Peter Saville, the idolised Factory Records designer and now creative director of Manchester, branded it 'the original modern city'. It is a fitting description for a place that, once at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, is today playing a key role in shaping the digital revolution.
"Ever since the Industrial Revolution, Manchester has always been at the forefront of creativity and entrepreneurialism, so there is a rich pedigree that facilitates forward thinkers," says Farooq Ansari, business development director at Reading Room. "Innovation, entrepreneurialism and ambition have always been part of the region’s DNA."
For all Manchester’s historical, creative and cultural significance, it is not a sprawling metropolis in the mould of London, Paris or New York. But instead of its size being a weakness, Manchester’s compactness perhaps goes some way to explaining why the city acts as such an effective incubator of ideas. "The region provides unique opportunities for collaboration, networking and community," says Natalie Gross, chief executive at Amaze, which also has offices in London, Liverpool and Brussels. "The ecosystem is big enough to have critical mass but small enough to be cohesive and maximise the opportunities that it brings."
Collaboration is a term mentioned frequently by members of Manchester’s digital community, but there is also a competitive edge to the city’s agencies which is leading to "lots of growth and great quality all around," according to PushOn managing director, Simon Wharton. "There is a Manchester swagger amongst the agencies. Better ideas, better execution and harder work. Compete like dogs over a bone and then go for a pint. On the whole, I’ve seen a significant increase in the quality of agencies delivering digital across the piece but I would say that social media is still weak. That might be a client issue though. Facebook isn’t for everything."
Things have moved fast in Manchester. "Compared with even five years ago, Manchester’s digital landscape is unrecognisable," says CTI Digital’s Drupal director, Paul Johnson. "With the arrival of the BBC, ITV and development of MediaCity we’ve witnessed stiff competition flocking from around the UK, US and Europe. A strong business mind is essential to make things work; talent isn’t enough to compete in Manchester.
"The arrival of TechHub [a community workspace for tech entrepreneurs that has already proved popular in London] should be seen as a strong indication that Manchester’s start-up scene is more vibrant than ever.”
The influential Tony Foggett founded Code Computerlove, one of Manchester’s best known digital agencies, in 1999. He says he has seen the industry develop at rapid pace since then: "The continued speed of change in terms of new digital and mobile technologies and consumer behaviour tends to make it easier for start-ups to compete and enter the market – to cater for clients’ desire to meet consumer expectation and needs. Social and mobile are two great examples of this where there have been lots of new faces on the scene in recent times.
"But that said the more established agencies, with the agility and ability to adapt to this change, are continuing to grow their services and capabilities – and digital teams across the region are growing at a pace."
As chair of the Manchester Digital organisation, Foggett has a better perspective than most on how the city’s agencies are performing. He describes the mood as "buoyant" and says the digital sector as a whole is benefiting from a shift in clients’ budgets away from the more traditional forms of marketing: "Manchester has a great reputation for digital excellence and here is as good a place as any to be to grow an agency that’s able to meet clients’ needs.
"It just has a great vibe and we have some very talented staff. That’s not to say we wouldn’t ever create a second or third office elsewhere, but Manchester has worked for us for the past 14 years."
Reading Room’s Ansari believes Manchester is now emerging as the go-to centre for specific services within digital: "Manchester has long been a digital hub, and a major feature of any healthy digital scene is the constant flux where newer agencies and start-ups continue to rise and challenge longer-established ones. This has continued to gather pace, which can only be good for the city and for the industry.
"As the scene has matured, we’re now beginning to see certain areas of strength, such as UX and interface, which are being recognised as specific to the region."
While 'cautious optimism' has become the maxim of Manchester’s traditional marketing agencies, the city’s digital operators are much more effusive about their sector’s potential. "Manchester feels like it is poised to realise the benefits of major infrastructure investment with MediaCity, talent from local universities and the wide scale roll out of superfast internet connectivity," says CTI’s Johnson. "This is leading to optimism within agencies and with good reason."
"The scene is thriving," adds Daniel Nolan, managing director of theEword. "Manchester is full of potential. We work with clients from across the country but the opportunities in our own city are always forthcoming. You’ve got sectors like professional services which are always evolving digitally and every month there’ll be new clients to talk to."
So why choose Manchester for digital? Nolan’s cheeky response perhaps best sums up the Manchester swagger. "It’s the centre of the universe, so why not?"