Man asking what clients want

What clients want

Designers spend a great deal of time trying to guess what their clients want. Sure, we ask, but it’s fair to say that sometimes clients tell us what they think we want to hear. That information wasn’t good enough for 527 UK design agencies. Together they commissioned a third party to ask their clients what they want. Better than that, the third party – Up to the Light – generously published the findings. The 2019-20 report has just been released. Even though the interviews were conducted pre pandemic, the insights are valuable.

Here’s how we think the findings relate to the Australian design scene.

Who participated?

The activity was initiated by 527 UK design studios and agencies ranging in size from 5 to 100 employees. Each one nominated client(s) they would like interviewed. The clients were from a diverse range of sectors, from food to fashion, pharmaceuticals to software, government to not-for-profit. 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 think about creativity

Intuitively, it’s easy to assume a designer/client relationship is based on delivery of creativity, however 80% of clients thought they would benefit from their agency delivering a higher level of creative thinking.

Specifically clients wanted their agency to offer proactive advice outside of the commissioned work. (This is the first of many times the word proactive will be used in this article.)

That said, only 38% of the clients expected design to play a greater role in their organisation/brand in the next 1-2 years. And it wasn’t because they would rather deal with their advertising or marketing agency — the clients  thought design was relatively good value for money compared with other types of agencies.

So clients believe they could benefit from design and believe it to be good value but they don’t expect it to play a greater role in the short term … what’s that about? It’s confusing, which says to me is there is a great role for design leadership. For designers to be proactive and demonstrate how design can improve outcomes. (That’s the second ‘proactive’.)

Let’s talk bad news first: what isn’t working?

What clients dislike about their design agency

A lack of follow through

Research found many designers start projects well (in terms of thinking and conceptual work) but are not as good in the production/delivery stages. Many clients said they are uneasy until the project is delivered. (More about this later.)

A lack of commercial understanding

It is perceived designers do not understand the commercial realities of business. Clients thought a better understanding might lead to more convincing creative presentations — especially at C-suite level, because that would make life easier for the mid-level client. (More about this later too.)

That designers are passive

Basically, these clients thought their agencies too passive. Agencies waited to be briefed rather than take a partnership approach, be proactive and drive projects. (That’s three).

On a more positive note…

What clients want from their design agency

Clients want designers to deliver on time and on budget

This links to the ‘lack of follow through’ above, and another insight from the interviews: 33% of clients referred to an agency mistake that happened over a year ago. Most ‘mistakes’ concern client service and production issues (link to starting well but not following through) and were deemed more memorable than the creative.

Clients said the failure to deliver on time and on budget caused aggravation and potential embarrassment.

Clients want the creativity to be relevant

Clients wanted a proactive response – one that pushed the parameters of the brief — but it is vital that the creative response was relevant. (That’s four.)

Clients want designers to be a real partner

It’s about moving the relationship beyond commissioned projects and becoming the client’s eyes and ears. To look at the bigger picture and be – yep – proactive. (Five.)

Clients want their agency to prove financial stability

Interestingly, 53% of clients believe an agency’s financial stability is a key factor to an ongoing a relationship. They want confidence the agency is going to be around in a couple of years. (Perhaps this relates back to lack of follow through?)

This is an interesting angle. Do you include financial stability, longevity and the ongoing ability to deliver in new business pitches?

What clients want in new business pitches

Clients want relevance – have they addressed a similar challenge to mine?

Clients did not expect to see a direct brand or market comparison, but they do want evidence the agency has solved a similar strategic challenge. The ability to correctly identify a challenge and choose comparative work to present is key. 55% of clients complained their agency insight pieces (research, reports, white papers) were just not relevant.  Rather than general trends, clients wanted to see relevant facts about their market. And they want it to be succinct. 77% of clients said they didn’t have time to read longer pieces – they want bite-sized insights not lengthy reports.

Clients want proof that designers are experts in their field

Clients wanted to hear confident views and opinions about their brand and their market to demonstrate your ability to be proactive rather than reactive. (That’s six.) Working with confident designers gives clients confidence in their partner choice.

Clients want demonstration of personality traits – can I work with them?

Traits like listening, being interested, engaged, and the ability to ask the right questions were not undervalued. Clients are looking for a trusted relationship. Back to ‘can they deliver?’. 67% of clients said pitches were lost because of soft skills rather than creative. While solving the creative challenge was important, decisions were won or lost on how clients felt about the team and their personalities.

