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Why Design Is Agencies' New Competitive Edge

In case you missed it, marketers are increasingly seeing the impact of blending first-class design with traditional advertising creative

By Dani Gibson

At the Cannes Lions Festival this year, The Grand Prix in the Design category went to Microsoft and McCann New York for their outstanding work on 'ADLaM – An Alphabet To Preserve A Culture', a project that aims to keep the Pulaar language alive and thriving. And out of nearly 1,000 entries, 34 Lions were awarded in competitive categories like 'Creation of a New Brand Identity,' 'Rebrand/Refresh of an Existing Brand,' and 'Design-driven Effectiveness'.

The role and importance of design within the ad industry has undergone a remarkable shift in recent years. More agencies now recognise its pivotal role in driving customer engagement and setting brands apart. And as a result, clients are raising the bar and demanding design teams that can deliver captivating visual narratives, seamless user experiences, and a consistent brand message that leaves a lasting impression.

Design's Rising Influence

Design's role within ad agencies has undergone a significant evolution, becoming an integral element in brand building. Mark Elwood, the executive creative director at Leo Burnett, states, “Part of this evolution is due to design no longer being limited to assets alone. The current media landscape demands much more. We need to ensure our ideas work seamlessly across various channels, including the digital space.” Elwood actively recognised the significance of design and played a key role in its development when he joined the agency three years ago with the main objective of enhancing its design offering.

Jordan Blood, the head of design at VCCP's global content studio Girl&Bear acknowledges the broader scope of design and the need for increased collaboration both internally and with clients. According to Blood: "We used to mainly create key visuals, layouts, and the occasional end frame, whereas now we're also creating brand identities, animated social posts, 3D models/renders, websites, infographics, etc." This shift in focus has led to clearer workload planning and optimal utilisation of the team's talents and project resources Blood says.

"In the past, agencies haven’t always recognised designers as visual problem solvers," adds Ted Smith, head of design at BMB. "They were used more as graphic stylists, or technicians to be given prescriptive instruction. This led to ‘design’ meaning something completely different within agencies."

However, Smith claims that the definition is changing. "With more outputs and busier creatives, designers are being given more responsibility and opportunities to apply design thinking to projects, which has helped to evolve the perception of design in advertising."

Some agencies that actively involve design in the creative process, as observed by Stephanie McArdle, the head of design at Droga5 London, have produced visually captivating and engaging work. This success has prompted other agencies to follow suit. McArdle notes: “Visual thinkers often gravitate towards this role as it allows them to have a more hands-on approach and influence the final outcome. However, I find it more interesting when agencies embrace a collaborative process and value input from both designers and creatives.” She emphasises that isolated or siloed approaches often stem from insecurity and lack of collaboration, which rarely lead to good results.

By fully supporting and integrating design alongside creative teams, agencies can showcase the breadth of talent and skills within their advertising studios, ultimately fostering innovation, maintaining a competitive edge in the industry. and attracting the best design talent. Dan Beckett, head of art at The&Partnership, highlights the evolving role of designers, stating: “By promoting its design work, the agency sends a powerful message to candidates that the agency recognises the contribution designers make and the importance of well-conceived and beautifully executed work.” Design should not be seen as a mere cosmetic touch-up but as an integral and strategic component of campaigns.

"As the industry evolves, designers are now being elevated and held in high regard alongside creative teams," agrees Simon Dilks, deputy head of design at AMV BBDO. "It is crucial for agencies to acknowledge the significance of design as a key aspect of their offerings to clients. It not only helps them stay competitive but also generates excitement within the industry."

And good design increasingly matters to consumers too. Liam Thomas of Grey London emphasises the importance of design in the changing landscape of consumer behaviour, stating: "The newer generation of consumers actually cares about aesthetics and interacts with brands in new ways. Brands now need to be super authentic, and design plays a significant role in shifting these perceptions."

Meeting the Demands of Modern Clients

Today, clients are seeking more from design teams than ever before. The bar has risen and brands are seeking greater levels of expertise and creativity.

“We’re seeing more and more branding projects that require conceptual thinking at brand level and organisational skills for design system development,” says McArdle. “We’ve [Droga5] been hiring designers with branding backgrounds. This type of work is alongside the fame-driving campaign work we’ve always been doing, so our team is a diverse mix of designers from various backgrounds to handle the breadth of work. Each designer brings their own angle to our collaborative hot pot.”

Her ambition is simple. To make interesting work that feels new and fresh but also makes a genuine difference and impact.

Burnett's Elwood discusses the growing need for social content and brand world design. “Growing the department through the lens of those two tasks is where we’re heading,” he discloses. “We hired David Allen as creative director of design two years ago. His title reflects his status in the agency. While the Head of Design position may be perceived as subordinate to other Creative Directors (CDs), David holds equal influence over our output in relation to our clients' business. Additionally, he actively engages with clients and is dedicated to establishing the department as a distinct business entity within Leo Burnett. It serves as an alternative pathway for our operations.”

