While Leicester has long been associated with the engineering, hosiery and shoe-making, its credentials as a leading city for design services are perhaps lesser known, but equally as valid. Jump online and Google ‘design consultancies in Leicestershire’ and a plethora of design companies, many of the UK’s most respected consultancies at that, will quickly present itself, showing the quality that is on offer in the city that is just 60-minutes up the railway line from London.
Glenn Taylor, John Benson and Dean Stocks (who left the business in 2002) opened the doors of their consultancy Stocks Taylor Benson (STB) in Leicester in 1988 and during the last 25 years the business has contributed enormously to the city’s growing stature as a centre of excellence for design.
A visit to STB’s recently re-launched website or a quick flick through the beautifully produced coffee table book that they created to celebrate their 25 years in business and you’ll see that their design work and client list boasts many of the UK’s best loved brands - Canon, Avon, Next, Black & Decker, Lacoste, Speedo, Morrisons, Wickes to name a few.
“We set out from day one to be a national design consultancy, not a local agency, we were very aware of where we were based and didn’t want to be seen as a local agency,” says Taylor. “It was a problem when we set up over 25 years ago and it is still an issue now – clients believe that all the best agencies are in London. I think that it is their lack of knowledge of individual design companies that leads them to see ‘London’ as a badge that marks out a good agency, which is of course rubbish. Having said that, it is a common perception, so after a long deliberation we’ve finally decided to bow to such pressure and have recently opened a London office - time will tell to see if this is a sensible decision.”
STB’s sizable offices on the outskirts of Leicester clearly demonstrates that while the business has moved on dramatically over the last two and a half decades, some things have stood the test of time. The bright airy (orange) reception that greets visitors is ultra modern, while the creative studio harks back to a simpler age. If you want to see for yourself it’s worth a trip to their website to watch the short film 24 Hours Inside the Studio. The requisite Apple Macs are there in abundance, but interestingly every desk is also equipped with a full colour palette of Pantone markers (felt tipped pens for any non-designers reading) and as we walk through the studio many of the designers are busy drawing and sketching as opposed to having their eyes glued to a computer screen as their fingers manipulate the latest version of Adobe Photoshop. A closer inspection of some of the work being created in the studio proves that the designers who call this home can actually draw. Really well. With a pencil. On paper. Weird, eh?
Greg Jolley, who was appointed MD in October 2013, explains that the agency is a big believer in the seemingly ‘lost art’ of drawing and it only ever presents scamps in pitches and even to current clients as a project takes shape. The reason, says Jolley, is that if a client is presented with what looks like finished artwork all too often they assume it is finished and will suggest alterations or even different creative directions, sometimes before the creative direction of the project has even been finalised.
And on the ever thorny issue of pitching, Taylor is quite candid: “As a rule we don’t free pitch, to be honest I hate it, not just because it is free, but usually because it’s conducted in a totally unrealistic working environment. However, I would be lying if I was to say that we never do it. There are very odd occasions when it seems the right thing to do, but even then it invariably doesn’t work out for the best for us or the customer. We try our hardest not to offer free creative when pitching.
“The vast majority of our new business comes from recommendation and referral, right from day one this has been the case. We do however have a strategy in place to identify and target clients who we think we could help and would add to our portfolio. This takes a great deal of research before making contact. We really aren’t keen on a scatter gun approach.
“We have a reputation for holding on to our clients and we try to keep our client relationships fresh and fun. We have worked with several of our clients for over 10 years. We try to continually ‘re-pitch’ what we can do for our customers, we try to be indispensable to them and also add value beyond the creative briefs, never taking anything for granted.”
Taylor launched the business in the face of recession in the 90s. Interest rates were at 19% and Taylor had to sell possessions and work 24-hours a day to keep things going, so not taking things for granted is deeply ingrained within the fibre of the business. Sadly, that is not always the case with clients.
“We apply the ‘fun, fame and fortune’ formula to all our clients, they have to score at least two out of three for us to work with them,” says Taylor. “So, if a client is difficult and over demanding then they probably aren’t fun and we probably wouldn’t make a fortune out of them, so they wouldn’t be one of our clients.”
“We have parted company with clients over the years. The hardest and biggest one was a retail client that at the time was our biggest customer, but they were impossible to deal with. A relationship that went really well for over 12 years went bad once new directors took control of the client business. We were no longer listened to and were treated as a supplier rather than a partner. I wrote to the MD and chairman to resign the account, pointed out where I felt they were going wrong and wished them well for the future. A once incredibly successful company (whilst we worked with them) went bust a couple of year later.”
Over and above the high quality creative product and client service, what has ultimately enabled STB to prosper for the last 25 years is sound financial management, something that sadly not all agencies can attest to.
Taylor says: “We are a very well run ‘business’ and the financial side has always been tightly controlled. We have weekly/daily reports through our bespoke job costing system and we also have monthly management accounts produced by our accountant. I would strongly recommend that all design companies do the same.
“We always get our invoices out as soon as a project is complete and then chase their payment on the day that they are due. We are then ruthless in pursuing late payment. We insist that we are paid on time or will withdraw our services, we work very hard in a very professional way for our clients and we expect the same behaviour from our clients, which includes being paid. We have always, from day one, tried to keep a good level of cash in the business and never had any bank debt. This coupled with our excellent chasing of debt has meant that we have never had a cash flow problem. I have seen too many businesses fail over the past 25 years because they haven’t been on top of this – another lesson for any start up.”
On the subject of failings Taylor isn’t too big to admit that he has some himself. “My management style is decisive and clear. I try to keep making things happen. Everyday as exciting as possible, with the pressure on at all times. Designers love being praised and I suppose one of my weaknesses is that I don’t do enough of this. Fortunately all of our people are great so I don’t feel the need to keep telling them how good they are. The most important thing, probably even more important than the standard of their work, is how people will fit into your team. If you don’t like them, don’t take them on. I have in the past and it has never worked.”
As this issue of The Drum was going to press MD Greg Jolley was in Tokyo representing STB at the prestigious Pentawards, a worldwide scheme for the very best in packaging design and no doubt Taylor is back at base with his fingers firmly crossed.
But over and above more international awards for the trophy cabinet what does the next 25 years hold for one of Leicester’s design stalwarts?
Taylor says: “To keep growing. Top 20. Top 10. I am driven by the numbers to the extent that that is what has kept us going for the past 25 years – it is also ultimately how agencies are judged for success by the client world and I want us to continue to grow and be successful, so that will ultimately result in more staff.
“We have been approached by potential acquirers on a couple of occasions, which was flattering. On both occasions we looked into the first stages but felt that although the offers were good the time wasn’t right for us and we still had ambitions for the business ourselves.”