Matt Clugston, creative director of Birmingham-based intelligent design and digital innovation specialist Clusta, explains how his business has found a way to compete in the cut-throat world of design.
Competition in the London design scene is fierce. Soho, alone, is host to hundreds of competing agencies and studios, both digital and offline – all looking to make an impression on clients with their progressive design ethic, innovative strategies and boundless enthusiasm for digital content. With this in mind, and being very much a Birmingham-based design studio, it has been somewhat tricky to break into this arena and make an impact on the London scene.
Our strategy worked on a couple of different levels. Firstly, infiltrate the on-line design community, who basically don’t care where you are as long as your work stands out, whilst also acting as a production house on a white label basis for all the major London agencies. From there, the plan was to expand to a point where suddenly people take you seriously.
Having done work for all the major ad agencies it became clear that although it was on a white label basis, the employee turnover at these firms was so quick and so insular that your name suddenly gets banded around the clique of agencies in London.
This then allowed us to contemplate work from their international offices, to a point where a Los Angeles office was realistically viable.
We’ve now found that when we mention we have an LA office, and this is obviously backed up by international agency conversations to that effect, that we’ve suddenly been taken much more seriously as a Birmingham agency.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting for a minute that the only way to get taken seriously as is to open an LA office, but it does seem like a permanent battle sometimes to prove yourself before people trust you can deliver whatever a London agency can.
I’m hoping that this is going to change; it certainly feels like it is. We’ve recently been approached by employees of several major London agencies, who are interested in leaving the large accounts of the more traditional outfits in the capital for the dynamism of a younger organisation, with more bespoke projects. This has bought with it the challenge of addressing the ‘London salary bracket difference’, but Business Link in the West Midlands, who has given us extensive business advice and guidance over the last three years, has once again been instrumental in assisting with the negotiation stages.
I think what’s been evident with our move to the ‘States’ is the lack of discrimination that we’ve come across from being a Birmingham agency – in fact, UK design is adored in the US. The reason there’s not more investment in the sector from our cousins across the Atlantic is that they really need people based out there before you can build up relationships with their clients.
Despite the fact that 90% of production still gets done in Birmingham, we really didn’t secure a single contract until we’d sorted a physical US address – since that point it has poured in. There have been some challenges that we’ve faced and overcome, such as bank accounts and visas, but now we are settled in its very much business as usual.
We’ve found that as long as you have new business, and a client facing account manager present in the US, then almost all the production can be done in the UK despite the time difference. There have even been occasions where the time difference has benefitted us, because we are eight hours ahead it means we have everything done and on their desk for the moment they get in the office.
The strength of our design work has seen us steer a lot of our US clients away from outdated design practices… everything they do is a little safe and about ten years old in industry terms. However, with a little coaxing and some trust, they are more than willing to employ some more progressive design techniques.
The major point at which they differ to the UK is their openness to new technology – although they are not as good on the whole at executing ideas centered on using it. A big ad group out there asked us to produce its own agency website and the idea was for the whole site to be navigable by webcam alone. This is an incredibly brave move for a big corporate agency, but it worked and the site was recently shortlisted for a Cyber Lion at Cannes.