Specialist shops and agencies slug it out for a larger share of the design pie

By Ravi Balakrishnan , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | October 20, 2009
While the initial enthusiasm of agencies seems to have waned, independent design specialist units are faring a lot better

In the early 2000s, it was almost as if a Golden Age of design was on us. Lintas and Contract unveiled their design specialist cells and the chief executive officers then were very optimistic about just how well these divisions were going to do. Nearly a decade down the line, a lot of the exuberance is gone.

In comparison, some of the independent design specialist units such as the Pune based Elephant and the Bengaluru based Ray and Keshavan - now a part of WPP's Brand Union - are faring a lot better. The good part is that in some cases, the former is on a comeback trail after a few years of neglect. The larger design specialists and agency-led shops regard each other with scepticism and both consider mainline advertising agencies, which offer design practically free of cost, a threat.

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Sujata Keshavan, managing director and executive creative director, Ray and Keshavan, believes agencies handle 50-60 per cent of the work in branding and design. Yet, it is hard to make clients pay unless some sort of specialisation is on offer.

According to Nakul Chopra, chief executive officer, South Asia, Publicis, "There was a weird imbalance where agencies were perhaps being overpaid for TV and grossly underpaid for design. It's true that while clients corrected downwards on TV, they didn't correct upwards on design."

Starting a discrete division is one way of signalling a seriousness of intent and a differentiated product. Chopra says that Publicis was on the fence about starting Red Lion, but decided to go ahead once Elsie Nanji agreed to come on board. "It's like starting a 100 metre race at the 50 metre mark. What really catalysed us was her reputation and talent," he says. 

Specialists feel that even when design is hived off, the work created by agencies remains rooted in mainstream advertising. The best talent serves what is still the most profitable part of an agency's business - TVCs, and these divisions are little more than a client retention strategy. Some of what agencies offer overlap with the services of design specialists. But even here, specialists believe the approach to work is superficial.

A candid Keshavan says, "A lot of thinking accompanies our work. Agencies don't know the art and science of developing a logo, for instance, but do it after a fashion. Agency led design shops in my experience are the same as the agency." Even in the brand strategy arena, Keshavan believes her agency has a definite edge: "No advertising agency has our capability in terms of brand consulting or design. Furthermore, we are completely media neutral and only think of the clients' best interest. As per my observation, agencies' brand strategy solutions are most often communication/media related as that drives their revenue model."

The opinions differ

Agencies, on the other hand, believe the approach of many design outfits is perhaps too purist. That experience gained from mainstream advertising gives them a deeper understanding of brands and consumers and helps them create design more rooted in market reality. Also, given that for many agencies, external clients outnumber networked clients, it refutes the theory that their only purpose is client retention.

According to Elsie Nanji of Red Lion, "Maybe what sets us apart is that they don't have agency experience and the ability to work with ancillaries. We know what works for an Emami v/s what works for Levers. Ours is a relationship that says I will take care of what needs to be solved rather than the client expressing the need for a different packaging design, for instance."

Agencies argue that the overlap is overstated since smaller independents do 'boutiquey' work on niche brands and retail outlets - projects that are too insignificant to handle - while larger ones like Elephant get into areas like product design, which are beyond their purview.

"We find ourselves caught up in corporate identity, packaging and retail," says Ravi Deshpande, chairman and chief creative officer, Contract Advertising.

A specialist such as Ray and Keshavan, in contrast, has also designed signage at four of India's major airports. What affects both is how the industry has developed, or more specifically, how it has not developed.
Highly disorganised, anyone in possession of a computer and a few rudimentary skills can pass off as a designer - a logo can be created by anyone from a freelance designer to a large agency for anything between Rs 5,000 and Rs 50 lakh.

Ashwini Deshpande, director, Elephant Strategy + Design, says, "We do not have a chartered association of designers that certifies the qualified lot from the non-trained ones." Punit Jagasia, partner at Red Lion, Publicis' design agency, estimates that there must be about 350-400 design agencies doing a business of Rs 200 crore, out of which Rs 100 crore lies with the top 10 design agencies.

What does the client think?

The other major challenge for the industry has been the client's mindset. Jagasia recalls clients often wondering why Elsie Nanji, who heads Red Lion, is personally involved in logo design - a job relegated to the junior most people in an agency.

Contract's Deshpande says, "The really large scale projects are given to - or picked up by - international companies."

Little cross pollination takes place between agencies and specialists. Elephant's Deshpande is ready to work with anyone with an open mind, but Keshavan is clear that she won't hire anyone from an ad agency background: "It's extremely difficult to find skilled people. It's easier to start from scratch with someone who hasn't learnt the wrong things."