Leo Burnett is currently in the process of establishing an in-house content team as part of its design offering. Elwood believes it will be a hub for some of the most exhilarating creative work. The team’s success in its Fries Claims campaign for McDonald's exemplifies the innovative and impactful work produced by this team.

Dilks emphasises clients' desire for better continuity throughout the brand, as well as the importance of brilliantly crafted designs and fresh visual approaches. “We’re investing in a broader range of experience and technical know-how,” he adds in regards to AMV BBDO. “We’re not just looking for designers with the ability to create beautiful ads but to see the bigger picture of campaigns and branding, whilst investing time in building closer relationships with specialist production partners.”

He highlights the agency's commitment to expanding their expertise and technical capabilities as part of their growth strategy. Clients are seeking improved brand continuity, desiring impeccably crafted designs and innovative visual approaches that effectively communicate complex products, ranging from VR headsets to deodorant.

Despite design being considered a more serious part of the mix in recent years, Beckett claims that The&Partnership has been investing in designers and design leaders from outside of advertising as early as 2004, initially to enrich campaign designs with more diverse skills but now to respond to increasingly diverse client requests.

“It paid off,” he explains, “and a few years later we were regularly pitching against pure play design and branding agencies."

In the pursuit of bringing clients' ideas to life, Jordan Blood says designers face challenges that span everything from creating logo lockups with multiple sponsor logos, to designing key visuals featuring dancing Hugh Grants, and capturing and stitching together aerial shots for immersive website experiences.

“Bringing brilliant ideas to life can be hard. We are often faced with the challenges of scale, channels, capability, markets, value and budgets etc. Fortunately I’m surrounded by an immensely talented team and collectively we always work together to figure out how best to take on these challenges.”

On the other hand, Liam Thomas is driven by his ambition to produce innovative and impactful work that breaks free from the industry's historically safe and uninspired tendencies. He not only seeks to make a genuine difference but also aims to reach beyond confinements by engaging a broader audience.

“I want the team to feel supported and work in an environment where they can try new things, fail while doing it and explore work that really pushes the boundaries creatively. It's about us everyday making the best work we can while having the most fun doing it.

Thomas cultivates a culture at Grey that encourages his design team to embrace risk-taking, explore new ideas, and approach their work with a spirit of excitement and enjoyment.

Redefining Design

Design and communication are now recognised as interconnected entities, and the emphasis is on creating brand guidelines that seamlessly integrate with communication ideas.

Over the past 10 or 15 years, the design landscape has undergone significant changes, expanding its scope beyond typography and visual identity, remarks Mark Elwood. Notably, sound has emerged as a vital aspect of design, as exemplified by the importance of jingles.

“During our initial engagement with Morrison's, I visited my partner's family in the North, and they were already singing ‘More Reasons to Shop at Morrisons’ before we even considered relaunching that concept. This experience vividly showcased the power of design, transcending the visual realm to evoke emotions and create memorable experiences through diverse sensory elements.”

Clients now prioritise ad agencies that consider their entire brand world, aiming to avoid the added cost of involving separate design agencies. By building in-house capabilities, agencies can provide continuous brand guardianship, assuming responsibility for all aspects, from visual appeal to idea generation and execution. “This level of control facilitates a deeper understanding of the brand and enables quicker decision-making,” Elwood believes.

Jordan Blood acknowledges the need for adaptation to the lightning speed of technology and consumer demand. In 2021, Girl&Bear was launched, bringing together designers, editors, animators, artworkers, and producers under one roof. This integration allows for more efficient client service within the wider VCCP Group, while the growth of the department and the diverse capabilities it encompasses cover both conceptual and production-focused design.

Furthermore, Stephanie McArdle emphasises that expanding touch points of campaigns requires reaching global markets and engaging with diverse platforms. Establishing a strong and consistent theme connecting all elements is crucial, making design essential.

When it comes to TV commercials, designers also play a pivotal role in grabbing the viewer’s attention when they only have a second before someone skips the ad. “Within that brief moment, you must create a visually captivating idea that incorporates branding upfront and grabs the viewer's attention in an interesting way,” she explains. “This has led to a reliance on designers to determine what constitutes a truly impactful first second and drive branding considerations.”

Aligning design with brand building is crucial for an agency's overall success and growth. It fosters closer client relationships, encourages collaboration, enables cross-pollination between branding and advertising, enhances pitches, and creates emotional connections with audiences.

Ted Smith adds that having a capable design team not only means a higher standard of visual output, but an agency can also cast a wider net for business. "The successful agencies in recent years are the ones that clearly value design as part of the creative process, not just the icing on the cake. So it makes sense that other agencies are choosing to place more importance on design in order to compete."

Simon Dilkes concludes by declaring how design is a huge tool in any brand's arsenal and when done well can have a dramatic effect on the success of a brand/campaign and the engagement with it.

“Design doesn't just get cut through for a brand but brings it to life, creating an emotional connection between brands and audiences. Ultimately it is all about THE WORK, THE WORK, THE WORK which brings recognition and rewards to both clients and agency.”


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