After leaving the reception area of a potential client with Justin recently we had our usual post-meeting chat as we walked to the car. You know the one where you’re at a safe enough distance from the building to do and say (or swear) as you please. Anyway, so what I thought was going to be a poor meeting turned out to be a great one, and as we made it into the ‘safe-zone’ I found myself muttering a phrase I can’t stand, “Never judge a book by its cover”. I used this cringeworthy cliché because I’d had a bad feeling before the meeting. A bad feeling based on little more than my judgement of the company’s rather ragged-looking reception area. To be fair it had seen better days, much better days in fact, but despite this the business was spot-on. So, it seems the old sayings are true, and more fool me.
It was whilst driving away from this meeting that it struck me: I should know much, much better than to judge a book by it’s cover, or a company by its reception. But inevitably I do, I always do.
So as penance I’ve decided to confess my judgmental sins by sharing bite-size chunks of my ‘reception-area’ experiences and bundle them up into two exaggerated stereotypes. Why? Well, because my bad habit of judging a company by the appearance of its reception (as well as other stupid mistakes along the way) has somehow shaped where I am today, and ultimately where I’m going. And not just on a personal level, it has affected the type of work that D4 are doing now and will no doubt do in the future too.
So, get ready for a journey through time, space and company receptions…
Throughout my career I’ve visited all kinds of receptions in all kinds of places all over the world. I’ve met people with different customs and cultures, working in all sorts of weird and wonderful industries. But no matter where you go or who you meet there’s always a familiar pattern to the whole reception greeting ritual. First you get the over-enthusiastic “Hello!” then the big smile. Once that’s over, the receptionist will insist you sign-in before giving you a clip-on plastic visitor badge. Or at the other end of the scale they simply scrawl ‘Paul’ across an Avery label and slap it on to your chest. Oh the glamour of business travel. Admittedly, I judge all this activity too – it reflects on the company’s brand.
So that’s the greeting ritual out of the way, now onto the receptions themselves. Yes, welcome to the exciting world of ‘reception-spotting’. And here are the facts (in stereotype). You’ve got your over-sized and über-shiny ‘Business to Consumer’ (B2C) receptions, and then the less glamorous, smaller and more basic ‘Business to Business’ (B2B) ones. Or in some B2B cases, no reception at all. Despite this variety there are two typical scenarios in which I tend to find myself…
Scenario 1; It’s summer, I’m visiting a large B2C household name brand in London for the first time. I breeze into a shiny and beautifully designed reception area – a shrine to the brand’s enormous success. The receptionist behind the glossy but imposing counter is so attractive I develop a temporary stutter. Once I’ve twitched my words out and received my top-of-the-range clip-on visitor badge I sit on a very comfortable designer chair (from Italy, naturally) and wait. And if I’m with a colleague, at this point we will generally look at each other, push our bottom-lips out and pull a face normally associated a nonchalant Gaelic shrug. Essentially this means we’re both thinking the same thing: “very impressive… this is gonna be good”. I then assume the marketing people who tootle in and whisk us off to one of many funky meeting rooms within their ‘facility’ will be smart cookies, on top of their game. And I’m positive they will then brief me on a huge and fantastic brand and digital project. Happy days.
Scenario 2; It’s winter, my toes are cold and I’m in Yorkshire to visit an industrial B2B company for the first time. I walk into a reception area that’s not seen an interior designer in the last 40 years, or possibly ever. It’s like stepping back in time. It belongs in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The walls surrounding me may once have been glossy white but now are tinged with years of dust and tobacco stains. Judging by the faded pictures on display, they manufacture big, heavy machines which do stuff that no one really understands… apart from the people in the company and the people in Finland who buy them, of course. Nervously, I head towards a wooden-framed hole in a wall, partitioned by two sheets of sliding glass. By the side of it there is an electric doorbell (the kind normally seen on a 1980s bungalow); I press it.
