Créer son agence de design

Voici un texte qui va intéresser tous ceux qui s’interrogent sur la construction d’une agence de design et sur les clés du développement. Herb Meyers est un grand nom du design outre Atlantique. C’est formidable qu’il ait choisi Admirable Design pour porter son message en France… même s’il est en anglais !

Growing Your Business :
The Most Exciting Event In Your Life

By Herbert M. Meyers

doc-579.jpg There’s no doubt in my mind that starting and growing your own design business must be the most exciting and stimulating event in your life–with the possible exception of getting married and having children. But excitement is not always the whole story. Problems and pitfalls galore await you and you must call on your ingenuity to turn these into opportunities. That’s the real challenge of starting and growing your business.

As the Founder and Managing Partner of a reasonably successful brand identity and package design consulting firm, perhaps some of my experiences will be helpful to those of you who may still be at the early stage of business development.

No doubt, each of you has his or her own vision of how to grow your business. The idea alone of starting your own business reflects well on your drive and ambition. But growing your business requires your realization that good intentions alone are not enough in this world of fierce business competition. Growing your business requires an ever increasing thirst for learning and your commitment to deal with issues that you may not have envisioned when you started your design firm–issues that are not necessarily design related, such as financing and marketing your company.

I had to go through this learning process the hard way. I was a designer with no experience or interest in finance and selling. But I learned fast. It was like diving into the water and learning how to swim. I underwent a crash course in handling situations I had never encountered before. It was a tough lesson, but it turned out to be well worthwhile. Maybe a few « words of wisdom » may help some of you to benefit from my experience.

To be sure, I did not start my own business totally unprepared. I had a solid background in design, design direction and client contact through a series of positions at ad agencies, design studios and two major corporations. And I approached my new venture with a number of strong convictions : Work hard, be scrupulously honest in my dealings with clients and suppliers, and treat my employees as well as my competitors with respect. I held to those edicts throughout my professional career and never regretted them.

Create your vision

In order to grow your business, it is important that you understand yourself before you try to understand your clients. To do this you need to create a vision and a mission that fits your personality and your objectives. This does not mean that you need an impressive sounding « mission statement » as much as you need to take an honest inventory of your capabilities as well as your limitations. Here are some suggestions :

*Focus on your core competencies. Don’t try to be a jack-of-all-trades. Do only what you do best and market yourself as being the best in that activity.

* Define your target audience. Don’t spread yourself thin by going after every assignment regardless of whether it fits your best capabilities. It’s better to have a few great successes than many moderate ones.

* Define your marketing strategy and be realistic about being able to deliver it. Determine what you want to accomplish and how your organization can accomplish it.

* Define how you want to communicate your capabilities to your clients. It is important that you continuously market yourself to potential clients– yes, even to current clients–or your business growth will be confined.

The way we succeeded in implementing the above described objectives may not fit the vision of all of the readers of this article, but describing some of our experiences may help some of you to enjoy the growth potentials you envision for yourself.

When my partner, Richard Gerstman, and I founded Gerstman+Meyers, we did not yet have the benefit of the experience that we gained during our years of growth. At the beginning, we were a diverse group of four people–the two of us, a part-time secretary/bookkeeper and a mechanical artist who also ran errands. Richard and I were « everything »– designer, salesman, supervisor, proposal writer and so on. We paid ourselves a paltry salary and, for couple of years, what little profit we squeezed from a limited number of assignments was plowed back into the business.

The Bottom Line : Building a Reputation

In the beginning, to stay alive, our group did some annual reports, some brochures, some packaging and even a few ads. But even at this time of belt tightening, we made several strategic decisions that would pay off in the future : to leverage our experience in brand identity, corporate identity and package design ; to target primarily major corporate clients ; to be uncompromising in the quality of our services ; and to market our services aggressively. We were determined never to depart from those goals and we never did.

Here are some of the things we did to implement our goals : We rented office space in mid-town Manhattan, even though this was a little more expensive than elsewhere in New York City. But it was more accessible for our clients, for us and for important suppliers such as free-lancers, photographers, typographers (remember, guys, no computers in those days !) and art material stores. We invested some money in making our office reasonably attractive. It wasn’t anything fancy but it was crisp and businesslike. We did this not just to impress clients–though that was, of course, part of our objective–but for ourselves. We were willing to spend many hours of work at our office but we were unwilling to sacrifice our esthetic standards. This made our 12-14 hour days in the office more endurable and, in fact, enjoyable.

