Well its taken far too long for me to get around to writing this. The reasons are partly festive, but in the main I’ve been too busy with work – who would have thought!
My last post about ‘innovation‘ was an interesting contrast to the one previous about the ‘the 15 year scratch‘. It appears that quite a few people read it but no-one commented…maybe it was too contentious or didn’t quite strike a chord with anyone. Who knows. I’ve got plenty of spam comments attempting to get me to buy a cheap Mont Blanc mountain pen though!
I’ve given a fair bit of thought to what I would write about this time around, and true to most such instances, it has been recent online chatter that has prompted my subject matter, which is…. ‘collaboration’. You will probably see as you read on, I have a meandering view of this and I’m very keen to hear what others think of it, and their related experiences. Before I go any further I should re-iterate that the contents of all these blog entries are drawn from personal opinion…as if you haven’t already guessed.
To my mind the term ‘collaboration’ within the context of product design is viewed with a certain amount of cloaked skepticism. Idealistically it makes perfect sense. The coming together of suitably paired and appropriate minds to solve a common brief can only create something better than that created by a single mind. It’s the overwhelming basis of brainstorming, creative think-tanks and so forth. No arguments there.
The problem arises when payment is involved. As soon as someone is charging for those ideas generated via collaboration, there initiates a hierarchy. An ownership structure I guess. Someone has made the initial introduction to the client, or they are seen to be the primary supplier of goods. Therein sets off a chain of events that puts someone within the apparent ‘even handed’ collaborative network at the top of the feeding or responsibility chain. It then becomes – in essence – a skewed collaborative model.
As intelligent, polite and collaborative folk, we all say that we are happy with the idealistic collaborative model and work together towards the greater good of the project, but there will always be a ‘master/servant’ or ‘agency/contractor’ relationship, no matter how professional and ‘open’ we all claim to be. Someone, somewhere within that model always holds a few more cards than another. I often liken these scenarios to a music group or band. Within every Take That there will always be a Gary Barlow and a Robbie Williams. And there will always ultimately be a battle for power and supremacy happening silently within.
Now if this is verbalized and openly discussed, then it can be managed. A bit like ‘top trumps’, there are going to be certain unwritten rules that count. The larger the agency, the bigger the clout …for instance. The collaborator with the higher fee structure will tend to absorb the lower fees of the others rather than the other way around. It kinda makes sense. I guess it depends on the rules of collaboration and the strength of the relationships between the collaborators.
I have an example to include drawn from very personal experience. Names have been removed to protect the innocent (and not-so innocent).
A large product design consultancy who had good ‘design for manufacture’ credentials entered into a ‘collaborative’ business model with a large graphics and branding agency – both of whom were based in the same approximate geographical area. The concept was that the overlap of the two businesses could create a new business offer where branding was manifested and embodied in 3D and designed to be manufactured within the highly creative framework of both businesses. The aim was that it would appeal to brand managers who could take their spangly new brand through to the FMCG physical retail space in one seamless move. The logic was good, but it ended up feeling like a supplier relationship. The branding agency held the ‘client’ cards and wasn’t going to relinquish them for anything. The product guys ended up responding to the branding guys’ brief and there was forever a layer of client ‘handling’ and ensuing interpretation in any and all feedback loops. It failed miserably despite the intelligence of the creative logic. The brand guys had too much to lose by being truly collaborative, yet wanted to widen their ‘offer net’ and seduce clients with ‘more’. The end result was a more formal ‘sub-contract’ relationship with traditional work patterns and project management within internal teams. Needless to say it didn’t last long, and rightly so.
It is interesting to notice that several years after the demise of this collaboration model, several large branding agencies have taken to ‘acquiring’ smaller 3D/product agencies and ‘borg-ing’ them. That probably makes more commercial sense when there is a disparity in size and business clout.
I think there is a marked difference between genuine collaborative business models and a collaborative, project related, design team. I have worked with BOS: (formerly FLB in Cheltenham) on several projects where I have brought structural packaging expertise and product manufacturing knowledge to the table for the greater good of the project – essentially to complement the predominant branding and graphical work done by BOS:. Behind the scenes, the relationship is still very much that of a sub-contractor i.e. we submit a price against a work phase and invoice accordingly once the phase has been delivered as agreed and described. The rules are simple. Square Banana is contracted to do what we have been briefed to do and BOS: own the client ‘cards’ and run the project. That bit isn’t collaborative. The collaborative bit is around the client meeting table or at early stage project discussions. Despite BOS: being significantly ‘bigger’ than Square Banana, there is no indication of this when it comes to the specific project. With the client and within project meetings, we have as much ‘clout’ and ‘opinion validity’ within the context of the project as BOS:, and yet the client is fully aware that BOS: are running the show and we are a sideshow…so to speak. That works very well as all expectations are managed and the groundrules are clear. A collaborative project relationship but not a collaborative business relationship. There is no ‘cloaking’ of us as BOS: in front of the client. Everyone is aware of all parties and the specific skills and responsibilities each has in respect of the project.
