Creative Recruiters is part of a wide and eclectic industry occupied by some truly extraordinary people, many of them brimming with wisdom and insight. We decided we’d ask some of these leaders, sages and expert practitioners for a little bit of the knowledge they’d gathered over many years plying their craft and leading their own ventures.
But we didn’t want to waste their time – or yours – with the sort of questions you’ve heard a thousand times before, so we decided to think laterally. In fact, we decided to think a little bit mischievously.
We made our questions deliberately provocative and asked our interviewees to be as candid with their answers as they were willing to be. First cab off the rank are design and branding experts – and they didn’t let us down.
Why are there so few filthy rich design agency owners?
“When I first read that question I hated [it],” says Andrew Ashton, who has been designing for more than 25 years. He co-founded Precinct Design in 1994, Studio Pip and Co in 2003 and in 2012 established Work Art Life Studios. He has also lectured in Communication Design at Swinburne's Communication Design and Monash University’s Art & Design Faculty.
“I think there are three words in that question that are offensive. One being “filthy rich”. I think within those words lies the whole problem for the sector.”
“If you want to make money get into real estate. If you want to make amazing, creative work, start a design practice. And treat it like a practice rather than a money-making machine.”
For Ashton, the concept of the “practice” is vitally important. And he laments the fact that, on the whole, the design and branding sector is leaving it behind.
“The emphasis of being in a graphic design studio has moved from having a practice to this idea of agencies. In the creative practice mode, it’s about a body of work and a manifestation of that body of work [as well as] ongoing investigation and enquiry in that practice. Whereas the idea of agency work is about fees and retainers and a big part of success is driven by what you charge for the work that is being made,” Ashton says.
But David Ansett, Founder & Chief Creator of Brands at creative agency, Truly Deeply – a 25-year industry veteran – believes that design studios need to be far more business-oriented.
“The design industry has never seen itself as contributing to increasing profit. Not until recently. [It] has evolved into an aesthetic, artist-led, visual craft model,” Ansett says.
He contrasts it with the evolution of the older and historically more commercially-minded advertising industry and describes them as proverbial chalk and cheese, one capable of producing rivers of gold, the other not.
“When I say filthy rich, I mean, for a start, having enough to exit – most [design] owners don’t; they close the doors. And secondly being able to exit with ten or twenty million dollars. That’s the realm of ad agencies. Maybe less so now.”
“...The design industry has never seen itself as contributing to increasing profit. Not until recently..."
“When I think of the highest profile [design] agencies to sell in Australia the last decade – the ones that I know of the figures and the stories behind them – the owner of those agencies has had to keep working. Not just because they love the industry. They’ve sold leading agencies and they’ve had to go back to work as soon as they could. That just doesn’t happen in the ad world,” Ansett explains.
For Grant Davidson, Managing Director at Davidson Branding since 1990, the best design and branding enterprises find a happy medium between the pursuit of design perfection and the constraints imposed by commercial imperatives.
“Companies who focus on it all being about the design go broke. Companies who focus on trying to make a lot of money go broke because they set up a culture that just isn’t in line with where designers want to work so they just can’t get good staff. They can’t retain good staff. The proven, more successful businesses are the ones that have a very good balance,” Davidson says.
“[P]rofitability and design quality are polar opposites or arch enemies, in some ways, because to produce great design requires time, craftsmanship, exploration, embellishments. Clients want that as well. Designers are pushing for more time, more budgets. So for the company, the biggest challenge is stopping them.”
Davidson says one of the reasons he loves the sector so much is that it allows him to work with people he considers to be born perfectionists.
“Designers, by nature, could work through a year – a decade – on a project making it absolutely perfect. And to be profitable you have to say “Stop right there”, which is very difficult. [I]t requires working against your instincts to say “No, it could be a lot better but we have to stop because that’s all we’ve got budget for.”
Will design and branding agencies ever be the commercial successes of their advertising cousins? According to David Ansett, if it ever happens, we’ll have a surefire way of knowing the tide is turning: investors will swoop.
“There’s a really interesting question that someone asked me years ago: ‘How many private equity firms are investing in the branding and associated design industry in Australia?’ and I said ‘None. Not even close.’ He said “That’s a fair indication the industry has too many challenges and faults.’
“A basic rule of thumb is private equity have the skills to grow and scale any type of business, so if they’re keeping away from your industry it’s because the rules don’t apply. The branding or design agency model is very hard to scale,” Ansett says.
From Andrew Ashton’s perspective, investment is important, but he speaks of a very different type of investment to the one private equity groups are looking to make.
“When I first started out I was driven by the idea of being a designer and making major work and working with big clients and smearing my work across the community. Until I took a step out and realised ‘Well, what was the point of the work I was making? What are the cultural cues that make my work unique?’
“And I think those questions are deeper questions that in the bigger studios people just don’t have time to answer because they’re so busy making work, making it highly profitable work and getting onto the next job,” Ashton says.
“It seems a bit cynical, but if you look at architects and artists and other creative practitioners and how they approach their work, the emphasis is on the work. It’s not about what you make from the work, in terms of money.
“In essence, that’s what’s taken the joy out of the work. Clients get that. When it’s so fiscally driven … a lot of communication design work pushes all the right buttons in terms of look and aesthetics but, to a large extent, it just lacks the soul and the depth and the joyful X-factor that makes it enduring – even though it is an artefact… even though it’s ephemeral. Without that investment of joy and love it sort of becomes just another pretty looking thing.”
Next week we ask Andrew Ashton, Grant Davidson and David Ansett:
What have we done wrong as a sector to be so poorly valued by clients?
As a creative industry, why are we so poor at innovation?
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