In association with the DBA, Up to the Light conducted telephone interviews with 455 design clients to produce the What Clients Think 2017 report.

Interesting read. Here are some things that stood out.

44% of clients believe that their design agency should ask more questions.

“Asking questions is a good habit. Agencies frequently ask lots of questions at the beginning of a relationship but this is sometimes not sustained. Continued questions show interest and enthusiasm. The knowledge gained can also stimulate proactive ideas and effective client development.”

Most clients look at portfolio case studies seeking the answers to strategic questions, rather than wanting a general impression of agency flair and creativity. 57% of clients think that case studies on agency websites lack business context, and 64% want case studies to be more helpful.

Clients field an average of 17 new business approaches every day from agencies of different design disciplines, an increase on last year. 81% of clients like to “discover” a new agency rather than feel sold to, so there needs to be a shift away from credentials-based selling toward knowledge sharing.

Many clients expressed cynicism about “full service” agencies and would prefer honesty about core competencies. Some clients also thought the word “storytelling” was trite, mostly through overuse.

96% of clients don’t follow any design agency on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, but 97% of clients use LinkedIn.

70% of clients expect designers to pitch for free. (I’ll just put this here: why are designers still expected to work for free?)

Agencies that haven’t met the client face-to-face before a pitch presentation only have an 8% chance of winning the business.

On the plus side, one of the biggest client concerns was the need to stand out:

“A consequence of increased competition, ‘noisy’ markets and less attentive customers is that it becomes more challenging for brands to stand out. As ever, agency ‘creativity’ has an important role to play.”

The report’s free to download from Up to the Light.

Via DesignWeek.


April 3, 2017


In reality, I think most clients choose a design company because they like the work. But they must have seen it first! getting work published elsewhere is a big driver of traffic to your site.

Clients continue working with you because they like working with you.

Having a website that is easy to navigate, tells your story and gives some idea of what you are like to work with will go a long way to selling what you do. Having an engaging blog that gives insight and communicates what you are like to work with sets you apart. I’m not sure about all these “our process™” pages. But it works for some.

Today I spoke with the founder of Green & Blacks and he was approached by Pearlfisher who liked his product but thought they could improve his packaging.

I get more engagement from clients on Linkedin than any other platform. Twitter etc is ok, but they are often run by separate companies and aren’t the place to engage with clients to see your services.

I saw a talk from a buyer at Waitrose today at a conference and much of what she said resonated with selling design services. She said don’t pester, be relevant, get to the point, don’t waste their time, be friendly, be passionate but don’t be arrogant.

Lastly, designers should absolutely not, under any circumstances, work for free for profit making companies.

“Don’t pester, be relevant, get to the point, don’t waste their time, be friendly, not arrogant.” You’d think that’d be common sense with anyone selling something, but judging by the emails I get, sadly no. And I agree about those for-profit companies. It’s self-destructive.

This struck a chord: “Many clients expressed cynicism about “full service” agencies and would prefer honesty about core competencies.”

David, have you read. Positioning For Professionals by Tim Williams?

Here’s a quote from the book:

“No client ever buys a “wide range of expertise,” but rather a specific kind of expertise. Imagine hiring a “visual artist with a wide range of photographic experience” when what you really want is a good wedding photographer.”

I wonder if most of agencies in the report are “full service” agencies where they compete mostly on price and soft skills rather than deep expertise in a particular field of design.

It’d probably explain why so many are still pitching for free and clients are still expecting to be pitched for free.

That’s a quote I’m on board with, Ian. Do you recommend the book?

It’d be interesting to see who the clients had worked with. I get that it’s easier to collect data with client confidentiality, but I’m not sure that’d be the case from the design side.

I’ve done paid pitches, where a few studios were each paid the same amount (in advance) to prepare initial ideas, but free work is a swap with good non-profits.

Yes, it’s a fantastic book. Main point is that to escape the commoditization trend you need to specialize.

Specialists don’t compete on price because it’s harder to replace/find a specialist. That’s why “full-service” falls flat.

It’s like when you see a restaurant menu and every kind of international cuisine is represented. You know it’s just not going to be very good.

Compare that to the sushi chef who’s spent a lifetime honing his skills.

Specialists can charge more for that deep knowledge and experience.

One of “What Clients Think” I was expecting to be mentioned is “on-demand service” (and whether that is a thing agencies or freelancers should be thinking about).

“…sociologist Alvin Toffler had predicted in 1965: ‘As business speeds up, each unit of time will become more valuable.’ ” (Marty Neumeier, Zag)

As a Brand Identity Designer, I received calls and emails from clients wanting nothing but magic—FAST, CHEAP, and EASY solution; however, forgetting that speeding up task means “each unit of [the designer or agency’s] time will become more valuable.”

The only challenge here (for both agency and the client to consider carefully) is the quality of work is likely to be lessen where the designer in question have less experience and, more importantly, less time is invested in research into the client’s problem at hand (in a culturally relevant context) vis-a-vis the industry in question.

Sometimes the idea or solution comes to mind the very moment you start a conversation with the client; other times too, you have to look for it through thoroughly research, million sketches…

Ian makes a great point with the quote about “a wide range of services.” That said, a specialism can help define your business in a generic marketplace. But if you compete with other specialists, then you can end up back in the commodity trap.

The trend towards specialisation has had some interesting results though. A fair few of the big shops I know now think they’re “too big” which says something about the mood of the times perhaps. They are worried that small teams, freelancers and collaborating agencies can now do what they can for faster and cheaper. That said, for some bigger clients there’s still a natural tendency to look for a one-stop-shop which a specialist might not be able to provide.

The notes on social media here are especially interesting. I’d be willing to bet that most designers and agencies are on Twitter and Facebook. Yet when fully 97% of those in this survey aren’t looking for their next hire on those platforms, you have to ask if the resources pumped into social accounts are actually delivering any returns.

I agree with Steve’s social media observation. Twitter and Facebook are as pedestrian a solution as walking down Madison Avenue wearing a sandwich board hawking your wares. Similarly, Linkedin appears to be mostly the playground of job hoppers, the unemployed, the underemployed and the about to be unemployed. Great for those in the recruitment business. But a place to be “networking?” Better they should call it “notworking.”

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