "It's a contentious issue," says Sim. "Ultimately, if a client isn't that serious about a project then you find they don't pay."
But the situation isn't always that clear cut, and can be partly blamed on the increasingly competitive nature of the design industry. "We try to do it efficiently, but we've usually done a week of design by the time we pitch for a piece of work," says Bagwell, highlighting the difficulty faced by anyone unsure whether to give in and pitch for free. It would all be fine if there was a cartel insisting on being paid for its time, however, "even if there's an inference from the client that it would be cool if you did some work up front, you'll do it because the agency that breaks the rules is going to get ahead." free so you can make up your mind about having heart surgery with him."
DON'T SELL OUT
The more involved a designer is, the greater the chance of ensuring quality work, but there will always be constraints. "The bigger clients often have stronger identities," says "I thought it could help them visualise using my style, but I'll never do it again," Zed admits. "It's work and should be respected. You don't ask a surgeon to operate on your nose for Bagwell. "They may well lay down preconditions on what you can do with their corporate identity. So it can be harder to do truly innovative work."
Bagwell cites Mercedes-Benz as an example - Syzygy is currently responsible for the company's online marketing. "There's loads of fantastic work done with viral marketing, but the things that really work as triggers - sex, comedy and the ridiculous - aren't the kind of things you'd use to leverage the qualities of Mercedes- Benz." So is avoiding inappropriate triggers selling out, or a smart move?
To work for Nike, LOVE needed reassurance that the company had honest credentials. "They asked us if we would take the job and gave us a full briefing on what they'd been doing for the past five years," says Sim. The team liked what they heard and the agency now works regularly for Nike - even producing a film lobbying for better working conditions.
Has the world turned upside down? No, says Sim. "One of our founding principles is that we believe in creating ideas that make the world less ordinary. There are so many messages out there, so much crap, that it's almost like visual pollution. We feel it's our responsibility not to add to that." It's this kind of attitude that wins over the big guns.