Once upon a time, Newcastle and its surrounding area was home to just a smattering of agency giants. In the words of one boss, the region was ‘a closed shop’. Oh, how things have changed.
And, when it comes to clients, the north east has had a good deal of success in recent years, attracting a host of household names to its agencies, some that might even surprise many rivals from other regions of the UK.
The Drum spoke to some of the north east’s agencies to see what has changed.
Iain Gibbons spent seven years in Leeds, where he was MD of McCann Erickson’s operation there - since acquired by Golley Slater - before returning to his native north east to set up Mobious in Newcastle. He left the city in the first place, he says, because of a lack of opportunity. “The agency scene in the north east in ‘93 was crap. It was a closed shop. There were two or three big players and that was it, and if you didn’t know someone who knew someone you didn’t get in there. Leeds was a completely different scene, a hundred times the size of Newcastle back then; that’s not the case now. They’re probably on a par today.”
Gibbons says the region has changed beyond all recognition from when he first felt the need to spread his wings. “When we kicked off there were a number of other start-ups which launched at the same time. There’s a lot of newer agencies coming to the fore, younger people with their own ideas, bringing national work to the region.”
It’s a much more diverse marketplace now, according to Gibbons, and Phil Coverdale, MD of Cravens, agrees that there has been an emergence of new, exciting agencies. But he adds that the vast majority are small operations, still in their formative stages. “In reality there remains quite a tight group of marketing businesses that can compete credibly on a national scale,” says Coverdale. “There are, however, an ever-growing number of ‘micro’ businesses, usually with quite specific expertise in the digital or animation sectors, which do tremendous work and I’m sure will become very successful, very quickly.”
While Coverdale suggests we could see tremendous growth in the region’s digital industry – a sentiment echoed by many of the agency heads The Drum spoke to – one specialism that has definitely grown is design, according to Darren Richardson.
He says, “When I returned to the region to set up Gardiner Richardson with Lucy Gardiner 11 years ago, I don’t think many organisations and businesses saw a great deal of value in design. They saw it as part of the process rather than something critical to success. They didn’t see the impact good design can have internally to motivate staff or on the bottom line.
“Over the last decade there has been a growing number of businesses and organisations in the north east which recognise the value of good design. This change in attitude has provided agencies with the opportunity to be more innovative as well as effective with design.”
The agency scene has changed drastically and so too has the region’s client landscape. “Look back at some of the key advertisers in the north east which have disappeared,” starts Andrew Marwick, who has spent 25 years at Robson Brown and is now the agency’s MD, before rattling off a list that includes Northern Electric, British Gas, Black’s Leisure, S&N brewery and a host of PLCs. “They were all big clients of the old era. They’re gone now, which has been a significant change in the landscape of clients that are available to agencies.”
As a result, Robson Brown, among others, has had to look further afield for business. Blue River MD, Simon Douglas, says his agency has deliberately cast its net wide. “The north east probably has a higher ratio of agencies to clients than other regions and this causes increased competition. Many tend not to take a wider view of the market, focusing on regional work. But there is greater opportunity if we seek work further afield.”
Ben Quigley, managing director of Different, agrees that the north east scene has become far more competitive, with “far more companies confident and able to compete for business”. But with standards higher than ever, and the area’s lack of overheads perhaps tempting more clients to look north for greater value, he warns that north east creative firms must not sell themselves short. “Pitching is very competitive,” he says, “the industry in our region needs to make sure it doesn’t slit its own throat in the current climate with regard to costs.”
So we’re told that the region is competitive for agencies - certainly more than it was a decade ago - and that this gives clients more options; but just how good are the north east agencies that clients have to choose from?
“The quality of creative work has improved in recent years largely due to a greater level of understanding by clients but also opportunities to really raise the bar as far as creativity is concerned,” says Diane Gates, creative director of bgroup. “We’ve seen examples recently of marketing, PR and digital work which would probably not have been possible five or ten years ago.”
Sarah Hall, head of Golley Slater North East, agrees that the region does have “some very creative agencies” but she says there are “a couple that are known more for just being a safe pair of hands.” She adds, “Although the latter have previously won significant pieces of public sector work, they are also the ones to have suffered perhaps a little more with the economic downturn.”
The region is filled with people doing a “heroic” job in attracting and hanging on to national business, according to Stark Hartley Atkinson director Helen Stark. “We have to fight constantly to protect and grow our business with The Electrolux Group but we are succeeding, the guys at Drummond Central are doing a great job with bet365 and Robson Brown has kept Flymo out of the clutches of London for many years now. It can be done.”
Ultimately, Steve Drummond, creative director of Drummond Central, feels the north east is as strong as anywhere. “The region certainly holds its own when it comes to creativity,” he says. “How many great Liverpudlian ad agencies have you heard of?”