The old maxim that a design solution is only as good as the client’s brief seems more true than ever. Although the exhibition spend is booming, and stand space growing by 15 per cent a year, designers complain that good briefs are a rare delight these days.
It seems clients can’t get it right. Either the brief is too vague and poorly thought-out or it’s too specific and doesn’t allow designers a sufficiently free rein creatively.
Austin Hawkins, deputy director of the Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO), believes clients need to get back to basics, even before they speak to designers. “Our research shows that a lot of exhibitors don’t set overall objectives and fail to integrate their participation with their overall marketing strategy,” he says.
Apex Marketing & Creative Communications business development director Peter Forse agrees: “You have to start with the fundamental question: what is the one message you want people to take away from the exhibition? People smile when you ask them this because the question is so old and unoriginal, but it doesn’t make it any less unimportant and it’s amazing how many people forget to ask themselves that before they brief their agency.”
Designers complain that all too often the client has thought through details, such as the number of fridges and phone lines they will require, but overlooked major issues such as what the stand will be used for and how they will evaluate its effectiveness. A common reason for this is that busy managers delegate the project to a junior member of staff, or someone from another department, who may not have enough marketing experience to fully understand how the exhibition stand fits in with the brand or corporate strategy.
Laurie Stewart, design director and founding partner of the Furneaux Stewart agency, is adamant about how important it is to have the right person heading the project on the client side. “You have to work with someone who has a vision for the company,” she claims.
Meanwhile, Owen Roberts, senior designer at Conran Design Group, stresses the benefits of the client team having different areas of expertise: “We tend to get a much more comprehensive brief if there are several people at the briefing.”
It seems to work for agencies, too. Nowadays it’s rare for the brief to be handled by an account handler or project manager alone. Most clients ensure senior designers are present at the early meetings because they can draw on their experience to help shape the brief.
Richard Dale, managing director of MEI Design, stresses the value of taking a production manager to the briefing so that they can provide immediate feedback on the feasibility of concepts discussed.
Face-to-face meetings are of great value. Written briefs and responses may be a quick way to manage a pitch but they rarely provide the scope to explore ideas in sufficient depth.
Local authorities and not-for- profit organisations come in for particularly heavy criticism. Their tender processes are often so formal and impersonal that they give designers little opportunity to establish a rapport, even though this can be invaluable in developing the creative solutions. They also focus too heavily on factors such as agencies’ equal opportunities policies, seemingly at the expense of their design credentials.
Agencies agree that the most important thing to get out of a brief is a thorough understanding of the brand or organisation and how the exhibition stand will support it. Roberts recommends a visit to the company’s offices to see what it has done in the past and to get a better understanding of the operation.
Getting to know the brand
Dale agrees, saying clients are often surprised to find that MEI may spend more time getting to know the brand than on the design itself.
Yet this stage can be time-consuming when clients are unclear about their brand’s positioning. If this is the case, Roberts says it is often useful to have a preliminary meeting where visual aids such as story boards can help define the competitive position.
But he adds a caveat: “If you spend too long defining the brief, you eat into the design time. So it must be a quick process.”
Time, or rather the lack of it, is a common grievance. Agencies often complain that clients give them too little time to develop strong creative ideas, even though stand space may have been booked up to a year in advance.
Time can also be wasted when vital information is missed from the brief, such as critical features of the stand. For this reason, many agencies guide clients through the mass of detail using a checklist of things that need to be considered.
Trade bodies such as the British Exhibition Contractors Association are a good source of assistance.
It provides leaflets for first-time exhibitors to help them prepare a brief, or even choose a supplier. While striking a balance between information overload and brevity is tricky, the consensus is the more help the better.
This also holds true for budgets. All too often, clients tell designers they haven’t set a budget because they do not want to hinder their creativity. But when the concepts and costs are presented to them, they reject strong ideas on the grounds that they are too expensive. Agencies report that clients often deliberately keep their budget secret.
Steve Barratt, chief executive of the Early Action Group, is frustrated by this reticence: “Too many companies are worried that if they give a designer a budget they will automatically spend that amount, whether the money is needed or not – although most designers are extremely responsible.”
At the other extreme, Barratt believes clients frequently have unrealistic expectations of what their budget will buy: “Often people want Rolls Royces when they have Lada money.” He recommends pre-brief meetings – when budgets are being set – to ensure enough money is allocated.
Roberts agrees that, while a large budget is always welcome, size doesn’t matter. “Working to a given budget is part of the design process, so – whether it is large or small – it is imperative that it is set early on so that you have clear guidelines,” he says.
Stewart points out that a small-er budget may require a more creative solution, and that clients should allow more time for this.
Forse says many clients waste money buying bespoke stands that end up in a skip once the show is over. “There are a lot of good modular systems available – many of which look bespoke,” he claims. “A good solution is a hybrid stand which combines modular and bespoke elements that can be reused, yet they look entirely different from one year to the next.”
He points out that budgets can be stretched still further by hiring equipment.
Budget pressures are forcing more and more companies to put their design projects out to pitch, even when there is an incumbent agency. Unsurprisingly, competitive pitches provoke more complaints from designers than any other aspect of the briefing process. There is a widespread belief in the industry that pitches are self-defeating.
Stewart believes clients who ask agencies to pitch rarely get the best creative solution because they have to finalise so many details of the brief before the meeting. “The result is too many givens,” she claims. “With our experience, there are so many things that we would question and advise on, but the doors are closed before you start to look at the design concept. By the time you have been through the pitch you are usually up against a deadline which doesn’t allow enough time for you to be as creative as you would like.”
Dale adds: “As a designer, it’s difficult because you can’t give someone a taste of what the stand will be like – you either design it or you don’t,” he says. “Clients often want to see what it will look like, but hand-drawn visuals can look nothing like the finished product.”
Everyone agrees that the biggest mistake clients can make is to buy on price alone. “You’re buying creativity and flair,” says Barratt. “If you are commissioning a portrait, you go to the best rather than cheapest artist, and it should be the same with design. At the end of the day, you have to remember the old adage: buy cheap, buy twice.”