Creative cities: How Bournemouth's digital scene is attracting Oscar-winning talent

Bournemouth’s coastal location provides the perfect place for digital talent to flourish – without the need to up sticks and move to London.

Any doubts about the quality and depth of Bournemouth’s creative and digital talent should have disappeared on 2 March 2014 – that’s when Gravity topped the Oscars.

The effects-laden movie was not only a triumph for its stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and director Alfonso Cuarón, but also for around 60 alumni of Bournemouth University’s National Centre for Computer Animation who worked on the production through London-based digital effects house Framestore.

Not that this was the NCCA’s first taste of Hollywood glory – its graduates previously contributed to James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar and have numerous other production credits. But it always helps to work with the stars.

Now the boot is perhaps on the other foot: working with digital talent from Bournemouth could suggest, as a client, that you know what you are doing. The gold-standard output of the region’s universities for the digital and creative industries mixes with local business support and an attractive lifestyle to ensure many of these top graduates stay close to home. And they produce outstanding work across many fronts, mixing the new and the old, the regional and the global.

The region also attracts talent. For Mike Hawkyard, managing director of Amuzo, the route to creating games apps that have reached number one in 150 countries was by doing a cool website for Pulborough Council in the early years of digital. Then, he was “getting away from the rain in Manchester,” but Amuzo has gone on to build a reputation for using games to help a wide range of clients communicate and build traffic.

Initially, clients were concerned at the bandwidth used, and then at how the games got downloaded and shared. “After a while they realised this wasn’t a bad thing,” he says and the big breakthrough came when Lego came calling. This led to a string of chart-topping free app games for the toy manufacturer to communicate its characters and products. “They’re play starters, building awareness that goes far beyond marketing a toy,” adds Hawkyard.

More than a billion game plays later, Amuzo is a 26-person studio that wouldn’t be fazed by any calibre of client. It stays close to the university, supporting the alma mater of many of its team with talks and work opportunities. That said, it also attracts talent into the area – something that will be essential if Bournemouth is to stay on its fast-growth path.

The biggest digital creative studio in the area is Redweb, with around 160 staff – 50 of whom are on-site with clients as part of the full-service design-and-build digital support. Clients range widely, from Farrow & Ball to the Department of Education by way of the Science Museum. No job is too big or complicated, although perhaps Redweb can also be more responsive than its major-league competitors.

Overheads can be lower than London, and that feeds into everything from staff support, work with colleges, to the range of clients that can be taken on. Chief executive Andrew Henning says: “Bournemouth has a less turbulent pool of talent than London.

We can offer more apprenticeships, are more tolerant and skilled at developing people, and look to keep staff longer. While we are only two hours from London, where many of our clients are, we are a little insulated from the culture there, with our own talent pool. I think we are better able to develop talent and we do a lot to work in partnership with the universities.”

Ross Thornley, founder of RT Brand Communications, believes that location is key to the success of his company. “The standard of living is higher. Our team of happy creatives go for barbecues on the beach and we hold walking meetings. We are inspired by the environment and this supports the business purpose. Our clients even love to visit us.”

It sounds almost like a religious experience but there is plenty of firm business logic: loyal developing staff can better foster loyal developing clients. A range of major clients entrust deep and sustained projects to the agency. This is exemplified by a decade of work for Sony Professional, with services to its website operating across 12 regions globally.

But it is not all tech. More traditional creative strengths are also evident in the area’s mix. A different vibe comes out of Folk, the Poole-based branding and luxury specialist founded by Jo Cruickshanks. Recent clients include Hermès and a new brand for Emma Hill (the creative director behind Mulberry’s Alexa bag). Cruickshanks sees potential to be less the Silicon Valley of Britain and more Portland, Oregon – an off-centre locale of world-beating talent where thoughtful branding and design craft meet with digital.

Arabella Lewis-Smith, managing director at nearby Salad Creative, also focuses on design crafts. “People come to us because they understand the value of building success through design,” she says. Pointing to the work involved in developing olive-based food brand Silver & Green, she says: “We want to run a business that is collaborative and supportive of both clients and its own team. Working in this area allows you to do that more.”

There is a sense among creatives of this area that they need to enjoy their culture, that the difference is a virtue – for personal life, professional creativity and business effectiveness. Duncan Cook, founder and managing director at digital studio 3 Sided Cube, epitomises this when he describes a workflow that involves “15 per cent of just trying things out, rapid prototyping, then taking that to a client; 70 per cent of us thinking ‘this client needs this built’ and 15 per cent of us specifically setting out to solve a client problem”.

With apps it has created operating in variations for 76 different countries, most notably through work with the Red Cross, it is an approach that pays off.

With a project for mental health charity Mind, it used the rapid prototyping approach to trial real alternatives rather than conduct conventional research. It enabled it to quickly move from a wrong assumption. “We’ve set out to create a way of working that has the freedom to allow people to do the right thing.”

Beneath this approach is a sense that the Bournemouth scene – from its environmental charms to its supportive tech, creative and university communities – has a special set of ingredients that can give studios the edge. Its creative industry growth leadership may have a way to run yet.

LB

Lewis Blackwell

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