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RDA 2008: South

— “If I didn’t watch the news, I wouldn’t know there were economic problems,”

chuckles Larnie Higgins, president and creative director of Planet Studio in Atlanta. “I was bracing for hard times, but suddenly it’s boomtown,” says Woodrow Holliman, creative director at Flywheel Design in Durham, North Carolina.

Echoes of surprised relief that the mortgage crisis and general downturn haven’t done irreparable damage to the design business came from Charleston, South Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; Memphis; and Orlando. Far from panicking, these designers’ clients are still spending. And on the expense side, “the high cost of goods doesn’t affect us that much,” notes Hayes Henderson, creative director of HendersonBromsteadArt in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. For one thing,

the majority of his clients are outside the region, so “we don’t drive to our clients.”

Many designers at small- to medium-size firms across the region feel that the recession has even helped them by driving cost-conscious companies their way.

Keith Greenstein is senior copywriter at Boone Oakley, a 30-person ad agency in Charlotte, North Carolina, that hired seven new staff members last year. “In this conservative economy, we’re willing to take on projects for smaller companies that large agencies won’t,

because they cater only to marquee clients,” he says.

In Memphis, Disciple Design’s Craig Thompson says that design studios have been doing better than advertising agencies there because they operate on a project-based model, which is better suited to the trough in the economic cycle: “It’s a huge commitment to have a contract and a monthly retainer. There are times when you need [a full range of] agency services, and times when clients look for more efficient solutions.”

Cook Communications (now David C. Cook),

a Christian publishing company in Colorado Springs, Colorado, recently hired Disciple to refine and execute a brand over haul. “They looked at several firms across the country,” Thompson says, “and were comfortable that we could provide agency-level work at a cost fitting their budget.”

Planet Studio’s Higgins says that even big companies have been giving his firm projects that in more prosperous times would have gone to their agency of record. And these clients aren’t just getting a lower price; they’re getting better service. Several designers agreed with Deborah Loercher, president of Anoroc, a 10-person boutique in Raleigh, North Carolina, who says her clients appreciate that “we’re easier to work with and more responsive. They don’t deal with a junior account representative—they deal with me personally.”

Notwithstanding these sanguine reports, the economy did cause some pain and scrambling. For High Tide Creative, an ad agency in coastal New Bern, North Carolina, the “bread and butter” clients have been real estate developers, says creative director Tom Lewis. With those budgets on hold, they’ve been “very busy” doing logos and other project work and sending out self-promotional pieces to attract new business.

In Winston-Salem, Shapiro Walker Design recently had its first down quarter since opening its doors 11 years ago.

Partner David Shapiro says that the economic slowdown has increased competition among designers: “Laid-off creatives go freelance, others defect to start new firms—there are a lot of little fiefdoms out there that can rob you.” He cites Mullen Advertising’s loss of the $120 million Wachovia Bank account, which resulted in 10 to 20 new local competitors. Not surprisingly, companies are taking advantage by putting up for review work that previously would have been assigned. Shapiro’s firm is reacting by questioning its generalist orientation with an eye toward focusing on a few core specialties.

Print publications have been fighting not just the economy but obsolescence, as ads migrate to the web. Page counts are down at the Nashville Scene, from an average of around 108 in 2005–06 to 84 last year, reports Rob Williams, the alternative weekly’s art director. Hector Sanchez, creative director at Atlanta magazine, says that ads have fallen during the past year, which forces him to “think harder and be smarter in streamlining the magazine and making it look good.” He commissions illustration and photography differently, too, assigning whole sections as opposed to single pages to build good relationships with artists hurt by lower editorial art budgets.

This “doing more with less” theme is repeated by other designers during lean times. For Atlanta’s Larnie Higgins, this means an emphasis on multi-use pieces: “The luxury of pure branding pieces is scarcer. Clients need things to deliver, so a corporate overview doubles as a sales-call leave-behind or as direct mail.” For Deborah Loercher, in Raleigh, it means less expensive modes of communication, such as the internet and “underground PR.” Similarly, in Charlotte, Keith Greenstein says, “You have to be more resourceful.” His agency excels in outdoor, so the firm creates guerrilla events to “interact with people one-on-one versus passively running an ad.” He says that he hears the same from his colleagues. Speaking for all designers, he adds, “We love to work. For anyone who loves design, you can’t let budgets get in the way.”

This article appears in the December 2008 issue of PRINT.