Smart Moves: A winning partnership

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IN 1990, when a design consultancy called The Partners came top of a "poll of polls" league table that took into account all the major awards over a three-year period, they were pleased. When they won again three years later, they were delighted.

Now, the exercise is being repeated. The Partners has done it again. The design firm tops the league published in DesignWeek last week. The league is a compilation of the magazine's own awards and two other schemes included in the earlier surveys - the D&AD's coveted yellow pencils for unfettered creativity and the Design Business Association's Design Effectiveness Awards which seek to measure the contribution that design makes to the bottom line for specific projects.

The breadth of the survey reveals not so much the design companies that produce the odd brilliant piece of work, but those who can produce creative solutions over and over again working with all kinds of clients. On this showing, The Partners can claim a decade of unrivalled consistent creativity.

As companies converge, all using the same technology, imitation seems the obvious way forward. For many companies staying competitive means following the market leader as closely as possible. This puts a great premium on the ability to take the courageous leap forward rather than following a competitor's timid step.

The Partners' clients tend to be companies set upon this latter path. It was The Partners who came up with the corporate identity for b2, Barclays' new personal investment banking service. The sly reference to b2's parent was crucial. "We were looking for a design agency that could treat the customer respectfully - respecting their ability to get a pun or whatever - and which could combine a desire to communicate clearly with wit and an aesthetic approach that is appealing and attractive," says Greg Galle, design director at b2.

Mike Mintram, marketing communications director at Eagle Star, which is currently testing a new corporate identity symbol, talks in similar terms: "They are known for introducing wit in their design, but they also have a very good strategic understanding of brands."

It is not coincidental that it is two financial services companies, faced with new competition from popular retail brands, that have come in search of new levels of creativity. Galle wanted the b2 brand to be "straightforward, approachable and personal. Friendly and humorous characteristics were quite important."

Eagle Star's brief was for a symbol that would make the company look easy to do business with. The fact that The Partners' solution worked an eagle and a star into such a facile motif was a bonus.

Other companies in the financial sector, such as the globally branded HSBC, or NatWest, with which The Partners last year held a creativity workshop that pinpointed the humorlessness of its corporate communications, could use some wit.

Gareth Williams, The Partners' client services director, thinks petrol companies and even German car makers might be candidates for change. "You get better management with an identity that's neutral and bland. But once you've managed it, you then have to start building on it." Why have a bland identity that is easily to apply across a global market if you can have a witty one that is equally easy to work with?"

At the risk of messing with a successful formula, The Partners has recently modified their management structure. The objective is to be able to pass on the lessons of their creativity not simply in the form of corporate design but in a form that will enable client companies to become more creative themselves.

Twentieth Century Fox will be one of the first companies to benefit. Next month in Los Angeles, The Partners will hold a week of group meetings aimed at helping those in charge of marketing films and their more important spin-off merchandise to become "better buyers and approvers of creativity". The teaching process will then be licensed so that it may be repeated within Twentieth Century Fox, while The Partners takes it to new clients.

Traditionally led by numerical goals, the film marketers will receive a crash course in the unquantifiable, learning how to brief better, how to take a risk, and when to "let go" of an idea. They will learn to appreciate that what you end up with at the end of the creative process might not be what you thought you would end up with - and that that's all right.

"Creativity is scary even for those doing it because you never really know," Williams explains. "You feel something's right, but you can't muster a logical argument."