When we did not function as designers of our assignments (sales presentations, client contact and travel often left us with no time for this), we used and supervised free-lancers whom we knew to be excellent designers, photographers and illustrators. To maintain the quality we desired, we did not scrimp on fees for these services, even if it meant a smaller profit for ourselves. Our bottom line was to focus on one primary objective : to build a reputation of excellence and reliability among major clients. It took a lot of effort and a certain amount of gambling on our part but this, too, paid off for us in the long run.

Successful Marketing Through PR

From the very beginning, we were convinced that we could not achieve our objectives without marketing our company aggressively. We knew that we needed help in this area. The problem was how to pay for this with our almost non-existent budget. We did it by making an old-fashioned kind of barter : we made a deal with an experienced Public Relations expert by leasing one room of our office to her. As payment for the office space, she provided publicity for our budding organization by placing articles in daily and professional publications and arranging speaking engagements for Richard and I. We then built on these exposures by sending reprints of publicity and speeches to current and potential clients and, as much as our meager profits allowed, invested in a few small brochures to identify our services and show some of our then current work.

As our company gradually grew in reputation, number of clients and to international stature, we never relaxed our marketing efforts. Publicity in more prestigious publications became more frequent ; brochures became more elaborate and full color. (Remember, we didn’t have the benefit of marketing ourselves on the web, as you are able to do today.) We also competed in many design competitions and did not hesitate to brag to current and potential clients about our frequent awards. Most importantly, we created a program of gift giving during the holiday seasons that was unique. Rather than sending the ubiquitous bottle of liquor (the identity of the giver is usually forgotten after the beverage is consumed, if not before), Richard and I changed our role from designers to fine artists. Richard painted watercolors of landscapes he encountered during vacations and I had created a lot of abstract paintings. Each year we alternated in printing some of our non-commercial creations via silk-screening or lithographic reproduction, framing them and sending these to our most loyal clients as an end-of-the-year thank you. Our clients loved the gifts, hung our artwork in their homes and offices and thus always had a visual reminder of us.

Harmonious Management

Beyond making sure that our clients were always treated with respect, we believed that one of the pillars of growing a company is the way management deals with its employees. Our relations with our staff were, I believe, exceptional. Contrary to the usual revolving door in the communications industry, most of our staff stayed at Gerstman+Meyers for many years. This was, I believe, for several reasons : they enjoyed their work because they knew we wanted it to be the best ; they knew that their efforts would be rewarded with appropriate bonuses at the end of the year ; they felt secure because the firm’s partners–the leaders of the organization–were always in harmony ; and they knew that we respected each of them as persons, rather than just employees, no matter how important their position in our company.
This attitude led to another benefit for us. I often encountered designers who complained that they had trouble balancing their time between being designers and being marketers. It is true that when you spend time creating, there is no time for making contacts with potential new clients. Conversely, traveling in an effort to meet new clients leaves no time for creating.

We managed to successfully handle the issue of how much responsibility to entrust your staff in a way that many designer find difficult to accept. Many designers, afraid of sharing their knowledge with employees and hesitant of assigning major responsibilities to them, thus create their own time-crunches. We never worried about this. We never hesitated to teach our staff everything we knew and to cede responsibilities to those who were willing and able to carry them. We were often asked whether we were not afraid that our staff would leave and use their knowledge on behalf of our competitors or form their own companies. Our approach to this was always one of confidence in our ability to deal with this possibility. And in the meantime, the capabilities of talented staff associates who were trusted and given responsibility worked to our advantage while they were with us.

So, there you have it. You may or may not agree with our approach to growing our business, but maybe my remarks will suggest a few alternatives that you may find helpful. In any event, to all of you who want to grow your design organization, I wish the best of luck and hope that you will enjoy, as I did, the challenges you will encounter. With hard work, high ideals, ingenuity, conscientious service and respect for your clients as well as for your staff, you will find that, as I said in the beginning of this article, starting and growing your own design business will be the most exciting and stimulating event in your life.