I often read about recent graduates who get together to form a co-operative – which is in essence a collaborative business model. I can understand the logic and commend many of them. But they are useful when everyone is at a similar level i.e. just graduated and looking for work. You maximize your sales force and generate a team spirit without the complexities and commitment to build a singular business and becoming co-directors. However, it works best whilst all participants are unknown. As soon as the collaborators become even slightly recognized or complete a number of projects, a hierarchy will form. Be that a by-product of apparent skill, confidence, business acumen, sheer ‘front’ or price, at some stage there will be those within the group that appear to do better and will see less need to be truly and evenly collaborative. They will perceive (rightly or wrongly…there are plenty examples of both) that they can ‘go it alone’ and as soon as that happens, the collaboration starts to crack and ultimately crumbles. To use the band analogy, think of all those manufactured groups who appear to be ‘tight knit’ and yet a couple of albums and several well chosen public appearances later, one of the group rises to the surface and splits – like disproportionate cell division – from the group to ‘forge their own path’. Fame, success, money and the rallying cry of surrounding sycophants prevents all but the most genuine of such groups from longevity.
To my mind, it boils down to the desire to truly collaborate – and the interpretation of the term ‘collaboration’. If we are to be honest, many collaborations are veiled attempts to make more money from the skills of others, without the commitment to building their own business to encompass those skills. These will never work.
But if all parties are aware of the value of each skill set and the relevance within a project structure of those skills, then I believe collaboration can work wonderfully. Set the ground rules and expectations out in ‘simple to understand’ terms. The business framework that supports the collaboration model may not be particularly evenly distributed across the participants, but as long as within the project structure, the relevance and opinion of each and every collaborator is valued equally then the project is likely to be better than it would have been without collaboration. Surely.
I suppose the best collaborative relationship is where different skillsets and disciplines can be involved as necessary to suit the project mix and where every participant understands the cost base for each other. Much like baking, the fundamental base ingredients are often always needed, but other more specialist ingredients are required from time to time to create something new and exciting. You just need to ensure that your pantry has sufficient stock of all possible ingredients to allow you to create whatever recipe you may need to. To step out of my analogy, all collaborators need to be ‘on-call’ and understand the unifying ethos that makes that collaboration seem a singular creative unit. Otherwise it simply becomes a little black book of sub-contractors who are at liberty to charge whatever they choose whenever the call comes.
I don’t want to get all ‘cub-scout’ on everyone, but personally I find that honesty tends to be the best policy. When I first started Square Banana, I had no real legitimate casestudies to shout about and no staff to ‘profile’. I decided to promote an ‘associate’ model (which could be construed as a collaborative approach) where I asked 4-5 selected small business owners if I could profile them on my Square Banana website. If ever their services were required (at the time, they included web development, Alias rendering, automotive styling, animation etc. etc.) I would mention them (by name and business) in my initial proposal to the client and provide a short business summary/profile for their information. My intention was that it would make Square Banana appear bigger than it was, but the result was much different. Clients responded well to the fact that each specialist was brought in only to do what was required within the project and that I was only charging for the services and hours necessary to do the work – an optimized billing model to suit the project needs. No fees to cover large overheads or multiple software maintenance contracts etc. It worked well enough for me to make more of it over the next couple of years – a form of collaborative framework I guess.
The only thing that ultimately made it unworkable was the unreliability of those small businesses and the ensuing recession which meant that one day you had a web developer who understood your business, and the next they had folded the business due to poor trading and they now worked in full time employment with no scope to help out. I ended up spending more time finding new suppliers who I trusted and could confidently put forward in such an open an honest way, than it benefited me to do so. Nowadays, I am still honest with clients about the network I deal with and often let them buy direct, but at a more informal level and to suit the project and client!
I am ever hopeful that a good collaborative model can be created by other small creative businesses as I genuinely believe that it benefits the project and is likely to generate more repeat business. An ‘A-team’ of small’ish creative, expert services. I will be watching the exploits of a recent such collaborative project in Cornwall – known collectively as Mudskipper Ltd. – the brainchild of Lloyd Pennington from Buff Design and enabled (as I understand it) by a Cornish ‘partnership’ initiative. This particular project has been part of the reason I’ve been thinking about ‘collaboration’ per se and I wish it well. I hope to pick Lloyd’s brain on this at some point in the future.
I told you I would meander somewhat!
Please feel free to let me know your thoughts and experiences as my opinions are based purely on my own – I would love to hear about successful collaborations that contradict my thoughts.
author : Russell Beard | Design Director