Most Creative Design Agency: Design Bridge and Partners

Design Bridge and Partners’ Emma Follett and Stuart Radford talk mergers, team building and creating a supportive design industry

The beginning of 2023 saw the launch of the WPP merger of Superunion and Design Bridge to create Design Bridge and Partners. The ethos behind this new agency is to solve problems and drive positive change. While they’ve been working towards this, the agency has had to figure out life as a new challenger in the industry while also re-establishing itself internally.

One of the biggest hurdles of a merger is combining the approaches of two agencies into one while asking people who have never worked together before to collaborate. “The natural byproduct of that is you’re starting to embed and create a new culture within the studios,” reflects Emma Follett, CCO at Design Bridge and Partners.

“We’re a company of people, we work with people, and we design things for people. They’re at the heart of everything, so culture is really everything in our company. It’s challenging, because you’re asking people to leave something behind, but we don’t want them to lose what they loved about where they were before.”

Top: Land of Warriors – Starry Forest experience, created for Tencent Video. Above: Packaging design for Harvey Nichols. All images: Design Bridge and Partners

Follett also highlights how the merger has been an opportunity to ask the big questions when it comes to creating something new. “It’s a good time to be vocal – when else do you get the chance to talk about what the agency believes in? What’s the future of the agency? What am I a part of now? You get to reignite that passion and excitement about what you create together.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Design Bridge and Partners ECD Stuart Radford, who believes “reasserting that creative ambition” has morphed into a positive. One step that’s helped towards this has been uniting their London teams under one roof. “For us, moving into the new London studio has been such a big thing,” he says. “We’ve only been here for about four months but it has made such a difference – and culturally you can start to really feel the benefit from us being in one space.”

How we work as an agency is still quite small in scale. We approach things in small, tight-knit teams, even though our global reach is much bigger now

Another big change within the agency has been its scale. Design Bridge and Partners now has 900 people across 18 studios around the world. Its worldwide impact has increased, and the pair have enjoyed seeing that play out. “It’s fantastic for clients, not only because we’ve got the stretch to be able to service their brands across the globe, but also we’ve got amazing connections to get local insight for our clients as well,” says Follett. “But how we work as an agency is still in a way quite small in scale. We approach things in small, tight-knit teams, even though our global reach is much bigger now.”

With big, long-term clients such as Diageo, Heineken and Unilever already in place, the past year has also seen Design Bridge and Partners land major new clients including Real Madrid, Twitch and the Whitney Museum of American Art. While this has garnered attention, where the agency sees real value is in entering awards, and they’ve collectively become one of the “most recognised design agencies in the world”.

In this year’s Annual Awards alone, the agency has won four Honourable Mentions for its rebrand for the London Symphony Orchestra, its brand identity for Chinese streaming website Tencent Video, its campaign for Aston Martin, and its immersive digital experience for Taikoo Li, a hospitality, entertainment and retail destination in Chengdu, China.

“We want to produce work that excels, that strives to lead our industry. And so therefore, we want to be recognised by the best awards,” Radford notes. “Ultimately, it provides proof and validation that we’re delivering on our ambition…. To some degree, we’ve also got a lot to prove. We’re coming from two agencies that have good track records and reputations, and now is the time to prove what we can do.”

“The projects that have been recognised are from across the world,” adds Follett. “We’ve got work from London and from our Shanghai studio, and the scale of the brands featured is really important, with the London Symphony Orchestra an arts and culture organisation and Tencent a video-streaming platform in China. It really demonstrates the breadth of what we can do.”

We are striving to create work that has that emotional connection with the audience. Great work makes you feel something

But this breadth only feels useful to Follett and Radford if it can be genuinely effective. “We’re very keen to ensure the work we do helps brands move people,” says Radford. “We are striving to create work that has that emotional connection with the audience. Great work makes you feel something.”

To create effective work, the boundaries of what was done previously need to be pushed, and right now Radford feels like it’s an exciting time to be in the design industry. “The importance of brand has been shifting for a number of years,” he says. “Combined with the lines continuing to blur between design, brand and advertising, it brings greater opportunities for us brand designers in terms of the type of work we can now do.”

Despite this, there has been a tendency for work in the industry to be more risk-averse due to the state of the world right now, and Follett acknowledges that we’re perhaps living in a slightly more “cautious and considered design world”. “There are [fewer] risks being taken, or things need to be more ‘evidence-proven’ in order to get people to feel safe enough to take that leap,” she says. “However, we’re seeing some amazing creative executions and talent coming through.”

Packaging design for Pastiglie Leone

This uneasiness around risk might also be attributed to social media’s incredible reach and the fact that it makes criticising creative work so much easier, and it’s here where Radford feels the industry can step it up. “It feels like there’s an opportunity for us as a community to be a little bit kinder and a little bit more supportive. What I mean by that is, sometimes we can be quick to scrutinise, and sometimes that means being negative about work that an agency is putting out,” he explains.

“I’m not advocating that we shouldn’t scrutinise and be critical of work, but I do think there’s a time and a place for it. I worry when we see these almost public takedowns of work. I’m not convinced it does our industry a lot of good when we start putting down other creatives.”

We’ve never felt like we were in the same company as we were the year before. I think Design Bridge and Partners will constantly look to the future and look to evolve

Looking more internally, Radford and Follett note how they’ve both come from long-established legacy agencies but in that time they have never stood still – and they want to continue that momentum. “We’ve never felt like we were in the same company as we were the year before. I think Design Bridge and Partners will constantly look to the future and look to evolve,” says Follett.

In order to do this, she believes it’s up to them to instil a culture that encourages growth and confidence, and to create an agency that reflects the world we live in. “That will be through how we work with the people we have internally to do that, but also who we bring in to help grow the company,” she reflects. “We feel very proud of the work we create, and we want people to feel as excited and proud of the work as we are, and the team effort it took to create that.”