To get a feel for the standing of Manchester’s industry today it makes sense to speak to BJL, one of the city’s most recognisable agencies and recent winner of the Grand Prix at the Roses Creative Awards for its work with Manchester Art Gallery. Managing director Nicky Unsworth tells us that much – and at the same time not that much – has changed since the Quay Street agency was formed in 1987: “Clients now have much more choice in the north west of England, which everyone can only benefit from.
Secondly, almost every agency wanted to make it clear that Manchester is their home, not the limit of their ambitions.
Sue Little, chief executive of McCann Manchester, one of the regional offshoots of the global McCann Erickson empire, put it most bluntly: “From our point of view, if your people are the best and the work is the best, technology being what it is, geography should not be a consideration for a client. After all, they are selecting a marketing partner, not a holiday destination.”
And of course, that’s absolutely right. But anyone who has witnessed the rivalry between McCann Manchester and McCann Birmingham at an industry awards night would struggle to accept that geography is meaningless. Agencies aren’t defined by where the are, but they all have a sense of place.
For Love Creative – an independent agency that has expanded into Shanghai and more recently London – Manchester has been its heartbeat for more than a decade. “Manchester has independence in its bones,” says partner Dave Palmer, who as a native of the north east, has no in-built loyalty to Manchester. “That’s what makes it unique in the UK; it has fought to keep some semblance of self against the almost overwhelming gravitational pull of Planet London. If you think of any other European countries with a similar GDP there are none that heap their eggs in one giant basket quite as much as the UK. While other cities moan about this, Manchester doesn’t. For me, it has a self-confidence and Gallagheresque swagger that keeps it believing. I like that. Clients like that too.”
Clients, such as Diageo, do indeed like it. Love’s work for the drinks giant’s Johnnie Walker brand was frequently referenced by its peers as one of their favourite pieces of local work. But interestingly, Palmer says local clients have not bought in to the agency’s charms. “We have no local clients. That’s kind of sad isn’t it? It’s not that we haven’t tried. We just can’t seem to connect with businesses on our doorstep. Our pitch success ratio on local business is laughably low – maybe it’s all the free pitching that goes on? Who knows.”
It is not a phenomenon unique to Love. “Increasingly, and frustratingly, we’re finding that more business is moving to London agencies,” says Jennie McBeath, business development director at CheethamBell JWT.
“Times are tough, with more competition for every pitch than ever before, so we feel that the competitive advantage of choosing a Manchester agency with lower overheads is being eroded by London agencies slashing their fees. Despite this, we believe that Manchester’s can-do attitude and fighting spirit will continue to attract business to the region.”
That sentiment is shared by Rob Morrice, MD of Stein IAS, an agency with offices in Bollington, on Manchester’s outskirts, and New York. “There’s a widespread belief that London is the place to be which emanates from a misplaced superiority complex from those who work there,” Morrice says. “Manchester can more than hold its own against the capital, and provides a clear alternative centre of excellence.”
If there truly is an indefatigable spirit about Manchester, as many surveyed for this feature suggest there is, it was perhaps best exemplified by the city’s response to being bombed by the IRA in 1996, when Manchester so swiftly and admirably rebuilt itself, laying the foundations for its standing today as arguably Britain’s second city. As Fergus McCallum, chief executive of the Manchester arm of advertising giant TBWA, notes: “There’s a great quote from the early 20th century which starts: ‘For Manchester is the place where people do things... Don’t talk about what you’re going to do, do it. That is the Manchester habit...’ We have it painted 8ft high on the walls of our office because it sums up the spirit of the people here. So coming from a different place, emotionally and geographically, translates into a more grounded perspective for clients and means we can bring a fresh and real point of view to bear on everything we do.”
Similarly, McCann Manchester’s Little says: “I do think there is an entrepreneurial and ‘can do’ spirit in Manchester, which can ebb and flow somewhat, but it is one that you don’t really find anywhere else.”
Greater Manchester has a population of just 2.68 million, but there is a sense of self-belief about the place which allows it to punch above its weight on the international stage. “There’s a real confidence around this part of the world, and I think that comes across in the creative culture,” says The If Agency MD Christian James.
“As a counterpoint, any pretentious or pompous behaviour is a no go; you’re really not allowed to take yourself too seriously. I think clients get the best of both worlds up here: the creative confidence of a London agency with the humility and realism of a northern grounding.”
As many agency heads were quick to tell us, in today’s connected world geography doesn’t really matter. So why stay in Manchester then? “You can work anywhere in the world for anyone, so long as you have broadband,” Dave Palmer says. “That means that you can live anywhere you like, so why not Manchester? OK, so it rains a fair bit, but it’s got a decent airport, a decent creative scene in and around the Northern Quarter, good ale, easy access to the Peak District, Lake District and Snowdonia, and you can watch either one of the two best football teams in the country on your doorstep.
"So why not Manchester? We like it here.”
This article was first published in The Drum's Manchester supplement on 7 June.