Making clients' cash work harder

Clients want more for their creative and marketing money than ever before. But how do you come up with innovative, inspiring designs that work for a client on a tight budget?

Everyone wants the big-spending multinational corporate account, but the reality is that most clients have smaller budgets, and they may not have previous design experience. As a designer, you're not just an expert in Photoshop and Illustrator; you're hired to be a genius communicator who understands physical, digital and social media. You also need to be enough of a diplomat and psychologist to discover what clients really want - which might not be what they're asking for.

Xander Ashwell is a freelance designer with a track record of projects at every level, from small community rebranding such as the Refuel Business Caf in Leicester to national campaigns for the NHS. As he puts it, the first question you ask clients is the most important one when it comes to ensuring that you deliver value for their money. "I don't ask clients what tools or media they want. I start by asking what outcome they want, and what problem they want to solve," says Ashwell. "In fact, I have a very broad set of questions I work through. Some are generic, others are intended to generate thought or debate. This helps make the client think about their needs, and it also weeds out people who are fishing. If someone asks for a quote and they get questions in reply, I don't hear from them again if they're not serious about their project."

Nicky Clark, director of Synergy Creative in Bristol agrees. "Some clients have an open brief, and no budget. So we make sure there's a realistic budget, with clear objectives. Everything can be measurable. But it's important to let clients know that we can advise about channels. We help them identify the target audience, and from that we can find their profile and decide what kinds of messages are going to work well for them."

But this doesn't mean that clients have to target a broad audience immediately. "One of the things we suggest is segmenting the audience, and finding the segments that are going to be the most responsive," continues Clarke. "We can also trial a segment before stepping up to a bigger campaign. Bigger trials can waste money, because you may not get the responses. And we always ask clients to fill us in on their bigger plans. We can build a strategy for what they're doing as a whole. A strategic partnership is always more cost-effective than piecemeal work."

Baigent Digital specialises in charity and public sector work, and has evolved some original ways to save time and increase returns. Creative director Steven Ramsey explains: "We have three main strategies. The first is re-use: we always investigate what resources clients already have - because they often don't recognise the brilliance of what they've got. One client had photography on file by an award-winning photographer, and they didn't recognise it."

"The second strategy is to keep the design focused on outcomes - not design for design's sake. We use Google Analytics, banner tracking, and whatever other metrics the client wants. It's good for the client because they can see instant results, and it's good for us because the facts speak for themselves, and we can use the numbers in future pitches. It also means that if a design isn't working, we can respond fast. We've had instances where people weren't engaging with a design, and we've turned that around in 24 hours. Some agencies are out of the door at sign-off, but that's not how things work now. It's important to accept that sometimes your best efforts won't work first time, and that you have what it takes to correct that, there and then."

"Finally, we use a workshopping format to speed up sign-off. We literally get all the stakeholders in a room and we do live design in front of them. We do some basic prep with sketches on paper, and then we work live in Photoshop, or sometimes Illustrator or InDesign. The aim is to get everyone to sign off on the design by the end of the workshop. The sessions can get quite heated, so they need to be run by someone senior who can work fast and be diplomatic. But the instant feedback means there's no back and forth by email, and everyone who makes the decision is there. When they're in the room, they're involved in the live design and they can make changes. But [we] don't allow second thoughts after the workshop."

"The client gets involved and can see that it takes time to make changes. They also see the process on a big screen - there's no passing around of laptops, scrolling and squinting at the LCD. If someone hates something, they can say why, and we can respond immediately. It's been our biggest time saver, and can literally save months on a project."

What most of these strategies have in common is confidence. You have to be confident that your design process is quick and efficient, but clients also want confidence that a roll-out is monitored and creates measurable outcomes. You can always do design by throwing something at an audience and seeing if it sticks. But your clients need results, not graphics - and it's up to you to prove that you know how to get them.

5 ways to avoid budget-busting mistakes

01 Get a budget
Find out up-front what a client expects to spend, and give them something that fits the budget. If the client hasn't thought about the budget, they haven't thought about the project.

02 Avoid design creep
Find the decision makers, get them involved and motivated, and persuade them to sign off as soon as possible. Don't do endless iterations trying to keep everyone, including the interns, happy.

03 Snooze and lose
Don't walk out and forget the project on live day plus one. Agree some performance metrics with the client, and measure them. If the project isn't performing, take action instantly. Build this into your budget.

04 Design for no one's sake
It's great that your design has swirly curls and uses that rounded new font that everyone in the studio loves. But if it doesn't change the behaviour of the target audience, you have failed the client - even if the client loves it too.

05 It's the marketing, stupid
Nebulous ideas like brand awareness and eyeballs can be useless in practice. No one cares if the public can recognise a logo if they hate the brand and everything it stands for, and would rather buy from a competitor. Pick practical, useful metrics like sales, profits and cash raised.