Creative Manchester, one year on

It’s almost one year to the day since we brought the creative community of Manchester together for our first Creative Manchester event at UKFast.

So when we met again on Monday 14th September, this time at the swanky new studio space at The Home, the challenge we set was ‘what’s changed?’ Was it still all talk or was Manchester now walking the walk?

A new entrant to our programme this year was Jessica Bowles, Head of Policy Partnerships and Research at Manchester City Council. She set just the right tone for the evening. “We’re at a pivotal point in the city’s history,” she said.

After a period of post-industrial decline, Manchester is now thriving. The industrial base has changed in favour of the new economy. The population has grown to 720,000, with a new bulge in the 25-34 and under 5 age groups. There are now 30,000 people living in the centre of the city, and there are 20,000 students.

Not surprisingly perhaps, GVA growth is at 4.6%, outstripping even that of London. Manchester is now the third most popular tourist destination in the UK, and the second biggest creative cluster, not just in the UK, but also in Europe. Add to all of this the opportunity to unite with other northern cities, a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ proposition that competes with emerging megacities globally, and it looks like Manchester has a lot to smile about.

But what about the creative sector in Manchester? Has it moved on? Is it reaching its potential? How is it taking forward the wider Creative Industries strategy around access to finance, education and talent, infrastructure, intellectual property and international opportunities to benefit the local economy? What’s the current mood in the community?

Mike Perls, CEO of MC2 and Chair of IoD North West, led a spirited interactive panel debate, with lots of participation from the floor. So what’s the verdict?

1. Media City is beginning to make a difference to Manchester’s infrastructure

According to Paul Newman, Director of Comms MediaCity UK and Peel Group, there are now 7,000 people employed in Media City, including 3,300 at the BBC and 900 at ITV. There are also 250 smaller businesses, new hotels, an office park, a media hub and significant housing developments in the pipeline in a joint venture with Legal & General Insurance.

2. Corporate Finance is beginning to ‘get’ the creative sector in Manchester, but there’s still room for improvement all round when it comes to access of finance

Creative England announced a new £8m loan fund. There was talk of Ian Livingston, previously of Eidos, investing in a Wilmslow games company, and success stories to shout about in independent television production.

Simon Smith, co-founder of Gameopolis, talked about his experiments with kickstarter crowdfunding. However, relative to London, Manchester is still seen as quite a way behind. A commentator from the audience made the point that, “in London, it’s easier. They’ve got lots of people who have left creative businesses and are prepared to re-invest.”

3. Creating a skills pipeline remains the priority issue

The wish-list for the talent agenda coming out of discussion pointed to an urgent need for collaboration and investment. Manchester needs to double the number of higher value, knowledge-intensive jobs in the city if it is to retain its university talent. The talent drain from the city is not now just to London, but to other cities globally.

There was talk of the need to bring creativity and technology education closer together to create the new STEAM (Science, Technology, Economics, Art and Maths) talent to fit the talent needs of the sector.

In terms of digital skills, Andy Lovatt, Managing Director at The White Room and Training Partner, Creative Pioneers Manchester, argued that there is still a critical shortage of young talent who understand the digital landscape.

Apprenticeship opportunities are growing but there is a shortage of talent to fill them. He wondered whether the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ proposition would bring commissioning power closer to home. He wanted to reinvent the Digital Skills Fund, which had been transformational in the past.

Jessica Bowles recommended a programme to ‘Educate the Educators’ and promoted the lasting impact of work placements. With 500 schools in Manchester, it would only take 500 creative businesses to get involved and make a real difference, argued Mike Perls.

Cindy Simmons, Managing Director at MPA, working with Jackie Holt, Managing Partner at BJL and the IPA’s Manchester City Head, invited participation in a new outreach strategy to schools. Watch this space!

4. The international opportunity is growing but needs to be taken to the next level

Nicky Unsworth, co-founder of BJL, described her company’s quest to increase its share of global business as “a developing story. We know we can do it, and we have some good case examples, but we could do more.”

Creating an international network of independent agencies has helped make connections, and relevant insight, but its potential has still to be realised. She called for a better narrative to pitch the Manchester capability. The China Forum was cited as a good initiative by Mike Perls, but how did creative fit into it?

5. Marketing has a big role to play

Unified messaging, common purpose, joint collaboration and a shared agenda would all help. There is enthusiastic interest in bringing industry and local government together under the umbrella of Creative Manchester to take the agenda forward.

“This time next year, we’ll be shouting about what we’ve achieved,” was Mike Perl’s parting call to action.

Janet Hull is IPA Director of Marketing Strategy and Project Lead www.thecreativeindustries.co.uk