Reflections on 25 years as a consultant
In 1988 I was a co-founder of strategic design consultancy 2020. We specialised in retail and our first project was to develop a new retail brand and store concept for the S-Group in Finland. If this seems a bit random, the reason they came to us was that we had been one of three consultancies that worked for George Davies developing the Next concept (2020 co-founder Bernard Dooling and I had designed the men’s stores). Our client, Erpo Heikkila, had seen the success of Next and wanted to work with the consultants who had done it.
In our second year we were approached by Virgin to pitch for the design of their Megastores – large format record stores. They were already talking to three well-established design groups and wanted a wild card in the pack. They had heard that we were an interesting young strategy consultancy (they called us the “hot banana”, which we thought sounded rather messy!) and they invited us to take part. We ended up winning the project and developed a truly radical concept.
These two examples have a few things in common:
- Our reputation as individuals counted for something
- The clients were brave enough to choose a new consultancy for major projects
- They were also open enough to accept the radical concepts we proposed
The eighties had been a period of optimism and expansion.
Clients were excited about the future and would launch new projects with enthusiasm. Even after the recession of 1990-92 there was still a relatively optimistic mood in the marketplace and the nineties continued much as the eighties had done. Even the supermarkets, usually the dinosaurs of retail and used to changing slowly, were being more radical – at 2020 we worked with Sainsbury’s on brand building and several different formats of a new store concept that represented at least radical evolution if not revolution.
I believe the market environment for strategic thinking and innovation has now changed significantly. Since the attack on the twin towers in 2000 and the dot-com crash around the same time we have seen a depression of optimism and a tightening of attitudes and budgets. Sure, there was a bit of a revival in the period 2004-7 but, with the banking collapse in 2008 and all that has happened since, the business of marketing has become much more restrained.
What does mean for us all? Well, there are two possible reactions to such a changing environment:
- We learn to live with the new restraint – find new ways of working and completing projects within smaller budgets; become more pragmatic; reduce the range of our exploration.
- We become better at persuasion – find new ways to open the client’s mind to the need to explore; identify the examples of success through innovation; help the client manage their own difficulties in persuading their bosses to back them.
Try re-reading these two versions of life and note how you feel about it.
For most people the first seems do-able where the second is challenging. Part of the problem is our own fear – it is not just the clients who are restrained, we are fearful too. “What if we try the second approach and lose the pitch (for a new client) or lose the client (where there is an existing relationship)?”
At 2020, two of our core values are Brave and Smart. I would suggest that both of these are necessary to pursue the second approach – be brave enough to try it and smart enough to find a way of persuading the client to go with it.
Richard has 35 years experience as a retail strategy consultant, brand consultant and business innovation consultant. He co-founded strategic design consultancy 2020 in 1988 and is now non-executive chairman. He has developed a holistic theory of business and, having published a book on the subject (Holistic Business), now consults through Holistic Business Consultants (www.holisticbusiness.co).