Close-Up: Powell sketches design for future-facing D&AD

Ensuring D&AD stays relevant in the changing creative landscape is the challenge awaiting its new chairman.

D&AD, whose chairmanship Dick Powell is about to inherit, is a significantly more robust structure than the crumbling pile his predecessor, Anthony Simonds-Gooding, moved into 17 years ago.

True, it has been battered by some violent economic storms of late. But today's D&AD edifice bears little comparison to the enfeebled and mismanaged house of the early 90s that almost tumbled over the financial cliff.

Nevertheless, D&AD still has some serious challenges to which it must rise if it is to reach its half- century in two years' time with its status assured and its Pencils still the creative awards to die for.

How does D&AD remain relevant within a changing creative landscape in which clients are searching for multifaceted communications solutions? How does it tap into fresh revenue streams that internationalisation offers without losing touch with its British roots? And how does it successfully export its expertise in education - "our raison d'etre", Powell says - on to the global stage?

As Powell, a founding partner of Seymourpowell and one of Europe's best-known designers, and Tim O'Kennedy, the D&AD chief executive, draw up their strategy, there are some promising straws in the wind.

Despite having to respond to last year's 22 per cent drop in awards entries by making eight of its staff redundant, there's cautious optimism that the worst is over.

O'Kennedy believes the savage cuts in agency awards budgets have actually worked in the organisation's favour by forcing agencies to concentrate on the creative honours that really matter. "You never want to tempt fate but it's clear there's been a flight to quality," he says. "We're not yet back to where we were but we seem to be holding up better than many around us."

The hope is that a more stable cost base can be the launch pad for new initiatives that allow D&AD to remain relevant while spreading its influence more widely. "We've a solid foundation on which to build," O'Kennedy insists. "We can afford to be ambitious - and in unexpected ways."

Digital is the key to all this. The awards ceremony will be streamed live this year and there are plans to do the same for the President's Lecture. At the same time, digital holds out the prospect of greater accessibility to the D&AD archives as well as creative tutorials beamed live to students around the world via the internet.

Whether, in doing so, the organisation is in danger of losing the Britishness that's always defined it continues to provoke much debate.

"It's a lot like being stuck in a demilitarised zone between two warring parties," O'Kennedy jokes. "People abroad tell us they love D&AD but regard it as a UK entity. At home, we get told the opposite. Given the amount of flak we take from both directions, it seems we're getting the balance about right."

For Powell, the chairman role culminates a lifelong love affair with D&AD, which includes a five-year stint on its executive committee and a term as president.

"When I was asked to do the job, I didn't need any persuading," he says. "I believe in what D&AD stands for and I've never lost my passion for it."

Not that D&AD, for so long cursed by shambolic organisational and money problems, and what Powell calls "the outside forces who tempted it to the dark side" (he won't elaborate), hasn't severely tested even its most ardent lovers.

Indeed, it wasn't until the arrival of Simonds-Gooding that D&AD began setting out its long-term vision and hiring the professionals who could help realise it. It's a measure of his success that he was awarded a CBE last year for services to the creative industries.

"Anthony's legacy is huge," Powell acknowledges. "Not only did he arrive at D&AD fabulously networked but he brought with him tremendous wisdom and the ability to cut through a bunch of excitable creatives to get to the truth."

Now it's up to Powell, who will probably devote a day a week to the chairmanship, to bring his own experience to bear in the advice and guidance he offers to O'Kennedy and his D&AD team.

Powell's view is that despite its vicissitudes, D&AD's creative integrity has never been compromised and remains its most important asset. He even thinks there's a case to be made for letting interested people see the huge and diverse range of work that fills the cavernous judging area at London's Olympia in the run-up to the annual awards: "The quality that you see there is truly inspirational."

He draws a sharp contrast with other awards. Pencils aren't handed out for the sake of it. In fact, D&AD juries have found themselves criticised for being absurdly tough. As a result, a D&AD Pencil trumps a Cannes Lion, Powell believes. And he claims his own experience as an awards judge under pressure to ensure big brands got a good share of the prizes couldn't happen in a D&AD jury room.

But what about the perpetual claims that D&AD juries are political hotbeds where old mates can get honoured and old scores settled? O'Kennedy claims it's a figment of the press's imagination and that jury foremen will always spot when an entry is being massively over-hyped.

Of more pressing concern is how D&AD can extend its mission to educate. Apart from a small operating profit, any other money the organisation makes is ploughed into its education programmes.

The 25 per cent growth in student award entries underlines the pent-up demand, and O'Kennedy is eager to usher in a more systematic approach to international expansion and end ad hoc arrangements that have seen D&AD professional development initiatives spring up in South-East Asia and the Middle East.

There's also a desire to get involved with government organisations - including those in the UK - dedicated to stimulating their national creative industries. "We have a voice that should be heard," Powell declares. "We've not been good at using it in the past."

However, he cautions against D&AD allowing itself to raise false expectations among thousands of wannabe art directors and designers turned out by sub-standard college courses that only exist because they attract government funding chasing a limited number of jobs. D&AD's mission must be to identify the best of the emerging talent and give it a helping hand, he says.

Meanwhile, there are other issues for Powell and O'Kennedy to get their heads round. Is there a case for extending D&AD membership while reducing membership fees? Should incoming presidents be discouraged from setting personal agendas and put an emphasis on ongoing D&AD strategies instead?

Powell's job may have barely begun, but he's already got a clear idea of the legacy he'd like to bequeath: "I'd like to leave D&AD as a secure and thriving organisation delivering on the needs of its members. That would really make me a happy bunny."

- Feature, page 28.

THE POWELL LOWDOWN

The businessman Powell co-founded the design agency Seymourpowell in 1984 with his fellow Royal College of Arts graduate Richard Seymour. The company has since gone on to work with clients including Unilever, LG and Philips, and was eventually sold to the marketing services conglomerate Loewy Group in 2004 for an undisclosed sum.

The TV presenter Powell and Seymour became TV broadcasters when they were signed up by Channel 4 to present Better By Design, a six-part series that saw the pair redesign malfunctioning everyday objects.

The author Powell is also behind a number of the biggest-selling design books, including Presentation Techniques, which explores the importance of presenting design ideas with clarity and accuracy.

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