CR’s first online training programme, Mastering Creativity, will help unlock your creative potential, whether you are a professional creative, designer or commissioner of creative work. Additional expert insight for the course is provided by our five Creative Pioneers – Sir John Hegarty, Caroline Pay, Jim Sutherland, Zia Zareem-Slade and Michael Johnson of johnson banks. Video interviews with each of them are available as part of the course material but in this series of articles we are giving you a taste of that content.
Here, in an edited extract from his film, we talk to Johnson about the growing role of strategy and how Johnson banks approach pitches.
CR: You’ve said before that you rarely work from a brief anymore but if you are invited to pitch, how do you respond?
It is now very rare for us to get a brief from a client. Or, if I am honest, we’ll get a brief from our client, we’ll read it and we’ll go, ‘Well this is clearly not right’ or ‘They haven’t got scripts for their own problem’. There might be an instance where you are sent a brief and they are talking to multiple agencies and then the decision on our part is, ‘Are we going to tell them the truth here? Are we really going to say what we really think?’.
We hedged it a bit for a few years but now I am just too old. I just say what I think. I just say, ‘Well this is the issue. You have said this but clearly that is not the problem, this is the problem. We think you should be looking at this, this, this and this. And, if we can crack that, then we’ll be able to get on with the creative part of this project’. More often than not, that goes down pretty well. Once we are in the boardroom we rarely come out. It is probably because, sadly, a lot of designers still pitch on ‘I did this logo’ or ‘I did some stamps’. Of course, we could do that but we very, very rarely talk like that in a first meeting, that’s for sure. We would never show stamps to a potential client. It just doesn’t work.
We are trying to get inside their head and understand the problems they are facing rather than just showing them lots of great design – because you could go and see a hundred companies in London who could show great design.
CR: Would there ever be a project where there wasn’t a visual element involved at all?
Occasionally now we are getting contacted by people asking about doing what we would call ‘the front half’. I am still in two minds about whether that is a good or a bad thing. Have I gone so far the other way, that I have become… I mean, I did start life as a strategist at Wolff Olins and I wonder sometimes if I have come around in this bizarre circle and I am back as a suit who can draw, if you like.
Yes, we have had people contact us about that and it still makes us a little nervous really – because we talk about defining then designing and so just to define and not to design does feel a little strange.
CR: On that last point. There has been quite a lot of interesting debate – coming more so out of the States – about the future of design consultancies. And, do you think, long term, that front half is actually where the value is? Where, long-term, what we currently think of as design consultancies is going to move? And, do you think the visual side is becoming less valued, if you like?
I think in the long term, this move to embracing the more – if you like – consultancy aspects of branding and design…I think more people are going that way. They are having to. It is just…there are only so many times that you can stand in the boardroom and feel completely naked and not really know what you are talking about. I’ve done that too many times – I never want to do it again. I have to know that I know what I am talking about. And, I need genuinely to know that they trust me before we get to the design stage.
I really don’t like that divide between the suits and the designers. I have always really mistrusted that. Although it is still there, of course, and will be still there for some time. So, I think it is beholden on designers who are just straight designers to understand more about the process.
Whether they can get their clients to give them a hundred grand to do the front half, that is the second question. And that takes some skill and experience really and we couldn’t do that for years. We would say, ‘Look we’ll do this’… We started doing it really because we would partner up with strategic design companies and if an NGO comes to you for a proper big identity project, our fees plus the strategic company’s fees were so huge that the NGO would go, ‘We haven’t got the budget.’ So, we actually had to sort of start doing it ourselves just to try and make it… We really wanted to do these projects so we thought, ‘Sod it, we’ll work out how to do it’.
Michael Johnson will share more insights on Creative Review’s online training programme, Mastering Creativity.
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