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Designing a high-end business model to survive crisis

091014_09
Design Group art director Sok Kong works on his latest design Tuesday.

Although many firms have cut design outsourcing, Design Group has carved out a niche market.

We are not getting small business, we are getting big business.... We are the most expensive in town.

OVER more than a decade in Cambodia, Design Group (DG) has established itself as a leading graphic design company, creating appealing layouts and printed products for some of the country’s premier clients.

Founded in 1996 by Richard McDonough, a British national, the Phnom Penh-based mid-sized agency has developed an impressive list of customers, ranging from Metro Cafe to Foster’s beer, the FCC, the World Bank and the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

DG art director Sok Kong said the key to the company’s success was that it focused on the needs of the end user, not just the perceived needs of DG’s clients.

He said the first step in any design job was to meet the clients to discover what they were trying to say, and, most importantly, who they were trying to say it to.

As an example, he talked about the challenges of printing T-shirts for ABC Radio Australia during the Water Festival. The firm asked for medium-sized T-shirts for their advertisements, but initially failed to realise that an Australian medium-sized shirt and a Cambodian one were considerably different in size.

“For some Cambodians, the T-shirt reaches below their bottoms, and you can’t see the advertising on the bottom of the T-shirt,” Sok Kong said.

He added that the global financial crisis has resulted in around a 10 percent reduction in business over the last year, but that the smaller clients appeared to have taken the hardest hit.

“We are not getting small business, we are getting big business,” he said. “[The small businesses] only think of cost. We are the most expensive in town. Big companies are looking for a strong company they can believe in.”

Business from NGOs has also remained fairly constant despite the financial crisis, he added.

The professionalism and creativity of DG’s staff enables them to charge top dollar without losing key clients, Sok Kong said. “We compete with newer local design agencies of the same size as us. They are cheaper advertising agencies, but customers come back because they get what they want from here.”

Clients tend to provide the raw materials for the print jobs, such as pictures, logos and text, from which DG creates three unique drafts of the product for the client to choose from, he added.

The design agency is staffed by two expats, who tend to focus on work for foreign clients, and eight Cambodians, who work on projects for both Cambodian and foreign organisations.

“Some clients are owned by foreigners, and the design has to be done for foreigner’s specifications,” he said. “If it’s a Cambodian company, we do it for what Cambodians like.”

The salary for DG’s Cambodian staff ranges from US$300 to $700 per month. They were mostly drawn from technology graduates of the Vocational Training Centre of Battambang, many of them starting their careers at DG as interns.

Generally designing products in English and Khmer, DG has also worked with creating merchandise for firms in Vietnamese, French, Laotian, Thai, and Chinese.

“The most difficult is Chinese,” Sok Kong said. “If you change one little part then the whole meaning is changed.”

Like other Cambodian businesses, DG remains content to weather the financial storm for the next year or two. Sok Kong said he would like to see the business grow to hire more foreign-trained designers and expand to different media, specifically to develop television commercials. But he says these goals are probably several years away.

For now, Sok Kong says he is content to watch as DG designs and creates graphic products for some of Cambodia’s premier companies and organisations.

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