Insights 19/01/2023 Nick Dormon

Branding & Design in a global-local tension

Our agency is 20 people based in central London, but we bat off far bigger networked agencies to win global work. I’m boasting I know, but we are proud of the fact that we can hit above our weight, but why can we do this?

A decade ago, we would repeatedly get rejected from international brand rosters and pitches because we didn’t have offices in different markets. It was seen as essential to be in the place where the brand was sold so that the designers could better understand the local consumers and their needs – not so much now. People and talent are now the critical factor in location and the practical and perceptual obstacles of distant working have all but gone, allowing this new gravity to happen.

London may not be where the consumers necessarily are, but it is where the talent is. We have fabulous art colleges and universities drawing the best students from around the world. There are 1500 design courses in the UK, and many are in and around London. We also have a very high concentration of creative firms in the capital making it a magnet for designers looking to find jobs and develop their careers. London, and increasingly beyond across the UK, has become a hotbed for new creative businesses adding £111.7 billion to the UK economy in 2018. This unique ‘hub’ of talent wins pitches, cracks problems, and creates new opportunities for brands. It builds excitement, reputation, and business success.

In the past the next step for a growing London agency would be to open offices abroad – New York, Singapore, Shanghai! Sometimes this is successful, but often not. It’s difficult to replicate the original success. Even if key people are keen to relocate, who carry the culture, processes, and demanding expectations of work with them, it is difficult to replicate the original with local talent. They might be good, but they will be the same as any good local agency who don’t have all the overheads of relocating senior people and so it will be difficult to be competitive.

How many offices do you need to be truly global? From a western perspective having one office in Shanghai may seem like you are covering the east but you’re never going to cover half the world from one office. An Indonesian consumer will be very different from an Indian, or Chinese one. The reality will be many hours in aeroplanes no matter where you are located – London to Mumbai is 9 hours from Shanghai it would be over 12. So, in this model you need many offices, but having one key person who wants to relocate is hard enough, finding many will be impossible. Networked agencies do exist, but it is unlikely that they will have a common character, offer or skill set.

If the design team is therefore remote from the consumer, how do they ‘get into the shoes of the user’. Designers have always worked with consumer research companies, and we can glean information from their reports and attend focus groups, but there is nothing better than being on the ground and getting a feel for the situations and needs of the consumer. Targeted user observations that are attended by designers in the local markets are highly effective, and when compared with having a local office, very cost effective. In one trip we can check out manufacturing and supply, retail and even visit consumer homes to give us a rounded picture of the design challenge and brief.

A designer’s eye is trained to look out for the functional and emotional interactions in observations that will ultimately inform their design work. They can also better appreciate the constraints and opportunities for innovation and creativity.  The fact that they are not familiar with the local situation makes the observations more acute. Nothing will be assumed, as everything is new.

For consumer-focused workshops and creative sessions we have had repeated success recruiting people in London from the local markets we are focused on, such is the cosmopolitan mix of our capital. They can help give us insights in our brainstorming and keep us in mind of their environment, culture, economics as we design.

The transition from chasing the consumer to chasing the talent has been accelerated by video conferencing technology. Global lockdowns made us all familiar and comfortable with online interactions. We now successfully run focus groups remotely and even workshops as well as brainstorms can be run across multiple continents if a convenient time can be found in the day for the many time zones.

The global reach from our studio is therefore limitless. We take advantage of the talent hub but have the agility to genuinely connect to consumers anywhere in the world. Brands go to design agencies for their ideas. This is the best way to get them.

Read the full article on Elite Business Live here.