Agencies are incredible hothouses of talent - which is why they must die

Luke Scheybeler: The designer and entrepreneur co-founded the sportswear companies Rapha and Tracksmith
Luke Scheybeler: The designer and entrepreneur co-founded the sportswear companies Rapha and Tracksmith

Apple, Burberry, Airbnb, Nike, Innocent, Acne, Vice, Rapha. These brands have design at their heart. They also have creative founders, multidisciplinary teams, deep specialisms and an ability to bring everything together into a coherent whole that people just 'get'.

And when people ‘get’ brands, they buy brands: as a result, these creatively oriented businesses outperform common-or-garden companies by 228%, according to the Design Management Institute’s Design Value Index (

The approach makes a measurable difference, and clearly ‘design’ and ‘business’ belong together. Yet, for the most part, the creative class lives in a world apart, remote inside the exposed brick walls of the agency.

They’re happy: they have everything they could want. The environment is informal. The pay’s great. The people are beautiful. There’s always a shiny new challenge. The quality of the execution – particularly in London – is second to none. And there’s free toast.

But these comfortable agency ‘safe spaces’ will never help designers produce work that fulfils them or creates any real change in the world.

The pulse of a business

I have benefitted hugely from the years I spent in brand, digital and ad agencies. They are unequalled environments for the development of creative skills, a talent network, and to experience a variety of work.

Clearly ‘design’ and ‘business’ belong together. Yet, for the most part, the creative class lives in a world apart, remote inside the exposed brick walls of the agency

But it was only after starting Rapha that I learned the direct effect that creative work has on businesses. In agencies, I was several steps removed from the problem. I didn’t ‘feel’ how the idea affected sales.

In a business it’s different. Once you’re inside – and particularly with a direct-to-consumer model – you can feel the pulse of the organisation.

You understand how it connects with its customers and how it succeeds or fails in the outside world. You see the uptick in sales in real time as you launch a campaign. You read the brutal feedback about the product you designed. And you feel the pain of missing a factory slot.

Get messy

Moving into physical product was a shock. The experience is visceral. Messy. Creativity is messy: it’s born from a clash of cultures, ideas, personalities and skill sets. But in the insulated agency monoculture, I never really experienced it.

In a sportswear business the key is to manage people from Italian fabric suppliers to Chinese trim manufacturers, as well as marketers, designers and technologists.

But think about the array of complex inputs that it took to create the iPhone: the hardware, software, design expertise and raw materials. Then the retail strategy, ecosystem of app developers, interface designers, content providers… orders of magnitude more complex than agency projects.

Only by harnessing this ephemeral web of resources, technology, money and creativity can a business innovate and achieve real change. You can’t do that locked away in an agency. You don’t get the experience or develop the skills.

Get out of the agency

So how can we get out of the agency – and the agency mindset – and free designers to use their creativity?

For bigger corporations, change will be harder. They can form partnerships with independent creative specialists to inject a new ethos into their organisations, but creative culture has to come from the top – these firms should be hiring designers at the VP and C-level.

Smaller businesses should aim to work with smaller specialist consultancies that mix business and design experience. And start-ups? Every one should have a founder with a design background, to get the customer experience right.

But real change has to come from designers themselves. They need to learn about the world beyond the agency, and to be able to work with people that don’t think like they do.

Start with a small step: skip this month’s design glossies, blogs and lectures, and subscribe to the Financial Times. Learn about the world. Learn what’s wrong with it – and apply design thinking to come up with something better.

None of this is easy or comfortable – but who becomes a designer to have an easy life? And the reward is the opportunity to make a difference.

Luke Scheybeler is a designer and entrepreneur. He co-founded the sportswear companies Rapha and Tracksmith, and runs the incubator Future Classic.

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