Eventually, one of the sheets of glass awkwardly slides open and a heavy-set fella with big forearms says, “Can I ‘elp yer?”. I tell him who I am and why I’m in his presence. I don’t stutter. He slaps ‘Paul’ on my chest. I sit on a shabby office sofa (from Staples, naturally) and wait. Now I’m wishing I could feel my toes and thinking, “Jeez, what have I let myself in for here?”. The Sales & Marketing bloke shuffles in. He leads me through a dimly lit rabbit warren of a building that takes us to a drab and tired-looking meeting room. It’s now that I get the awful feeling this will be a waste of time. They’re gonna want the default ‘logo, brochure and website’, I just know it.
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So, that’s a stereotypical peek into my judgmental experiences in receptions over the years. Yes, it sounds over the top, and I have gone from one extreme to the other, but in fairness I have been in both of these scenarios on many occasions. Now, when I’m in judging mode these scenarios are what I expect to happen. Thing is, it doesn’t always quite work out like that. In fact, it’s usually the exact opposite. Here’s what usually happens (to me anyway)…
B2C, The Reality; The truth is, the über-shiny B2C reception is no more than an over-the-top statement. Sure, they look great and even imposing at times… but isn’t that the point? In my opinion there sole purpose is to remind you that you’re dealing with a large and successful brand and that you should feel privileged to be in their shrine to themselves. But, don’t be fooled by it! The people who work in these places are not all super clever or clued up. Most of the time they can be, well, a bit dim and have been chewed up by the big brand’s system. In fact there are some priceless half-wits I’ve dealt with in my time who have lost the ability to think freely or for themselves in their place of work. Sad but true. I’ve been to many meetings with these types of marketeers where I’ve travelled a great distance to get there, only to have my time completely wasted by them. They drivel on in meetings with no structure or clear direction. So, in this scenario I’m thinking, “I woke up at 5am, to get to London first thing for this!”. And, the only reason I made an effort to roll out of bed that early was based on our first contact which involved you saying “Paul, we have an exciting project that we’ve been working on and now we need your help to bring it all to life!”. So, I’m in an over-the-top ‘facility’ in London and sat in a meeting that has no direction and the people who requested it have literally no clue and no brief.
Some of these marketeers at the big B2C brands are usually working towards their next gig at a bigger, better brand and for more money. Not all of them, but the vast majority of them. Which is fine, but they don’t half talk some twaddle and waste their own time and their agency’s time along the way. I’m sure it’s the environment they work in, but most have no concept of how time and money are intertwined. This is mainly because the brand they work for is already the market-leader, they have loyal consumers and there are squillions in the bank. So it’s hard for these middle-management types to put a noticeable foot wrong. And they certainly won’t have the capacity and/or authority to negatively impact the company’s bottom-line by not doing their job properly. So they don’t really have to perform to the best of their ability. It’s just all to easy for them – mostly they can just turn-up and float around.
Now don’t get me wrong, as an agency if you get in with these types of brands the money can be very, very good. But that’s about it, the project work can sometimes be okay to a degree too. But whilst you’re working towards the deadline period the marketing department of that brand literally “own you” as we say at D4! And once your work is done and out there it doesn’t really change anything. Sure, you’ve helped the brand achieve another successful campaign by convincing consumers to buy more stuff they don’t really need. And the knock-on effect is that the brand has increased their bottom-line even further. Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive, so I know more than most that “that’s just business” or even “the way of the world” – so that’s all fine and dandy. But, I’m delighted to say it’s not for me anymore.
Despite my reservations and painful experiences in the past, I have to say that not all big B2C projects or the people involved are like that. I’ve actually worked on some solid projects with very capable and genuinely like-able people. But even then, the work I did, no matter how good it is, is still just a drop in the ocean in the grand scheme of things. You and your creative team can work for months on something that has a very limited shelf-life. It doesn’t really make any difference to anyone or anything. It’s simply forgotten about, switched-off, torn-up and thrown in the the bin to make way for the next promotion. Think DFS, think pre-Christmas followed by the January Sales, and you may understand where I’m coming from. When it’s that relentless it can kill true creativity. And the design team don’t stay together for long as they get owned by that brand, chewed up by them and all gradually get fed up of it and move on.
