How do you allocate budget to design, content and thinking?

Creative planning

Liz, December 16, 2016

Here’s a situation we found ourselves in a couple of years ago. An organisation wanted our copywriters to produce a 30-ish page brochure.

It’s a piece of collateral they’d produced every year. They loved the look of it – and felt that visually, it was fresh and relevant. But when it came to the content, they felt that unfocussed messaging and lack of differentiation in the story they were telling were letting them down.

It sounded like a great piece of work – the kind of thing we really like to get our teeth into.

We quoted £12k for the work – which involved coming up with a fresh approach and theme that was deeply rooted in the organisation’s brand, interviewing eight people for case studies and then writing all the content in a way which could also be repurposed for digital comms and fact sheets. The job would have involved presenting our initial ideas back to the organisation and getting buy-in from senior stakeholders, a fair bit of travel and at least a couple of rounds of amends at the tail end of the project.

The potential client came back. “We’d love to work with you,” they said, “And we love the direction you want to take… but our budget for this is only £3k.”

So we had a chat about where compromises could be made. Could they handle getting senior stakeholder buy-in instead of us (they didn’t think so), could we do the interviews over the phone? Or could the interviewees write bullet points that we’d write up into more coherent text? (Again, they didn’t think so.)

When you find out the designers are being paid 500% more…

This was an organisation we really wanted to work with. But eventually, after much talk of us needing to “add value” and “be flexible”, this potential client accidentally sent us a spreadsheet setting out the total budget available for the project and the way it was being split.

In short, it became clear that their budget for all creative (excluding production) was £18k – with £15k allocated for “design” and £3k for “content”.

So we very politely admitted that we’d seen the spreadsheet – and wondered if there was any flexibility on the budget allocation. Because in our eyes (and with the experience of having worked for several years before Wordtree in creative agencies), the “design” side of things looked like a very simple job of flowing content into existing templates and adding images (the potential client had already decided which images they wanted to use).

The answer? “Well design is a lot more expensive than copy, so we don’t think we’ll be able to get the design agency to move on that figure.”

So no. In their eyes, our thinking, getting stakeholders on board with our thinking, creating a new approach and creating all the content was worth a fifth of flowing the content through existing templates.

So – again very politely – we suggested that maybe we probably weren’t the right organisation to work with on that particular project.

I run a strategic communications organisation that deliberately doesn’t do design. So clearly, I have an axe to grind here.

But here are a few things to think about…

The era of working with smaller, more specialist agencies

The way that larger organisations consume creative services has changed since the recession. Back in the day, larger organisations only tended to work with large, multidisciplinary agencies.

And typically, when they sent costs to their clients, the allocation of budget may very well have been split 80/20 between design and all other services, including copywriting. This cost split didn’t always represent the true costs – but it did give the agency the means to charge for design work at a maximum rate.

So for example, let’s say that the multidisciplinary agency is creating a brand ident for a new brand of dog food. In the first phase of the project, the majority of the thinking and copywriting will happen – and a small, but highly significant amount of design will happen. This first phase might produce a strategy, name, strapline, key messages, tone of voice and visual elements including a logo and colourways.

dog food

Once all of that is in place, the balance of work shifts. There’s now very little copywriting and thinking to do (tweaks and reversioning along the way). But there is a shed load of designing to do – because this is where the gazillion different pack variants, aisle ends, sales literature, website and apps are churned out.

If at the beginning of a project, the agency ascribed higher value to strategy and writing, it might struggle to justify premium rates for “design only” as the project progresses. So sometimes, multidisciplinary agencies don’t do this. They downplay the value of strategy to some extent – and writing to a great extent. Which means they can charge design out at a premium.

For a client, this makes no difference at all when they’re dealing with a multidisciplinary – they’re paying the same end figures, and all is happy.

However, when this post-recession phenomena of working with smaller, more specialist agencies kicks in, you can end up with a view that design is just “worth more”.

Design collateral costs much less than it used to

Here’s another little thing to add into the mix… Back in the day if you wanted a website, it would have to be created from scratch. Even a basic website would have taken about a week to create.

Now, however, the majority of websites are made using templates from the likes of WordPress and Wix. These templates cost very little. And you can create a basic website from them in an afternoon.

It’s the same with other assets. A decade ago, depending on the use you wanted to put it to, stock photography could cost several hundred pounds per shot upwards. But now, cloud storage and direct-from-the-maker sales models mean that you can buy beautiful, fresh and modern photography for a few dollars a shot. It’s the same with crafted typefaces too. Software licensing is also coming down in price.

Even employing designers is slightly cheaper than employing writers and strategists. The average wage of a graphic designer is £21,713. For a copywriter, that figure goes up to £23,046.

As far as I’m aware, there have been no similar efficiencies for writers and thinkers – we’re still working with the same old macs, post-its, notebooks and pens.

And everyone can write and think, can’t they?

A little alarm rings in my head whenever I hear a potential client say something like: “We’d do this internally but our time is best spent elsewhere.” Because the thought behind this is that anyone could communicate expertly, if only they had the time. If this were true, being human would be a much less stressful existence.

So I think it’s time to re-examine the budget split.

And I’m not knocking design as a discipline in wanting to do so. I’ve worked with some incredibly talented designers and I’ve seen design work that has transformed businesses. All I’m saying is that I’ve seen strategy and communications that have transformed businesses too (and I’ve created some of them).

At the end of the day, is the writing and thinking you’re commissioning really only worth 20% of your budget? Let us know what you think.

3 Responses to “How do you allocate budget to design, content and thinking?”

  1. Matt Turner

    Our own experience mirrors pretty much everything you’ve highlighted here Liz.

    The client doesn’t bat an eyelid at £15k for stuff the office junior can do, yet thinks they’re only paying for the writing as they haven’t got time. They don’t even consider the fact they’re getting strategic thought and consultancy with the words.

    Too often we hear clients (agency account managers and directors, as well as end clients) say they’d do the writing themselves if only there were enough hours in the day. This tweaks the spider senses for two reasons: First, as you say, it presumes anyone can write. And two, it shows they probably have little skill at judging good writing from bad.

  2. Richard Owsley

    This sort of stuff is infuriating isn’t it, Liz? People don’t seem to understand it is our thinking and communications expertise that they should be paying for. Of course, they will be able to get someone to write it for £3k. It will be awful – a sort of unstructured mix of PR puff and management-ese. No one will read it, and thus they will have completely wasted the £15k they given to the designer, as well as the print bill, distribution cost and all the management time they’ve spent on it. All down the drain.

  3. Liz

    You know, I think our clients are pretty savvy and they know what they’re getting from us, in terms of consultancy and communications expertise. In my experience, I think there’s just an ingrained acceptance that design costs more/is worth more. And that consultancy costs more/is worth more… but it seems that when you hitch any skill to “writing” there’s an expectation that it should be priced lower.

    I think this is an issue that people in our industry need to tackle – finding better ways to express why writing/consultancy is at least as valuable, and often more valuable, than design. I think this is especially the case in any sector that isn’t FMCG.

    What I wanted to do was to just raise the budget split question. I think the 80% for designers has just become an accepted model – or accepted wisdom, if you like.

    But it doesn’t mean that way of thinking can’t be challenged. I mean, five years ago if you wanted to sell your house, you’d have had to have stumped up the 3-5% of the value of your property to an estate agent. Now you can pay a £500 one-off fee to do it all online. Our ideas about the “right” way to do things and the value of things change all the time.

    I think I just wanted to say that established models can be challenged and should be challenged.

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