Reflections on 20 years. Part 2: Those difficult moments

7 July 2016

Mytton Williams is celebrating twenty years of business in 2016. It has been quite a journey. So, to capture and reflect on our story, and mark this important year for us, we’ve collected together twenty thoughts on our twenty years. This is the second of four articles (you can read part one here). This time we’re sharing five reflections on when things have gone wrong, we’ve messed up or the unexpected came through the door…

Mistakes, we’ve made a few

We have designed and managed many lengthy and complex documents over the years. On one such project, it had been checked, the proof changes had been made, everything was signed off, the print run was done. It just had to be bound. I did one last check on some running sheets, and noticed some of the images did not look right, including one that had the fold line running right through someone’s face. That awful sinking feeling. It was wrong and it was our mistake. But would anyone else notice?

I took it to the client and showed them. And, “yes”, they wanted it changed. We paid for the second print-run of those pages and it cost us thousands, but it was a better job as a result. I’ve always thought that when we are wrong, we must put our hands up and deal with the consequences. Would they have noticed? I don’t know. But I do know that when we pitched to the same client for other work, they acknowledged that we faced any problems and fixed them with no fuss. That was one aspect of why they continued to work with us. So sometimes, in the end, mistakes turn out for the best. But never try and hide a problem. Share it and sort it.

Don’t’ worry, it’ll be fine

A smaller project came our way to improve the branding of a company. Part of the discussion was whether the name was right. It wasn’t memorable, it wasn’t simple – we wanted to explore alternatives. So we did, and they loved it. So far so good.

In the process we had only done a quick IP search, and we said that in our presentation. But some weeks later we received a call from a now annoyed client, who had been told by a lawyer that it was unlikely to be eligible for trade marking. In his view, we were responsible and we were being accused of not doing our job properly. The paper trail confirmed that we hadn’t been explicit about IP responsibilities – and we should have been.

We are designers, not lawyers, and we don’t carry out legal checks. But as a result of that experience we are very clear in our T&Cs, and all proposals, about getting those checks done properly and who’s responsibility it is. The upshot was that the client did get the new name registered in the end – and was happy with our work and the outcome – but we endured three months of anxiety before things were settled.

The bigger impact was a project that, despite great work, was spoiled with frustration. The success of projects is not just down to the design. You can create the best design in the world, but if it is not supported by good communication and project management, it won’t get through.

It would all be easy if it weren’t for the customers…

We have far more great stories about our clients than regrettable ones. Most projects run smoothly, but occasionally they don’t.

Over ten years ago we created and delivered website designs that were well received and signed-off. And then one Director, who we had never met, decided he didn’t like it. It didn’t go ahead and we didn’t get paid for the final stage of work. Another time we had already done lots of work with a client who then asked us to create some new designs. We presented, and there was… complete silence. Eventually, after presenting more work, we all agreed it might be time for them to try someone new. And on another occasion one of our clients, that was always very slow to pay, called to aggressively tell me he didn’t want to work with us after we had stopped work until the invoice was paid. “You are sub-standard, we’ll go elsewhere,” he barked. And they did, and to be honest, I was glad (we got everything they owed).

These unfortunate experiences teach us lessons. Sometimes you don’t get paid. But we’ve never gone to a small claims court – I find it’s rarely worth the time and aggravation. We ask to be made aware of everyone who is going to influence the sign-off and talk to all of them before starting. We don’t have to, and won’t, put up with rude and aggressive people. And when facing those moments of silence, it’s an opportunity to ask questions. Taking a step back often reveals that the root of the concern is something we can fix. Whilst we don’t like to give up, and will work hard to put things right, on some occasions you have to let go and move on. And that can be the best thing for both sides.

In at the deep end

When I think back, there have been a number of situations where frankly, I felt out of my depth. When we first took on working for Clarks shoes in the early days of Mytton Williams, it was a massive project compared to anything we had done before. The company wanted to work with a small local agency – it was an amazing opportunity – but the responsibility of making changes to an internationally recognised brand is very real. We worked closely with the internal design team at Clarks who were great. Changes were released steadily through an incremental roll-out rather than a ‘ta-dah’ launch. And those changes worked incredibly well, helping increase sales and win many design awards.

The Arthur Andersen accounting firm (formerly one of the Big 5), was another client that caused a sense of excitement and nervousness. We got a call from a person we had worked with for many years, because a US ad agency wasn’t felt to be doing their best. They needed a major ad campaign and I had to be honest and declare that we hadn’t done anything like that before. We put forward some designs and they really loved it. The scale of the budgets involved were exceptional. We were running regular full-back-page FT ads involving major photographers and purchasing global and exclusive usage rights. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

These projects test your nerve and your abilities. And they are a reminder that you never know where people end up and who might call several years down the line. Good relationships are rewarding in all sorts of ways. As part of that relationship, we like to admit when we might be out of our depth – bluffing our way through is not our style. But diving-in pays off. It is important to push yourself. These things help you grow in confidence. You learn, and you get better.

The drawer of shame

I suspect all designers have a drawer of shame and we are no exception. It contains the work that, in our minds, is not as good as it could have been. It can happen when clients ask for something and despite us feeling it would not really solve the problem or would be, in our minds, an ugly solution, we have gone ahead. This can be due to the pressure of meeting tight deadlines or keeping people happy. But over the years I’ve learnt you have to delve deeper into ‘why’ those client requests are being made and really understand their concerns. Then you can put forward alternative, and better, solutions.

Making that time to question often works, but not always. Sometimes clients push ‘to see something’ with no questions asked. I’ve learnt to ‘pick your battles’ as the saying goes and look at the bigger picture. Occasionally we explain that we are not the agency to help in that way and suggest they look elsewhere. It’s never an easy call. But if you are not doing work you are proud of, or if it goes against your values, it never feels good and rarely ends well. Stick to what you believe in and be confident in what you do.

Tags:
Design (35)
Brand (8)
Messaging (5)
Core messages (5)
Brand message (5)
20 years (4)
difficult moments (1)

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