It’s not quite true that the design industry was anti-commercial in the late nineteen seventies. But it wasn’t far off.
Inspired by the success of the advertising industry which was going through its golden age and informed by echoes of the counter-culture of the early seventies, ‘creativity’ was definitely ‘where things were at’.
And effectiveness? Well ok. Just don’t ruin my design. As a consequence agency receptions were littered with awards for dazzling creativity that had no proven commercial impact at all.
It was in that context that Coley Porter Bell opened its doors for business in November 1978 with the twin ambitions of winning pencils and creating profitable brands.
35 years later Coley, Porter and Bell have left the building, but Coley Porter Bell has never looked healthier. Given that the great majority of creative businesses are under ten years old and the majority of those fail to make it to beyond twenty years, we couldn’t help wondering what have we done right?
Like those Georgians who claim to be 140, we are not necessarily best placed to explain our own longevity. But looking back, the key has been a strong but flexible culture that allowed us to deal with change -the four momentous shifts that occurred in the industry since we started. They transformed it from a craft-based cottage industry to a strategic partner for global business.
The greatest of these changes was probably the concept of ‘brand’. Today perhaps the word is over used; everything and anything seems to be a brand. But in the late seventies the concept was still struggling to gain purchase.
Much marketing was still focussed on physical attributes such as ‘power’, ‘durability’ or ‘value’. The idea that personality and intangible attributes could provide competitive edge was still the exception rather than the rule.
Curiously, it was the effect of an advertising discipline, account planning that linked brand thinking and design. Advertising had invented planning in the early seventies and planners were great proselytyzers for branding.
Gradually planners spread to the other marketing services disciplines taking their brand thinking with them. As a consequence packaging design moved from simply informing people what was in the pack to becoming a builder of brand equity.
This contributed to another change that started at about the same time: the design revolution. All of a sudden in the mid eighties the word ‘designer’ was everywhere. ‘Designer’ suits, ‘designer cutlery’, ‘designer stubble’, design rapidly became a way of lending lustre to the most mundane objects.
It wasn’t that Margaret Thatcher had inspired an aesthetic revolution. It was more that design endowed products with obvious status. In addition, the brand and effectiveness insights of all those advertising planners had established for the first time that well designed brands were more profitable. Status and profit perfectly suited the ‘loadsamoney’ zeitgeist.
If design was now applying commercial criteria to work for clients it was only a matter of time before it started applying similar thinking to its own business.
That process was turbo boosted by the IT revolution. Until the early nineteen nineties, designs could take weeks to conceive and execute. Today thanks to the ubiquitous Mac, the process can be reduced to days. It has simultaneously deskilled, democratised and down-sized the design industry.
Coley Porter Bell is typical of the industry in now having three or four times the turnover it did in the mid nineteen nineties. But only half the staff.
The drive to transform design companies into tightly run businesses has been further accelerated by the comparatively recent entry of client procurement into the new business process.
The final momentous change has been the move to globalisation. In the late seventies nearly all design was created by small teams of craftsmen for local clients.
As globalisation built during the nineteen eighties and nineties, many clients needed design that transcends national and cultural boundaries.
Design is till created best by small tight-nit teams. Its just that clients can now come from anywhere in the world.
Surviving all these changes cant be achieved by willpower or brilliance or even by diligence –although you wont get far without them. The one thing that can enables a service business like ours to last is a strong culture.