Shaun Westgate, creative director of Westgate Design, demystifies the process of producing a professional annual report that communicates clearly and effectively and conveys a favourable impression to stakeholders.
As a key means of delivering information about an organisation, the annual report is one of the most important and high-profile documents a company can produce. An effective annual report communicates clearly with the whole range of stakeholders – customers, employees, the investment community, peers in the marketplace, the media, legislators and others.
Add to this the fact that creating an annual report involves not only the synthesis of complex information from a number of sources but also the communication of the organisation's corporate vision and values, and the whole process can seem somewhat daunting.
The good news is that if the process is well organised from the beginning and the right people are on board, your company's annual report can be a resounding success and the process of delivering it a pain-free one.
Time invested in thinking through the process before production begins will pay dividends in terms of smoothing the process and ensuring a good result.
Begin by nominating a member of your team, at senior level, to take overall responsibility for the content of the report and its production. Then, determine your budget. Many factors can influence the cost of an annual report, including print quantity, photography and design. If, like so many organisations nowadays, you want to put your annual report on the internet, you also need to factor in this cost.
The next step is to decide what needs to be included in the report, above and beyond the basic legal requirements. Who needs to have an input to its content? The person responsible for the annual report should set up meetings with key management, department heads and so on, to discuss the messages they believe should be included. Common themes will emerge during these meetings, helping to crystallise thinking.
Insist that senior management are kept in the loop from start to finish during the annual report process. If everyone approves each stage, there is less likelihood of costly and time-consuming business revisions becoming necessary further down the line.
The person responsible for the report must consider which members of staff they need on their team. They will be key to the report's success. Typically, an annual report team consists of representatives from accounting, legal and marketing/corporate communications, as well as the finance director.
What are the crucial dates in the production schedule – for example, the shareholder meeting dates? These will dictate the mailing date and, working back, the annual report production schedule. These dates must be relayed to the company's design consultancy, so they can ensure their design, copy, proof and print dates work within the final delivery date.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT DESIGN PARTNER
The creation of a compelling and authoritative annual report calls for a significant input of management time and the commitment and enthusiasm of key members of the organisation. Involvement with suppliers outside the company can be as little as dealing with the printer or far more – coordinating art direction, photography, copy writers and so on. Budget may well be the key factor in determining level of involvement. If your company is using an external design partner, it can be responsible for most of the external contact.
Before any design work can begin, a realistic budget must be allocated. The budget should be sufficient to enable your design consultancy to do the job thoroughly – by providing several creative 'routes' for the annual report, for example – but it need not be lavish. It is perfectly possible to produce an effective annual report without breaking the bank.
Choosing the right design consultancy is a process that calls for skill and judgement, and it is desirable that the person you nominate to oversee the annual report has some experience in this. They should select a firm that specialises in producing annual reports. These are highly complex and constantly changing projects and, as such, are not suited to general-purpose design firms.
A good design consultancy will add value to your annual report by:
- Working with your team to assess your needs
- Understanding the context of your business, your strategy, your culture and your senior management's style
- Assessing any gaps in understanding by your key audiences
- Helping to formulate and/or refine communication themes to support your business and keep it fresh and exciting
- Here are some questions that should be asked before hiring a design consultant.
- Does the consultancy show a high degree of professionalism?
- Is the consultancy experienced in delivering effective annual reports?
- Does the consultancy have strong design capabilities that will enable it to get your message across? As a clue to this, look at its corporate identity.
- What other resources does the consultancy have? If it doesn't handle photography, copy writing and so on itself, does it know someone who can?
- Is the consultancy interested in your business objectives?
- Can the consultancy think both creatively and strategically?
- Can the consultancy provide relevant client references?
- Crucially, can the consultancy demonstrate that it can work to schedule and to budget?
Of course, personal chemistry and how well your team feel they can work with the consultancy's team will also play a part in the decision, but if the above basics are in place, this should not be a problem.
GETTING IT RIGHT
As well as answering investors' and analysts' questions, the annual report should provide information for customers and employees, showing what your company stands for, what it is doing and where it is going. Including photography, quotes from customers and employees, where appropriate, and case studies can help reinforce the effectiveness of an annual report with these audiences and make it 'live'.
The annual report must be a clear, focused piece of communication that connects with all its audiences and generates a favourable response, with design and messaging appropriate to your market. It must be consistent throughout in design and copy.
When information is coming from a number of different sources, it is easy for the report to lack cohesion. This can be avoided by using an experienced editor to take an overview of the entire report. The editor should ensure the copy is crisp and engaging, rather than a series of empty, pompous statements, and that it conforms to your house style. Ensuring consistency saves time, and therefore money, as it means changes will not have to be made by your design consultant later in the process.
Throughout the annual report, copy and images must work together to communicate with the reader. Graphic and text elements entice the reader to open the report in the first place. An intriguing cover statement, appropriate use of subheadings and bulleted paragraphs, with clear 'signposting' throughout, are all useful devices to retain readers' interest. A comprehensive, well laid-out contents list is a must.
So there are really no mysterious secrets to producing a high-impact and creative annual report. Just ensure you establish firm foundations, get the messaging right and use capable, committed external partners, and your company will have an annual report of which it can be proud, which will convey your messages effectively to all your stakeholders – and without breaking the bank.