Profitable partnerships

In the commercial design and illustration arena, sub-contracting is as common as budgets, briefs and back-breaking deadlines - yet there's another more fitting phrase for this practice: collaboration. The best creative agencies can't do all their work in-house, while small agencies and freelancers don't often pitch for key accounts. So in the design industry, where specialisms bring greater creative energy and ideas, collaboration is king.

In a typical above-the-line design project the account-holding advertising agency is given a campaign brief. They locate the key messages, establish a theme and visual feel, then set about putting the project - or separate elements of the project - out to tender. Selected creative agencies and studios are invited to pitch for the work, or the ad agency chooses a regular, dependable studio team that they know will bring an extra edge to the work.

This is the point where the real roll-up-your-sleeves creativity comes in. A brief may be agreed, a budget set and core ideas established, but screens are still blank and newspaper ad space sits empty. Here's where a network of creative specialisms is worth its weight in gold.

"We only work with partners that bring something else to the party," says Luke Flynn, creative director at TribalDDB, one of the world's most prominent digital marketing agencies, with key accounts from the likes of Starbucks, Nike, and Pepsi. "That doesn't mean those who just simply do the basics, but push the boundaries, and surprise our clients."

It's this top-down stance that makes creative design and illustration such a level playing field. Establishing your name may take time and effort, but the added skills you can offer a creative agency are more important to them than the pay slip they hand you the end of the project. As Flynn puts it: "I really appreciate working with highly talented and dedicated partners. If they can take our vision for a project and produce something better than what was in my mind's eye, that is when the creative becomes something else entirely."

While most agencies will have a solid contacts book of specialist collaborators who they call upon for specific tasks, they're always on the look out for potential new ones. "Looking for directors, animators and illustrators is a communal exercise at Tribal," Flynn admits. "I spend at least 30 minutes every day searching the internet for people I'd like to work with. Each project is so different, it's extremely useful to have a bank of people you've bookmarked and can look through. We then vet them, and if all is good a relationship is established."

With this general rapport, the agency then gets a feel for what the freelancer or studio offers. This isn't solely about a portfolio of established work, however. As Flynn makes plain, the types of creatives that TDDB keeps in its contact book do much more than just answer the brief; reputable freelancers and studios actively collaborate on a project.

This is an attitude echoed by Manchester-based design studio The Neighbourhood. The team's expert in-house skillset includes high-end 3D and motion work and animation, and has garnered work for brands including Sony, CBBC and Five. "Collaboration to me usually means greater opportunities for creative innovation - as fresh viewpoints often create unexpected ideas," says creative director Ben Davies. "The theory is that everyone in the mix plays to their own specialist strengths, so potential ideas can be explored in great detail at an early stage."

The Neighbourhood's approach is somewhat different to many creative studios, in that one of its founding principles was to act as a resource-rich hub of specialist skillsets. Like other lead agencies, though, its selection of who to work with - and its criteria of why to work with them - is based on more than a sample of work or a glimpse at a portfolio. In fact, as Davies reveals, most creative directors have a fixed idea of the types of collaborators each job needs, and what each individual can bring. This is often the core role of successful creative directors: managing resources and skillsets.

"We have a few people we collaborate with frequently, and a large 'extended neighbourhood' of people around the world who we work with occasionally or have bookmarked for the future," says Davies. "We find them through the usual means: lots of web browsing and people contacting us. But it's always about who we feel has the best approach to each project."

So it's clear that commissioning studios have ideas of who to collaborate with when a job comes in. But how much creative input does a freelance illustrator or small agency get when working collaboratively? After all, the account-holding agency has its core business at stake, so the client always comes first.

Industry kudos is a given, where a personal brand is built on years of painstaking graft. This ensures freelancers are the first port of call for art directors looking for collaborators. Rex Crowle enjoys this reputation - his self-initiated work resulted in an MTV series for his Grip Wrench character, while his characterbased illustration and animation has been used in above-the-line campaigns for the likes of Sony, Orange and Disney. One of his recent projects involved a collaborative approach with digital agency Preloaded for an online storybook series in support of the new BBC Merlin TV show.

