Beyond the vernacular - the role of creativity in the Scottish marketing industry's DNA

Lewis Blackwell continues his journey through the Scottish marketing sector, turning the spotlight on creativity and the part it plays in the industry’s DNA.

Work: Creations for Irn-Bru and Karuizawa 1960 whisky

There’s something rather personal you want to ask of Scottish agencies. The question: ‘Is your work… Scottish?’ In a land that wraps itself in tartan and the saltire given half a chance, it would be easy to assume that the design and advertising world has some kind of national DNA woven through it every bit as persistently as the bright threads lurking irrevocably in a fine Harris tweed.

But the answer to the question from almost any agency principal worth their salt, if not saltire, is a resounding ‘No!’ And then nearly always comes from the agency principal a mantra about it being all about just doing good work.

If any influences or references are squeezed from their lips it will be of some particular star company elsewhere – a long way elsewhere, not in Scotland, probably not in the UK, but altogether more exotic and safely non-competitive. Take Iain Valentine, creative director of the buoyant Whitespace, an agency with a strong digital bent out of Edinburgh.

“I’m passionate about us being a Scottish agency,” he says. “90 per cent of our business is in Scotland. We could go with our clients elsewhere, but we’re not focusing on expansion for its own sake. There’s great creative talent here and there is a lot still to go after.”

But asked to speak of what he admires, where the influences might come from, Valentine speaks of Scandinavian and US companies, and presents a sense of being in a global club with many languages and supreme standards to follow. And this is not hypocrisy. This is how it should be, surely? Why would any communications company want to constrain itself to a particular frame of reference when it needs to reach widely, deeply, and differently?

Valentine and Whitespace achieve what they do because they don’t think that coming from Scotland, communicating with Scots (and others) for their Scottish clients, is anything other than an invitation to bring the latest thinking and skill that they can bring to bear, no boundaries. All the best Scottish creative businesses do.

They are Scottish only in that it is where they are from – not necessarily where they or the brands they handle are going. A look at the Scottish Creative Awards bears out that there is little that is truly Scottish about the best of Scottish creative work. It is just great work, once you peel off the surface veneer of playing with the local culture.

And there is plenty of veneer to peel off the Grand Prix winner of the last awards. Glasgow-based Frame took the top honour with its National Library of Scotland Cinema campaign. It plays humorously with a thick overlay of the vernacular… but this is but a surface wrapper of national identity.

What makes the campaign great is the use of techniques that are not uniquely Scottish, but are good strategically, creatively, and in craft terms. They just happen to appropriate the vernacular to give a witty twist on some filmic references. For Angus Walker, a founder at Frame, winning the Grand Prix has a sting in the tail.

“It’s great that it helps encourage new clients to come to you, but they’ll often come asking for the one thing you absolutely won’t give them… more of the same that won the award!”

The agency’s way of working counts against putting out any one style, let alone a national one.

“We work in a different way to many in that we assemble a team around a brief, rather than give a brief to a team,” says Walker. “We start with a wide group of thinking and skills and then refine as the direction emerges. We don’t want to predetermine the outcome by being too narrow in the initial approach.

“Sometimes the output could just be a TV commercial but other times it can be very different. We’ve just worked into product development for one client and have helped name, position, give the overall identity and packaging to a product that will sit on shelves.”

Walker makes clear that his agency rejects any easy placement, any cliché of culture.

“We’re perhaps known for being from Glasgow, and somehow that is in conflict with the Edinburgh agencies. But we are not interested in that – we’re looking for clients across the UK.

“You have to create work that people want to see, that pushes the boat out a bit, and every day you have to make that effort to create a ripple. You aren’t looking for a Scottish idea – you have to look everywhere.”

He takes a jab at the London and south-east scene by suggesting that Scottish agencies might be resistant to “showing the worst excesses of pretentiousness… we won’t lose sight of the ordinary consumer who should be at the heart of what is created.”

Over at ‘communications agency’ Story, back in Edinburgh, founders Sue and Dave Mullen put no cultural frame to the work but are more interested in how to develop a business capable of being generalist and specialist enough to match the changing media landscape.

“We are increasingly set up to break from the traditional model, from the expected talents,” says Sue. Like Frame, the agency has a range that goes from familiar advertising through to new product development.

“We try to work at a strategic level first and foremost and then we can really get to finding the right solution,” she adds. They also see the creative competition as being to take on and beat the best of London – whether winning clients from far afield, or having the strategic and creative strength to expand with Scottish clients.

It’s impossible to sum up the Scottish creative scene. It is as diverse as the practitioners can make it – and perhaps the key issue is that the best agencies are waking up to the fact that they can’t depend on Scottish clients, or the Scottish market at least, to support all the opportunities they need.

But to sum up the creative culture, two projects stand out as neat bookends. One project is a luxuriously packaged bottle of very rare malt whisky – a craft masterpiece of the distillery and of the graphic designer.

The other is a can of Irn- Bru with the word Fanny on it. Now you probably know that the latter refers to a popular and controversial twist in the campaign from The Leith Agency for the popular soda supposedly brewed from girders.

They emulated the Coca-Cola promotion of naming cans by sticking a once popular Scottish name, not to mention double entendre, on the can. These are now collector’s items, while the related commercial has eight million views and counting online. It’s an example of the leading, lasting Scottish creative agency of the past 20 years still doing what it does best – a big accessible idea, a lightness of touch, with integrated media thinking, all for an assertively Scottish brand.

Now what about that whisky? You won’t be seeing it on the shelves, as all 41 bottles of Karuizawa 1960, Cask No. 5627, were quickly sold at auction using the visual concepts by Edinburgh designers Contagious. And, of course, it was made in Japan by people who really know their whisky… but nice that they came looking for some Scottish finesse in the packaging design.

What these two projects suggest is that, at its best, the Scottish creative industry can defend its own turf while also reaching out to hunt for its place in the world.

This feature was first published in The Drum's 8 November issue.

The Drum's Scotland regional feature is sponsored by Glasgow City Marketing Bureau.

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