A look at agencies with advertising and design under one roof.
By Warren Berger
As design becomes a more central element of branding, it's created a basic challenge for ad agencies: How do you make design a core part of the agency itself? In recent years, a growing number of agencies have sought to bring design in-house, either by hiring more designers or by acquiring existing design groups. But just bringing design into the house doesn't answer the questions of where it should reside and how it should live once it is there. Should design be a separate department? Should the group work on its own projects? And perhaps most important, how does an agency go about blending design with other, more traditional creative disciplines, such as copywriting and art directing? one spoke with a number of in-house designers at agencies such as TBWAChiatDay, Deutsch, BBDO, Ogilvy, McKinney, and Arnold, to get a sense of how these issues are being handled in this new hybrid environment.
Approaches vary, though it should be said at the outset there is a consensus on at least one point: Design has never been in greater demand at agencies than it is right now.
"It seems like the floodgates opened up this year in terms of every client asking for help with design issues," says Ross Patrick, design director at Deutsch in Los Angeles. Patrick notes that the Deutsch in-house design group was originally created to serve one big client, Mitsubishi, that always needed lots of brochures and other designed materials; as it happened, the Mitsubishi account ended up leaving the agency, but instead of the design group then having less work to do, it suddenly had more—because right around that time, every Deutsch client started seeking out design help, Patrick says. Something similar was also happening at many other agencies, as a kind of "design awakening" took hold among clients in the past couple of years, no doubt inspired by, among other things, the success of design-driven brands such as Apple and Starbucks.
Recognizing this, agencies have been beefing up in-house design resources, often by bringing in established designers to set up and run an in-house group. It's not necessarily a new phenomenon: Wieden + Kennedy, Goodby, Silverstein and other cutting-edge creative shops were doing this early on, but the phenomenon is now broader (involving more agencies) and deeper (involving larger design staffs, working on more projects, within each agency).
It's led to a certain amount of inevitable culture clash; by most accounts, in-house agency designers and agency creative departments are still learning to appreciate and live with one another. Craig Duffney, who heads up BBDO's relatively young and rapidly-growing in-house design unit, says, "The key thing is educating the creative department as to what we can do and how to work with us. For a while, I think the in-house design department at this agency, and others, was seen as a studio—someplace you can take your idea, and they'll make it look better. In that way, it was kind of separate from the rest of the creative department."
Brian Collins, founder of Ogilvy's B.I.G. design/integration group, says this problem stems from old and entrenched attitudes toward design. "Historically, agencies have seen designers as exotic menials, who are there to make the ads look better," Collins says.
But the problem can involve structural issues, as well as attitudinal ones. By setting up a separate design department, an agency runs the risk of erecting barriers between design and creative; this can be particularly true if the design department operates autonomously, with its own separate projects, and its own profit-and-loss structure. This is emerging as one of the more hotly-debated issues on the subject of in-house design, with some arguing that autonomy is needed to help in-house design flourish and to maximize its potential, and others believing that such autonomy runs counter to the objective of achieving full "integration."
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