Where does ‘strategy’ fit?


Are you a design consultancy that tends to give away strategic thinking? If so, you are not alone. The design industry has always been rather good at this. Agencies tend to place an understandably high value on creative design work but are often unclear about how to frame the strategic offer. You may be nervous about offering services that are not really in your comfort zone. Which services are credible for you to offer and which are a step too far? Which elements are integral to the creative process and which are optional extras? How do we persuade clients to spend money on these areas so that your strategic offer can become a real revenue stream?

Firstly, let’s demystify the whole ‘strategy’ subject. Good design agencies have always offered ‘strategy’. Understanding the business challenge, the brand, competition, target audience and having a clear commercial rationale for all creative work is what every good design agency is all about. Many agencies have not necessarily labelled this as ‘strategy’ but that is exactly what it is. Being ‘strategic’ is part and parcel of being a good designer.

The problem is that many agencies find it difficult to break these services down and explain their true worth. What is your approach to areas such as brand positioning, brand architecture and brand naming? Do you have a process for each one? More than that, do you have point of view on each area? What makes a good brand positioning? What are the main pitfalls? How do you bridge the gap between words and pictures? Some design agencies shy away from this, preferring to generalise about their ‘experience’ and ‘intuitive understanding’ or even to take pride in the fact that they don’t have ‘processes.’ After all, ‘processes’ do not sound terribly creative. This is tantamount to appealing to clients to ‘trust us’ without offering supporting evidence. Whether we like it or not, clients seek reassurance in defined approaches and clear steps.

In attempting to define strategic services, it can sometimes be tempting to introduce trademarked names and eye catching titles. This can certainly add specialness or intrigue, and demonstrate that thought has gone in. However, it can also look slightly forced and present strategy as a bolt-on rather than integral. All too often, they are fancy names for generic approaches and a case of over egging the pudding.

So when describing the ‘strategy’ offer, keep it simple, clear, honest and credible. Also, choose your words carefully. For example, ‘insight’ has become one of the most used words on agency websites and surely one of the most abused. It is now being routinely used to describe almost any non-visual output. In reality, an ‘insight’ is a different way of looking at something. It’s something you didn’t know or realise before. Real insight is rare.

Clients are fond of dividing agencies into ‘strategic’ and ‘non-strategic’ with the former category presumed worthy of higher fees. Clients tend to base these views on an overall feel for the agency, rather than a mere listing of services. Therefore, perhaps it’s not so much about deciding which services

you can add on to your existing offer, but about examining your current approach to highlight areas that can be crystallised, better explained or amplified. And don’t forget. Whether you are ‘strategic’ is evidenced not only in your formal offer but in whether you present your work in a business context, your views and opinions, the way you present and pitch, the way you plan and run your agency. It’s a whole approach and way of thinking, not an addition.