What clients think.

A research report titled What client’s think* has just been released. The report is based on 500 individual client interviews conducted on behalf of (and paid for by) UK design agencies. The interviews were conducted face to face making the insights far more valuable than any online survey.

They were commissioned to monitor the health of client/designer relationships. Specifically, to understand client’s expectations, what they think makes a great relationship and to understand how they compare one design agency to another.

The results are interesting, and we think relevant to the Australian design scene. Here’s the pearls we uncovered.

Firstly, definitions.

The design agencies ranged from employing 5 to over 100 people. Apparently they covered every design discipline (although the disciplines are not documented). In this instance, we are treating the words agency and designer as interchangeable.

The clients came from a range of different industries, from food and drink manufacturers to professional services. They included local and international companies, business to business and business to consumer, and not-for-profit charities.

Their job titles ranged from Chief Executives and Board Director through to brand managers. All had responsibility for buying design and had a relationship with a design agency. Most were responsible for the day-to-day dealing with the designers.

What clients are worried about.

This is important because if designers understand their client’s challenges, it makes it easier to supply the information needed to make a decision.

1. Uncertain business environment.

Most of the client’s were worried about a lack of consumer confidence. Limited market growth tends to lead to more consolidation and a focus on stealing share from competitors. Limited market growth in any sector makes it imperative designers do all they can do retain existing clients.

2. Changing consumers.

Consumers are savvier, more price sensitive, and shifting from buying products to buying experiences and migrating online. They are generally less loyal and have a more limited attention span. In every market the ‘changing consumer’ is a constant concern. This means designers need to keep up to date with changing consumer trends to help clients negotiate this challenge.

3. Pressure on budgets.

The need to do more with less is an ever-present theme. Needless to say, the ability to work smarter, not harder, remains important.

What clients are not worried about.

Design. It appears, clients, by and large, are not worried about our design industry.

64% couldn’t name another three agencies apart from their incumbent. I think it is fair to assume clients do not spend much time pondering the state of design. They don’t follow designers on social media (more about that later) and they don’t browse designer websites.

Client expectations

Clients expect that design agencies will deliver:

  1. on time and on budget. Failure to deliver on time and on budget is embarrassing for the client and has the potential to make their life awkward.
  2. quality, creative output. Creativity is a given. Clients are still talking about that ‘wow’ factor and how they seldom them see it. Only 18% of clients believe their designer regularly exceeds their expectations. (It is noted this judgement was based on the complete relationship, not only the quality of creative work, which leads to...)
  3. proactively. This is the magic ingredient that helps transform a client/supplier relations into a true partnership – being the client’s eyes and ears, coming up with ideas, showing interest in the client’s business beyond the project in hand.

A vast majority (89%) of clients viewed ‘good design’ as a very important contributor to brand success. So, the vast majority of clients understand the commercial value of design.

However, 70% of clients believe that design effectiveness can be difficult to measure. This is interesting – while the commercial value of design is understood and appreciated, most clients  find it difficult to measure its effectiveness.

Nearly three quarters (73%) of clients believe their design agency could provide more added value. They believe designers should share more quick, useful nuggets of information (as opposed to long, general trend white papers). (But it’s not in a newsletter … read on.)

Nearly half of all clients interviewed (45%) wanted to work with fewer agencies to ensure their communications where unified and coordinated. (No clients said they wanted to work with more agencies.) To me, this suggests that clients want what we have all hoped for –  work with a small group of designers, not play the field.

Client service vs designer

Many (84%) of the clients wanted to meet, and talk with, the people working on the business, rather than sales people. And just under half (44%) of clients believed their account suffered because of the churn or account management.


Most (89%) clients who were not happy with their agency cited client service issues as the main reason.

So, if the client wants to speak to the person doing the work, does this mean that we need to educate designers in the soft skills of client service / management?


I think we can say all (99%) of clients believed putting a new, high-value project out for pitch was just good business sense – a form of due diligence.


87% said they are too busy to shop around to see credential presentations.

