The designer’s guide to Brexit

Another crucial consideration when attempting to prepare your design business for Brexit is the effect on your clients: acquiring and retaining them domestically, across Europe, and beyond.

There are no certainties here, but tertiary industries such as design and advertising are liable to be hit early if client profitability is squeezed by unfavourable trade terms, or other Brexit-related factors.

“The UK cannot simply wish away the inherent problems of international trade; especially the challenge of tackling non-tariff (regulatory) barriers to cross-border trade in goods and services,” is EU law expert Michael Dougan’s take. “When it comes to the provision of services, the UK seeks an entirely novel deal, with no clear international precedents.”

Read on for some essential advice to help your studio win, and retain, a healthy balance of clients in the lead-up, and wake of, Brexit.

Calm your clients’ nerves

One possible side-effect of the ongoing uncertainty is that clients become jittery, and consequently risk-averse. “I’m already sensing a bit of nervousness in the client community,” admits Michael Johnson. “When clients are nervous, projects go on hold and confidence slips.”

Three-quarters of SomeOne’s business is outside the UK. The agency witnessed a hiatus, but only a brief one: “Confidence was knocked,” admits Simon Manchipp. “Many clients held their breath and projects slowed, but they've realised that this is a lengthy process. Back to work.”

Continue business as usual

Other agencies have not witnessed any tangible effect so far, including The Partners, which landed European cultural channel Arte as a client a few weeks after the referendum (see the video above and picture below). 

According to UK creative director Stuart Radford, creative ambition from clients is as strong as it’s ever been.

The Partners collaborated with Lambie-Nairn on Arte - the agencies will soon merge, along with three other WPP stablemates

EU clients account for 55 per cent of GBH’s total business. Fortunately, it remains business as usual there, too: “They understand that we’re passionately pro-EU, and are determined to work across boundaries,” reflects Mark Bonner, who admits he spent the morning after the vote calling them to apologise.

“They universally took the piss out of the UK’s decision, and continue to rib us constantly,” he chuckles.

For Rose Design, those proportions are reversed and it has a more UK-centric business: 30 per cent of clients are in the EU, 15 per cent are global, 55 per cent are local. The studio has seen some budget cuts, some projects pulled, and other clients being reluctant to commit too far ahead.

“Others are not as confident or brave in their commissioning as before,” reveals Simon Elliott. Despite these setbacks, he adds that Rose has observed an upsurge in EU client interest in the past year and predicts that the next 18 months could prove “quite fruitful” as a result.

Consider serving clients locally

Of course, if location does prove an issue for clients there may be the option to bring the team to them, setting up an overseas outpost or collaborating with local talent where applicable.

As part of its 25-office network, Landor can boast outposts in Paris, Hamburg, Geneva and Milan. “We will consider opening more if and when any EU country looks like it could be a place to prosper,” says Peter Knapp.

GBH set up a 'pop up' studio in Boston when working on its total overhaul of The Verb Hotel

On a much smaller scale, GBH has been known to set up ‘pop up’ studios to cater to specific client projects, and did so in Boston in 2014 and 2017. 

“We wouldn’t hesitate to do this wherever needed, and with the growth of platforms like WeWork across the EU, it's easier than ever to operate in client cities with low overheads,” adds Bonner. “A UK hub office may continue to make sense, but it may not.”

Play to your strengths

One of the pro-Brexit campaign’s arguments is that breaking away from the EU – while likely sacrificing the benefits of the Single Market – could open up even more lucrative trade avenues with the rest of the world.

Many of the agencies we spoke to enjoy a worldwide client base that to some extent transcends the Brexit issue. 

“We've become more attractive to a global audience,” agrees Manchipp. “Europe is a huge force, but China, India, America all have epic scale, and audiences that are appreciative of the transformative outcomes that smart commercial creativity can bring. As soon as we became more affordable, they pounced.”

SomeOne's major rebrand of Eurostar back in 2011 had to appeal equally to customers in the UK, France and Belgium

Stuart Radford emphasises the enduring reputation of the UK design scene as an attraction to clients. “I don’t see that changing as a result of Brexit,” he says, although he does predict a reduction in the total number of quality commissions for the best agencies to fight over. 

“UK designers are good at solving the most challenging of briefs, and often our creativity thrives from those more adverse parameters,” continues Radford. “If the economy is struggling, brands have to fight harder for their position in the market. 

"Creativity will be in demand, and it’s those businesses that have the foresight to invest in their brands that will not only weather any storm but thrive in it.”

Next page: How Brexit may affect cashflow and profitability