What client’s want about new business pitches

First thing to note is 89% of clients said they’re too busy to schedule agency credential pitches. They only go out for a pitch when it makes good business sense.

This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, this stat is growing each year, demonstrating most clients prefer other ways to find a new design partner (more info further on). Secondly, don’t waste any opportunity to pitch. Be proactive. Do your homework. Never present a general pitch deck. And prepare to be the conduit between your onlyness and the relevance to your client – don’t assume they can join the dots. (That’s seven.)

Specific client quotes about new business pitches:

‘I didn’t learn anything about their work that I couldn’t have read on their website.’

‘I struggled to see the relevance of some case studies.’

‘They hadn’t really thought about us. They were just running through their projects.’

‘They didn’t show me anything definitive – a project that disrupted a market or really stood out.’

‘I didn’t get a sense of how they were different or distinctive versus other agencies.’

How do clients find a new design partner?

78% of clients like to ‘discover’ a new agency, not be sold to.
89% said they like to source a new agency through recommendations from trusted colleagues.

The message here is don’t get complacent. Keep your client relationship fresh by proactively sharing new work and new knowledge. Remember clients only know what you are doing with them. And don’t be afraid to ask existing clients for recommendations – especially those in aligned industries. (Eight.)

Worth noting here that 92% of clients had not visited their incumbent agency’s website in the last few months and only 17% follow their designer on social media (that changed if the client was an inhouse design department). So, you need another way to keep them up to date with your current learnings and new tricks. Which leads to…

93% of all clients claimed LinkedIn to be by far the most useful platform for business development. And they thought their agency should be more active. (That’s why we wrote this LinkedIn ebook for designers.)

Two specific insights

Understanding a client’s business challenges

An earlier statement showed clients were frustrated by a design agency’s lack of business acumen – in fact 77% said they would like their agency to have a better commercial understanding of the client’s world.

More commercial understanding means a better understanding of:

  • the client’s overall business objectives and strategy. Easily researched from their annual report or website.
  • the business mechanics and how the P&L works. Something most studio owners have to understand.
  • operations e.g. how a store or restaurant actually works. Many designers have a side hustle, or have extended family or friends in aligned industries.

So, many designers do understand business. Problem may be we’re not communicating our understanding well, which leads to…

Communicating better

Nearly half of all clients interviewed (46%) wanted more regular progress reports. Most wanted less information, more often. Something that quickly communicated what happened, what is happening, what’s going to happen and by when. Consistency is the key.

This leads to the eternal discussion of whether designers should service clients directly or whether client service is a dedicated role of client service managers, project managers, studio managers, design managers, producers or studio owners. When making that decision, take this into consideration:

What clients want from client servicing

Clients want regular, high quality communication

Keeping the client informed and updated every step of the way. Ideally, this means the client never having to ask. Being proactive. (Nine).

Clients want honesty and transparency

Open conversations. Being honest about issues, problems and mistakes. Admitting when something isn’t your skill set and being able to recommend another company.

Clients want agencies to understand their organisation

Understanding the brand is a given. Understanding the client’s organisation, its politics and way of working, is crucial to a real partnership.

And while many clients say they like to work alongside a designer 86% of those unhappy with the relationships said it was because of client service. More often than not, it is client service issues that end client/agency relationships rather than lack of creativity

It’s fair to argue understanding the politics of an organisation, negotiating the commercial realities of design and managing a process of continual communication are skills learnt from experience and not skills intuitively linked to designers.

Help us understand what Australian clients want

These insights are based on UK design studios – the question is, how relevant are they to the Australian design market?

Last year we set out to find out: we ran an UNSeminar inviting three clients to discuss the findings and their relevancy to the Australian market. Natalie Cukerman Category Marketing Manager, Coca-Cola Amatil; Fiona Nixon, Head of Corporate Affairs at Bank Australia and Elisabeth Tuckey, General Manager, Networks and Partnership development at Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand took the hotseat to discuss the findings. Our discussions overwhelming demonstrated the UK findings were relevant.

It’s just not possible to workshop the results this year, instead we’re going to survey Australian clients, asking similar questions about their relationship with their design supplier. The survey will be released in the next few weeks. If you would like your clients to be involved, contact us and we’ll add them to the database. The more clients, the more accurate the findings.

Carol Mackay

If this article was of interest to you, you might also like:

How to help clients make decisions

How to help clients give feedback

A sure fire way to capture that elusive client feedback.

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After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, I pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council I use my experience, and research, as a design mentor and coach. I help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement paid gigs with mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

An archive of her design work at
Her current work can be viewed at and