This means clients want strategic pitches. It also means if you get to pitch, best you make the time count.

Three reasons for winning a pitch?

  1. Strong team I can work with. (relationship)
  2. They understood us. (empathy)
  3. We had confidence they can deliver. (reliability)

Three reasons for not winning a pitch?

  1. Too much regurgitation of the brief / too long to get to sharing new thinking. 76% of clients thought the agencies spent too long taking about themselves. (Arrogance)
  2. Parts of the pitch were obviously generic, not bespoke. Disjointed, both in personalities pitching and what was presented. Strategy and creative not aligned. (This was one of the main gripes – The ill-informed designer that hasn’t done their homework and turns up to a meeting unprepared.)
  3. 64% of clients said losing pitches lacked a memorable argument. They were not able to walk away and say ‘They were the ones that said…’

Designers and self-promotion.

The 500 clients interviewed get, on average, 17 new business approaches every day. So, do we need to hone our online presence? I think from the insights below, the answer is only in one area…

Nearly all (93%)  clients want a designer’s website to quickly demonstrate the agency’s core competencies. It may be a particular service or discipline but it could also be an overarching approach. 52% thought most agency’s websites do not clearly define what the agency stands for.

90% do not follow any designers on social media (not including Linked In) because they are too busy. The 10% that do were more likely to be design managers, or head of design.

96% of clients are on Linked In and use the platform for business development purposes.

63% thought a snail mail business approach had more impact that an email. (Paper companies have got to love that 🙂

56% of clients rarely or never read the agency newsletter or claim not to receive it (this is a 10% increase from last year. Newsletters are generally failing to win client attention. And of those that do read it, 65% want it in print rather than online. They liked the longevity, and the ability to read it onroute.


28% of clients stated that budgets were tighter than last year but 88% said their digital marketing spend is set to increase. The Australian economy is slowing, it is fair to assume this would be the same here.

The 30 second pitch

The researchers asked 500 clients: ‘if a new agency had 30 seconds to say something to you, what would most likely get your interest?’ Here’s what they said:

Help solve our particular challenge. Fundamentally, clients come to design agencies seeking the answer to a strategic question, not just the desire to see some great creative work. What this means: client’s want to work with intelligent, strategic (rather than aesthetic) designers.

Bring evidence of effectiveness: What this means: Yes they acknowledge design is difficult to assess but they want commercial results, sales increases or a measurable impact. They want an agency to have the ability to talk about its work within a business context.

Show something definitive and relevant. They want to see a game changer, a disruptor. A case study of something you did that changed the way business was done. Something relevant.

Next step

Here’s my takeway: Designers should ‘talk’ where the clients talk (LinkedIn). The conversation should share small nuggets of wisdom that clients can use – especially with their bosses – on how design can add value.

But don’t rely on my takeaway. We’re giving designers the chance to hear what client’s want directly from the clients.

Our next UNseminar on April 23 is titled: What clients think.

We have three brave clients willing to take the hotseat, and answer any question you’ve got. You can drill down on the information above to start a fresh conversation.

Full deets and tickets available here.

*This fantastic report has been produced for the past 5 years by Up to the Light – a provider of client surveys to the UK design industry.

Carol Mackay

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The Design Business Review is Australia’s only online design management magazine. It’s professional development information written specifically for Australian designers by Australian designers. Best of all, it’s free.

Carol is a designer and co-founder (with Greg Branson) of the Design Business Council, an organisation advocating design and its role in a successful and sustainable business; and the Design Business School, Australia’s the only business school for designers. Together they are working towards the 2019 Business of Design Week. 

In 2018 she partnered with another two Melbourne professionals to launch the Clear Communication Awards. 

Prior to the DBC, Carol co-founded and managed a successful graphic design studio: Mackay Branson design. Carol’s design career focused on helping the financial, legal, insurance, superannuation and service sectors use design to add clarity to their often complex message. She now uses the same skills to help business understand design, and designers understand business. Contact Carol for more information.

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