What is the future for the Public Relations Agency industry? The debate started across on Forbes, continued on FIR and we add our own suggestions from an interview taken for the source material for our book, “The Creative Agency of the Future“, being written now.

What is the future for the ‘Innovation’ industry? We asked Alexander Grünsteidl, Director and Interaction Designer at Method

Questions: What are you doing differently in the past 2 years in….

Human resources

When I joined there were only 5 staff in London and within a year we grew to 35 people plus freelancers. The challenge was managed growth and finding the right people with the qualifications and portfolio and fit within the team. There are a lot of egos in the design and creative industries and there are agencies based around a recognizable figurehead but more are driven by the team who delivers.

I hired 3 interaction designers and reviewed 100 candidates and 40-50 interviews. We have a specialist HR team in SF but it’s enormous and time consuming. Finding people who can fit into our team is essential to enable us to manage the quality of our output.

At the BA level there are good schools but it’s hard to take someone straight from school and put them into a project. You can’t do that anymore.

Client management

We are looking at agile methodologies for product development and this affects client relationships. In the past the projects were run in a waterfall method (research > report > interpretation >design ideas > visualisation >engineers prototype > test) These go over multiple months and have no check points part-way through to check direction and intra-team communications. Now the lean design / lean UX creates an environment with very short development cycles around user stories. These are definitions based on the insights we have from people understanding the market environment. We use sprint cycles typically 2 weeks – you plan and develop and present back within 2 weeks to the client.

This has completely changed the way we phase projects. We used to spend 4-6 weeks on each stage. These cycles are now more rapid – the exploration and development stage is a prototype-delivered phase and your ideas are immediately built and put in front of the users/stakeholders for feedback. We don’t visualise outcomes at the start – you don’t know what they will be until you find your ultimate targets.

We increasingly find as digital agencies are closer to implementation they work closely with us in-house or with the client day to day. Agile development for teams although it looks inefficient up front the outputs are more efficient and quality control is better. The documentation is now cut down and focus is more on real deliverables. We are doing a huge e-commerce site now we have a lead interaction designer, a lead visual designer, an interaction design director. Each has 2 juniors working for them plus a project manager. They can do a project in 8-9 phase cycles which works out as a 16 week project which in the past would.

We have ‘grooming sessions’ where the output of the previous two weeks is presented to the implementation team – they will then build the prototype and tested. The outcome is fed to development team. The continuous amendments and fine tuning continues until the client is satisfied.

The old insight / ideation / design three phases are now cut down to a working product (minimum viable product) after 8 weeks. Then after that you grow the product on top of the MVP.

I am now collaborating with my clients through the way the feedback loops work you end up working much more closely with them and a lot of time is spent on communication. Documentation reduces but communication increases and quality of output improves.

You can agree a certain amount of time and guarantee a result after 8 weeks, although sometimes not everything. This gives an agreed format and costing before deciding which additional features to add in subsequent sprint cycles. In the first phase I try to establish how fast I’m going and half way through we establish the velocity check point and decide whether we can achieve everything – this is discussed with the client.

Campaign organisation (job bags / project management)

Over the past year the job progress tracking has become a BaseCamp software job. I also work with a company who uses MyProject which is geared towards sprint methodologies.

Everyone is searching for answers and there are clusters of products we use including Google Docs and wiki-like tools. For us there is nothing fixed and we are depending on the clients’ requirements.

There were bigger security and confidentiality issues in the past – you don’t hear that discussion as much anymore because it is assumed these are in place. Our bigger clients are very strict and have stringent requirements like Google or Microsoft. But most expect this to be covered as part of the contract.

Operations management

We have a client services team who runs this. The role is becoming more important as you move from less documentation to communication you need someone on the team who looks after client communications very actively. Now we sit at the crossroads of how marketing agencies and industrial engineering design agencies are run.

Real estate

Everybody works off laptops nowadays. We don’t do heavy rendering any more so we don’t need very grunty computers. Even video can be done on a Mac Air. Everyone has a fixed workplace but we have created project spaces. You still print out a lot and make physical material – you immerse yourself in the project – we decorate the walls. One of the most prized items to have is a plotter to turn what we have on our screens into reality. The opposite of the paperless office

Paper is best – we take it to meetings with clients. We also have a 3-D printer.

We do this also at the client’s offices – we used to have a clean-desk philosophy so that you had nothing you owned on your desk. As a result projects became invisible and we pushed to make them visible so project assets were seen.

IT infrastructure

Some of the tools have become so accessible recently that it’s not as difficult as in the past. We have our requirements sorted by external suppliers who come in 1-2 days a week. They support us in SF, NY and London but we don’t need full time IT staff. The guy who runs it understands the creative industry well – he’s a trained architect from the AA in London but works out of NYC.

Internal communications

We have an official policy that you have to switch on your IM – Jabber. Different front ends are uses – we use an aggregator ADDIUM that takes any IM feed. We run completely on Google – our email, documents, addresses, intranet is on Google. It’s not the best solution but it’s the cheapest and quickest to implement. For shared projects based between SF, San Diego, Boulder, London and Hyderabad – we ran it off BaseCamp and Google spreadsheets. You can almost collaborate simultaneously working on the same spreadsheet.

Our biggest discussion now is that Skype is great and without it our company wouldn’t exist but it is no longer the best. GoToMeeting and Join.Me are being considered.

Business development

We sell ourselves as a team – although clients may come for a specific individual’s knowledge we always represent ourselves as a team. This is happening more for us – we have ‘principals’ but the teams are what the client comes for.

We used to have a standard portfolio piece of key projects which were all in one industry and we are now more differentiated – retail, healthcare, finance, appliance interfaces so now we spend a lot of time customising it for pitches.

This leads to a strange situation clients ask for a competitive pitch to address their written brief. Without being paid a penny we have to give a lot of work. If you win you execute the idea and if you lose it costs a significant amount. In the past we’d walk in and state our credentials / experience/team and get the job. Clients want to know the detail of our process – it’s a much deeper process. Projects that would have been sold as a 3 month job in the past is now delivered in a 2 week pitch!

Knowledge management

We are reasonably bad at this – we are working with a central person in NY who tracks all current projects. We have synchronised servers across all the studios with final presentations of all client work. Monthly a 10 minute presentation is made to all key stakeholders in the company across all the studios to showcase work. That is essential to facilitate our culture. We don’t have an explicit value proposition but we have a set of things that make our work recognisable – the strong culture is driven by the way people are selected. Until recently the CEO has been involved in every hire but now we are 100 people it’s changing to being the Principals having a stronger involvement.

Where do you go for information about how to improve the way you run your business?

There is a lot of internal debate – some books are used like Alex Krum’s book. I am sure agile will fall out of favour in 4-5 years and another idea will come through.

Eddie Obeng, “all change” book – run out of Oxfordshire. He trained the whole company at Ideo.

I am thinking about the future of agencies and their role in the future. Sometimes our work is based around patterns so solution space evolves rapidly. Ideas travel so fast these days – in the past you could milk one idea for a 2-4 years and now sometimes by the end of a project someone else could already be working on it! We often design templates and so see the role of the designer change and there is more and more content management and editorial being required. And so curation will become more important than the design and method of presentation.