A crisis of leadership in digital and design agencies.

There is an ever increasing instability within agency workforces. There are fewer permanent staff, more freelancers and interns. A record number of people are intending to change job within a year (59%). This year almost half of respondents (49%) have been with their agency less than two years, so it appears that unhappy employees are following through on their intention to change job.

A substantial change in those responsible for the day-to-day client relationships and client satisfaction may have an impact on the agency’s ability to service and farm existing clients, as well as to seize new business opportunities as the market begins to pick up. The resulting churn means agencies are spending precious budgets on recruitment fees and investment in getting people up to speed on their way of working and building staff knowledge of the agency’s clients.

This makes clients nervous that the ‘A’ team pitched but an unstable or more junior ‘B’ team are delivering. And feeling like you aren’t on the ‘A’ team is demotivating, giving employees another reason to consider leaving.

The movement of people between agencies can make or break reputation through word of mouth. This is increasingly true as a growing number of respondents are using social media to talk about their professional experiences (34.6%, up from 18.8% in 2009).

Respondents perceive a crisis of leadership. For the first time the perceived delivery gap is widest for ‘has a management team that demonstrates strong leadership skills’ (-53.1%). Part of the issue is that owners have a rosier view of agency performance than their staff. Staff complain of inappropriate staffing levels, a lack of strong sense of teamwork throughout the organisation, their ideas and opinions not being valued, and they are not being rewarded for going the extra mile.

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Failing the blue pound.

10 million disabled people live in the UK with a combined annual spending power in excess of £80 billion – the Blue Pound. Nearly three-quarters (73%) are heads of households and 48% are principal shoppers.*

Business opportunities are being lost to secure the Blue Pound because clients and agencies are failing to understand and address their needs, resulting in a ‘walk away pound’.

A survey of the opinions and shopping habits of disabled customers by Business Disability Forum and Disability Rights UK people found that 83% of disabled people had ‘walked away’ from making a purchase, unable or unwilling to do so – ‘the Walk Away Pound’. What emerged was a picture of informed consumers who will reward good customer service and punish providers who don’t make any effort to meet their needs. Amongst the cited factors that discouraged disabled consumers from spending were poorly designed products, inaccessible premises, and poor or inappropriate communications including inaccessible websites and printed information.

Only 9% of respondents agree that clients ask for all designs to be accessible to people with disabilities. Fewer than a quarter (21.9%) agree that clients ask for website designs to be accessible to people with disabilities. Fewer than half (45.7%) agree that they understand how to design in a way that improves accessibility for people with disabilities.

The European Commission proposes that all public sector organisations will be required to ensure that disabled users of their websites have the same access to certain content and services as other internet users by the end of 2015.** This offers market opportunity for designers who understand accessibility.

* Business Disability Forum website. Business Disability Forum and the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation (now Disability Rights UK) Survey 2006.
** www.theregister.co.uk/2012/12/05/web_access/

Sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Clients expect more work for less money to make up for budget cuts. Agencies are expected to do more work for free to win pitches and the pitch process is taking longer. This is having an impact on the quality of work and client servicing. More work is being produced for less budget, by a changing workforce that is less experienced in the agency’s specific approach and less knowledgeable about the clients.

“I wish that the design industry would get together regarding the issue of free pitching. The amount of work that is expected is shocking. It can put small firms out of the running and out of business”, explained one strategist.

A designer agency-owner added: “We are a profession and like any profession we should have a strong professional body to support the industry, lobby on behalf of the industry. The design agency world is guilty of continually under valuing itself and as such clients, including the public sector, are asking for more and more but for less and less fee. It’s a tough industry that in my view needs a strong professional body to stand up for the SMEs in particular. To my mind no such body currently exists.”

Clients asking for ‘safer’ work will do nothing to enhance an agency’s reputation as being at the forefront of innovation (or their own), and safer solutions may not achieve the client’s business objectives.

“This recession is sorting the wheat from the chaff. Which is a good thing. We’re still suffering the client backlash from over-selling to them pre-recession”, noted an account manager.

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