Preloaded's creative director Phil Stuart called upon the skills of Crowle and three other illustrators for the project. Each was tasked with creating a story and online game exploring the key themes of each tale. "Each illustrator was given a brief akin to what a children's book illustrator might receive," explains Stuart. "It was intentionally open, providing an overview of the story with suggested areas of focus. We wanted each illustrator to approach the story in their own style, and didn't want to limit their creative response by putting guidelines in place or making suggestions too early on."

Given Preloaded's specialism in digital wizardry, the BBC Merlin project is an example of how creative collaboration can solve multiple design briefs. Each illustrator delivered rough scamps for the story; Preloaded's creative team then gave feedback, focusing on how it would work in the context of the storybook and how they could bring them to life. Once signed off, all the assets where delivered as a layered file and brought into Flash, broken up, then animated and sequenced together.

This ensured that each stage of the creative process was produced by a specialist in the field, and also guaranteed a degree of variety and creative breadth in the finished output. In other words, the final project was born of its individual elements, not by simply answering a brief.

While this kind of free-flowing collaboration sounds almost unpredictable, it's actually carefully managed at each stage. "All the work was done remotely, but our minds were fused together like a hive-brain of pure design," explains Crowle; though based in his own studio, he was in constant contact with Preloaded via email and phone. "They could show me how they thought the story could be divided up into sections, but it was a very open brief; most of the discussions were on the technical specification of the site and how it would function. This was great, as I could concentrate on the illustrations. Once I'd produced the artwork, they took them to the next level with the addition of animation, voiceover and interactivity."

Preloaded's Stuart, creative director on the project, agrees: "As always, planning and clear communication is key. An understanding of what's required, married with the experience of what will work, is the dream combination - particularly for projects with tight budgets and timelines. Rex just got it from the outset, and this comes through in the end."

Some studios go further, and keep a desk in their studio for collaborating creatives. The Neighbourhood is due to move to a new Manchester studio, which has been created for precisely this purpose. "From the start, I've conceived our new space as being all about collaboration and sharing skills and opportunities," explains Davies. "We'll invite selected small companies, freelancers and agencies to share our 'neighbourhood'. My theory is that the whole will be more than the sum of its parts, and opportunities will be created. Some people in the studio will have complementary skills, others are wildcards."

Working on an established project is one thing, but collaboratively pitching for work is another process entirely. In an industry where free-pitching is a necessary evil, most collaborations are established once the job has been won, and not in preparation of it. "On smaller projects we'll use an illustrator's portfolio to secure a client 'buy-in'. On bigger projects we like to bring the illustrator closer to the creative response," explains Preloaded's Stuart on how collaborative pitching works. "Working together on the pitch also means the project can kick off very quickly on commission, with the illustration brief naturally evolving out of the pitch process."

This is a stance echoed by Birmingham design agency Fluid, which has worked on campaigns and specialist projects for the likes of Honda and Sony. With over 15 years' experience, Fluid is well-placed to bring in talent when necessary. Yet with the majority of its design work done in-house, it's often more specialist collaborators who are called upon for larger projects.

"Instead of trying to do everything in-house, we ensure that all elements of the project get completed by the best person for the job," explains creative director James Glover. "You can't be everything to everyone and clients don't want you to be. On occasions we'll work with a creative who's a specialist in a very particular skill - like comic book illustration. In these instances it's always really inspiring for the rest of the studio, and allows us to increase our in-house creative knowledge by working closely with a leading specialist."

So collaboration is a two-way deal, with the freelancer building their body of work, while the lead studio or agency gets to try new creative techniques and draw on specialist skills for specialist jobs.

Some studios - in particular web teams - continue to work in a two-stage setup, with a design element coming first and a development stage following on. Yet these types of symbiotic relationships are rare, and even when an established agency-studio relationship is formed, no one really likes to admit to co-credits.

In which case, collaboration is the ideal term for this business relationship, proving that creative design work is - when at its best - a product of its individual elements, and benefits all involved. As Stuart admits: "By commissioning on a per-job basis, we can guarantee that our creative response perfectly suits the brief. It keeps our output varied, and means we get to work with very talented individuals."

Collaboration then, is so much more than a mere business arrangement - it's a creative process in its own right, no matter what the budget involved.

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