So, although I’m glad and privileged to have worked on these accounts, I’ve simply grown tired over the years of that type of B2C work. It’s plain dull and lacks any real substance in my opinion. At D4 it’s what we term ‘throwaway design’. And what we mean by that is no one really cares about it – although this type of work is all around us all of the time. From my perspective getting these projects just became a money chasing and making exercise. In the end, you pray for the day that the project is over. When it gets to that stage I may as well work on a check-out till at Tesco, because that’s the level of joy I get out of it. It’s a dumbed down working existence!
B2B, The Reality; The B2B people are a complete paradox. The big forearmed blokes that make the big industrial stuff for the Finns are a different proposition altogether. These folk are genuine and down-to-earth people. Not just in terms of their personality, but their whole business acumen too. They’re not caught up in a scene or a huge corporate system. They don’t have any time to waste and they truly understand that time is money. They have a structured approach to their working days so there is definitely no chance of them wasting their own time or anyone else’s. They don’t float around in any way, and I respect that.
When you meet them for the first time they have always thoroughly prepared, have a clear direction and real business objectives to discuss. There’s never a “Help, what shall we do?” moment. It’s usually a case of “We make X better than anyone else and we want to increase our market share by Y in the next 2 years – can you help us make that happen?”. So now I’m thinking, “These guys have their heads screwed on, and I can help them achieve that, and more!”. From there I ask them probing questions and explain how digital can provide new opportunities and sales-leads from around the globe – they always like that bit. All this opens up discussions and ideas that contribute to the quality of the meeting.
It’s always good to know that the majority of these types of B2B companies have traded successfully for decades and employ scores of people without ever having gone through a branding process. Sure, they’ve ventured into ‘logo-land’ and have a brochure and a cookie-cutter website off the back of it. But they don’t have a true brand, because they’ve not needed one, or never knew they needed one until something happens – like a recession. And thankfully the closest they’ve come to a Christmas campaign is sending out a few Christmas Cards and the odd bottle of Whiskey to their customers.
One of the main reasons I like striking up working relationships with these B2B-ers is that through digital you can change everything for them by positioning them as a brand force within their industry, by taking them out of logo-land and educating them along the way. It’s a two-way experience that everyone in the process is committed to, engaged by and enjoys. The client becomes wide-eyed about the importance of branding and how truly effective digital can be – whether they’re trading locally or globally. During the process D4 as an agency has to work smarter as there’s no money to burn in the budget we’ve been allocated. So it’s essential that our thinking and execution is not only cutting-edge, but efficient and measurable too. So there is no room for ‘fluff’. This way of working is what I like to term ‘precision design’. Why? Because the brand positioning, messaging and design needs to be spot-on. The projects are intense but thoroughly enjoyable and the results for the clients speak for themselves. Working in this way means the client often sees a return on investment in months, not years.
At D4 we specialise in delivering strategic brand and digital solutions for B2B clients, especially those in the ‘dirty’ and/or ‘heavy’ sectors. And our work has made a real, lasting and positive impact for our clients, and in-turn re-energised the people that work within these organisations.
We heard of a great example of this recently from a client that told us the brand and digital work we had done for them in 2011 had contributed to a whole department been saved from closure. This was due to new business wins from all over the world that had been converted via their new website, and from companies they had never knew existed. It was genuinely heart warming for myself and the others at D4 involved. And it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I think that D4′s work has saved jobs. So, for me that’s in no way ‘throwaway design’.
So, because of that and other successful B2B projects we’ve delivered, I speak for all of us here at D4 when I say we prefer to do meaningful brand and digital work that makes a real and lasting difference. It’s work that we enjoy and with the type of clients that genuinely appreciate all that we do and are grateful for the opportunities and benefits that come their way because of it.
And funnily enough most of our clients in the industrial sectors don’t even have receptions. Because they don’t need them, they are successful in their own right and it’s not in their nature to be flashy or make statements about how well they are doing. So a 1970’s reception with a hole in the wall and a sofa from Staples will do the trick.
And do you know what, I wouldn’t have it any other way.