Like all large organisations, Air Miles Travel Promotions work with a wide range of suppliers who help us deliver our marketing strategy. In doing so, we work hard at developing a real working partnership, rather than the “treat ’em mean, screw them down, pay late” kind of behaviour which can occur in the agency-client relationship. We do this because it helps us get the results that we want, and everyone finds the process far more pleasant and productive.
We are aware, however, of the kind of challenges that can arise when working with design companies on the creation of stands for conferences and exhibitions. A few years ago Air Miles wouldn’t have had very much to say about this subject. Participation in conferences and trade shows is a fairly recent move for us – but one that has been enthusiastically adopted and well resourced. In addition, as someone who has also worked at agencies (albeit direct marketing agencies) I feel that I bring an understanding of the issues that design agencies face in meeting my needs.
The whole process starts when the client briefs the design agency. I fully expect design companies to criticise the quality of the briefs they get, and I have little sympathy with designers who talk about the poor quality of the briefs they are given. Briefs are starting points. Faced with points which are unintelligible, or practically impossible, designers should request clarification or even, when necessary, negotiate a better brief. This is something any agency should do.
If the cost of the project is not clearly set in advance, it, too, can create a rich source of contention. Of course, being unreasonable, I also want to pay the cheapest possible price. Half the time design companies make you feel as though you are Cameron Mackintosh, backing the new touring production of Les Miserables, when all you want is something which will stand out at the next incentive show or conference.
When responding to the brief and agreeing the price, design companies can be so keen to get you on board that they send along their best to persuade you and promise the earth. Promising too much has to be the most ridiculous tactic. Design companies end up out of pocket or working through the night, which you the client end up disappointed – and nobody wins.
When it comes to presenting the work, I wish that designers would remember that we actually, have knowledge and experience, which means that we do have valid points to make about how design should fit into the overall strategy. I do not want to be treated as though I know nothing.
I don’t want design to dominate over function. I expect design companies to really think about what the stand will be used for as well as how it looks. Cool, Zen-like minimalism might look wonderful, but please give my team somewhere to store their bags, somewhere to display our print materials and somewhere to hold more private conversations with prospects. And I want it to be easily transported and assembled – rather like one of those explorer tents which packs down to the size of a rolled umbrella and springs up into shape at the shake of a wrist.
Usually at this point the general design is agreed, subject to certain changes of detail. Now an entirely new process starts, with visuals flying back and forth as requests for certain changes are ignored. Why can’t design companies either make changes as requested, or stand up for their principles and explain why the changes we want are not appropriate?
Once the design is agreed, the whole thing can disappear in that black hole known as production. Suddenly all of the helpfulness and spirit of co-operation that contributed towards winning the business melts away, and any queries you have are played between ‘creatives’ and ‘production’ as though you are a relate councillor caught between two non-communicating spouses. Design companies should remember to present an integrated front. As a punter, I am not satisfied by being told: “Oh, that’s Bill’s job.”, as if that information alone is a sufficient answer to any query I might have.
During the building process, design companies should also instigate test systems, such as the G-test. Here, packed away stands are whirled around in a centrifugal force which exactly matches that of desperate drivers negotiating a roundabout whilst attempting to find their exit. Prototypes should also be kicked by a hundred people, have coffee thrown over them and, just to be on the safe side, have cigarettes stubbed out on the pale areas.
Finally, there is the issue of delivery. It isn’t pleasant, but it is possible to work around delays on certain design-related projects. The problem comes when a conference is involved as there is the threat that if you do not deliver you will be left as the only person standing in a grey carpeted vacuum in the midst of a peacock array of stands. Timely delivery should form one of the central tenets of any agreement, with huge penalty clauses for delays which adequately cover the distress and torment caused.
And there the story usually ends – but it shouldn’t. Design companies are in a great position to offer excellent after-care service. How about a periodical ‘servicing’ contract, pre-agreed, so that the stand continues to look its best throughout its lifespan?
I realise that clients are demanding. It’s our job. As in any other area of business operation, however, managing expectations and keeping your word are crucial relationship marketing skills that design companies should adopt. Design is an art, but it is also a business and it is usually as a business that the majority of conflicts arise.
The bottom line is that I want design companies to realise that we have a great deal to offer during the creative process, and to deliver work that is both creative and functional, at the right price and on time. Or at the very least, I want them to do what they say they are going to do. Is this too much to ask?