Five Design Business Mistakes Agencies Should Never Make

Design business consultant Ted Leonhardt shares the 5 major mistakes that most creative agencies make and how to avoid them.

Over the last few years as a consultant to design firms I’ve run into a series of problems that are all too human, but could have easily been avoided.

Never take on a major project without clear leadership
The new business team wins the account after intense competition. The project requires all the skillsets that the firm offers, but no one takes absolute responsibility for the effort.

The result is predictable: the client feels mistreated, the managers play the blame game with each other, the account team can’t get the support they need, the budget is blown, and the unhappy client leaves.

Why? Because the discipline leaders did not work as a team and there is no protocol for determining who’s in charge when their combined skills are required.

Worse, the boss doesn’t provide the leadership or clearly put someone in charge. The combination of weak leadership and weak account management produces disaster.

Never use past estimates as the basis of future proposals
It’s so easy to pull out that last proposal, change the names, dates, add a few salient facts and send it off to that prospective client. Then you win the business and guess what? That old job you based the new one on lost tons of money but no one checked.

So there you are condemned to repeat the same money losing process, maybe hoping to make it up in change orders or whatever. Good luck.

Never let poor performance slip by with out a reprimand
People need feedback. I need feedback. Everyone needs to know what their results produced, especially when that effort isn’t up to snuff.

Unfortunately, most managers of creative firms don’t know and don’t want to know how to give critical feed back. So their teams don’t get the small, immediate corrections along the way that they need to succeed.

Often the negatives are accumulated for the annual salary review but by then the issues have grown into much larger problems, leaving both the manager and the employee uncomfortable and unhappy.

Managers must learn how to critique staff at the moment the need arises so that giving and receiving corrections are not such a big deal.

Never let young talent blame the lack of creative on the client
Or old talent, for that matter. This one has always galled me and I’ve heard it all too often: “The client won’t let us be creative” or “The budget isn’t big enough.”

It’s the job of the creative team to be creative within the parameters of the client’s assignment. Great work often comes from the most difficult circumstances.

Remember Apple’s ‘Think Different’ campaign? They had no products to advertise at the time so they told their public that they were different and hoped they would wait.

An ever better example is the VW ‘Think Small’ campaign. They had only $700,000 to spend while the Big Three had $10,000,000 each to spend on their new compacts.

Never think that it’s only the work that matters
It’s the relationship that makes the work possible. Without a great client relationship you’ll never get the chance to do great work.

Yes, great work is critical to achieving your agencies’ and your clients’ goals, but you’ll never get a chance to do great work if the client doesn’t feel included, respected, and well-served.

Ted Leonhardt has provided management consulting and negotiation training exclusively to creative businesses since 2005. He cofounded the The Leonhardt Group, a brand design firm in 1985 and sold it in 1999. In 2001 and 2002 Ted served as Chief Creative Officer for Fitch Worldwide, out of London. In 2003 through early 2005 Ted was president of Anthem Worldwide, a brand packaging design group.

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From David Sherwin, the man that brought you the best selling Creative Workshop, here comes the business side of being creative! Success by Design is a reference for designers to remind themselves of best practices in the industry. Complex business advice and information is distilled into an easy-to-reference format that’s not meant to be read cover-to-cover, but to answer questions in the moment!

One thought on “Five Design Business Mistakes Agencies Should Never Make

  1. Bob Sanders

    Your points are outstanding, and the last more so! Clients don’t know how to describe the difficulties they are feeling in terms that will seem clear to you so they talk of “resource allocations”, “responsiveness”, “skills more in step with where we want to go”, “creative that will take us to the next level”, “specific management commitments we felt we weren’t getting” and a lot more such double talk. The trade press quickly picks it up as gospel and more confusion is spread.

    For an agency, focusing on the relationship, or what we call chemistry, is about managing client expectations. Basically the agency has failed to first understand the expectations of specific clients from a relationship point of view. And then the agency has not had the skills or versatility to move in that direction to match those expectations.

    We teach agencies of all types how to do this resulting in much higher than average client retention… frankly, every agency should invest in how to better understand the relationship, the skills needed, and how to better manage.