Collaboration amongst design groups is common in the industry. In Design Council research, 54% of designers questioned said they collaborate with external groups or designers to win or complete work.
- The benefits of collaboration
- Project-based collaboration
- Organising and running collaborations, including subcontracting and running informal partnerships
- Formal partnerships
- Overseas collaborations
- Alliances and associations
The benefits of collaboration
One obvious benefit of collaboration is that it widens your skill base: an interior designer pitching for a restaurant project, for example, might join up with a lightning designer to strengthen their proposal to the client. This kind of collaboration is usually ad hoc and set up for specific projects so that the right skills are available in the team. It increases the designers’ chance of winning the work and offers the client a turn-key solution.
Ongoing partnerships can also be formed between groups that have complementary skills. This offers clients easier access to the combination of design services they are likely to need regularly. An example could be an interior design consultancy forming a partnership agreement with an architectural firm.
Project based collaboration
Project-based collaboration can be simple, but does still raise questions which are important for all collaborations and partnerships, and which should be considered early on.
One obvious downside is that revenues have to be shared. So a careful analysis of your time, the client’s budget and the anticipated margins is recommended before bringing extra parties to the table.
Further considerations include:
- If there is a lead agency and, if so, who it should be
- If groups will be subcontracted by the lead agency or if it is a fully joint project. This will affect how fees and payments are structured
- Who has liability and/or insurance
- Who owns any intellectual property generated during the project development
- Who will manage the project and client relationship
As with so many business processes, it's here that a little planning can save confusion later on.
Organising and running collaborations
Subcontracting is the simplest setup financially and organisationally, as it leaves a lead consultancy to source, brief and bill any subcontracted agencies, as well as deal with the client directly.
‘In terms of how contracts are set up, you have to be flexible,’ says Satkar Gidda, sales and marketing director of packaging design specialist SiebertHead. ‘We did some work for Kraft where we didn’t have the skills here, so we brought in another group to do the work. That was all clear – we were the lead agency and Kraft paid us. But you could just recommend your sister group and hand the work over to them – it depends on what the client wants.’
Another option is to form an informal but longer-term relationship with design groups that offer skills and services complementary to your own. For example, a small graphic design consultancy that doesn’t have digital design skills in-house might form a relationship with a digital group which doesn’t handle print design. And joining these two might be a 3D-focused designer who can take graphic elements into a physical space. Such reciprocal relationships are worth forging if you want to be able to pitch for work that might reach beyond your own specialism, potentially opening the door to larger and more varied client work.
An example of this kind of relationship is the arrangement between retail design group Hart D’Lacey and architectural firm Lewis & Hickey, which have worked together on more than 20 bank design projects, with each group’s services complementing the other’s. According to Hart D’Lacey director Sam D’Lacey, this relationship started when clients asked Lewis & Hickey to provide a service ranging ‘from architecture to retail interior strategy design and implementation’.
‘Lewis & Hickey asked for our advice in writing a design proposal and providing strategic and creative thinking, then under their banner. Over time we both realised that promoting each other’s skills was a real benefit,’ says D’Lacey. ‘So the company which has the initial contact takes the lead on the project from the client’s point of view. We work under a loose contract – it’s a very simple one which provides a scope of work and fee proposal to the other group for its services, just as you would with a client. Each practice produces work under its own professional indemnity and of course can only approach the client directly for further work with the other’s consent. We don’t mark up each other’s services, but just try to promote them and we don’t have any fixed targets of fee income.’
Formal, contractual partnerships between design groups are much less common. As with Lewis & Hickey and Hart D’Lacey, groups are more likely to have an informal relationship – functioning on the basis of a ‘recommendation’ to clients – than a formal commercial agreement that obliges them to work together.
Unless you are certain you always want to work with a particular group on relevant projects – and that your clients will always be happy for you to do so – a formal agreement is probably too limiting. It could also cause complications if any of the parties decide to extend their own skills in a way that starts to compete with the others.
‘If you are setting up a partnership, you’ve got to be very clear about it and each of the firms has to market the other,’ says SiebertHead sales and marketing director Satkar Gidda. ‘So you should be talking about each other in credentials presentations, saying “this is our sister digital consultancy”, for example.’
Another reason to consider collaboration is to expand your presence into an overseas territory. Scenarios might include a global client demanding greater geographical reach, or the need to deliver a round-the-clock working capability. Sometimes one overseas project can generate new contacts in a region – contacts that can only be nurtured by staff on the ground there. In a global market, there are many reasons to look abroad for ways to grow your business.
One option is to open a satellite office and staff it with people from the UK. Whilst this might be the fastest route to the new territory, there are many benefits of having access to local knowledge and contacts, especially in regions where the culture differs significantly from the UK. In fact, in some places it may actually be almost impossible to pick up work without having a local partnership in place.
In Dubai, for example, you have to have a local partner in order to establish a local brand or company, says Ian Cochrane, chairman of design industry consultancy Ticegroup. ‘Capturing client opportunities abroad means you need to think about how you deliver thinking, design and client servicing,’ says Cochrane. ‘Thinking can be flown in, but design and servicing generally need to be local.’
Possible options include:
- Moving existing staff to the new location
- Hiring local staff
- Acquiring a business
- Partnering with an existing business
A formal partnership with a local consultancy may offer the most direct entry into the market with the lowest investment, but once again raises issues of ownership. ‘The trouble with partnerships is that fees need to be split and who owns clients? The only partnerships that work are where there are very complementary services. For example, a design group may partner with local project management or architect,’ says Cochrane.
Another option is to source one or two local designers and hire them to run your office alongside someone relocated from your main UK office. ‘Overseas clients love to buy UK thinking and creativity, so for the biggest chance of success always ensure that a senior member of staff is put on the ground to start with and then have a mix of Brits and local staff,’ says Cochrane.
SiebertHead’s Warsaw office, meanwhile, was established after an existing design contact approached the group and expressed an interest in establishing a business in Poland using the SiebertHead brand. ‘They took a couple of designers from where they were and promised to take a drinks company client to give the new office some work when it opened,’ says Gidda. ‘It’s now a very successful SiebertHead-owned branch office and because they don’t do much structural design work there, the London office benefits from taking that work too.’
Alliances and associations
One way of boosting your contact with overseas markets is to set up, or join, an alliance or association. Rather than share clients and projects, an association can be used to share experience, learning and contacts.
UK retail design group Dalziel & Pow, for example, is part of the All-Around-Design association which includes Saguez & Partners in Paris, Qua in Amsterdam and Espluga in Barcelona. The four groups meet two or three times a year, with each member hosting in rotation.
According to Dalziel & Pow marketing director David Wright, All-Around Design is ‘very informal’ and aims to share experiences, understanding, best practice and learning, but not work. ‘We do not share work and this is in no way a network relationship. It’s about being able to meet and openly show work and talk about experiences. We can also ask for help. Say we have a French client and we are looking at names, we can sense-check them with Saguez. It’s deliberately informal; it’s not about any commercial activity,’ says Wright.
An international association might help your consultancy to gain a better understanding of the global picture in your sector, or to learn about different cultural nuances. But again, an agreement to share projects is harder to execute successfully unless all the groups are complementary and non-competing. ‘In reality, projects aren’t shared. It gets too parochial really quickly and no one really wants to share their clients and their revenues,’ says Gidda. ‘Alliance groups have to be complementary really because if you both do packaging design, why would you really ever want to share clients?’ One successful international ‘complementary’ relationship, she adds, is that between SiebertHead in London and corporate identity group Brunazzi & Associati in Italy. Under their arrangement, Brunazzi will often recommend SiebertHead for packaging projects.