Reputations can be hard to shrug off. Observe the girl-band member who attempts to go solo, the bad actor who releases a catchy pop song or the athlete who switches sports. Try as they might, their past reputations continue to dog their heels as they move on.
In recent years the UK has seen similar situations arise with its cities, as locations previously thought of as undesirable receive much-needed investment and, as a result, begin to develop and re-invent themselves. Often, however, those reputations continue to stick around even after they have become redundant. Liverpool, as with neighbouring Manchester, has recently become a focus for such investment and regeneration and, as the city grows, The Marketeer decided to look at how Liverpool’s agency scene has reacted to the city’s current boom.
Dougal Paver, managing director at Paver Downs, which counts Littlewoods, Toyota and John Lennon Airport as clients, says: “Where Liverpool is at now is that we’ve got bags of money coming, bags of jobs, a booming tourism industry and a booming property market. When you put all that together we’re doing great. We’re seeing a lot more start-ups, which drives up standards, due to competition, and clients are spending more money in the city, due to the increased choice here.
“More people are starting up because of that impetus and increased investment from regional clients.”
But what is it that’s driving the interest from the local client companies?
Paver points to the city’s Objective One status for European funding as a major boost. The Objective One rating guarantees investment of £820m over the next few years, allowing Liverpool to regenerate run-down parts of the city and open more tourism-attracting features. These include the construction of a cruise ship terminal and a £750m leisure development named Blue Coat Triangle. This has been backed up by the arrival of several international hotel chains (Le Meridien, Radison and Malmaison) keen to cash in on the city’s newfound tourism market.
With more money flying round the city, more agencies are setting up shop. One such agency, Leapfrog PR, claims that Liverpool is the ideal location for servicing not just locally based clients, but national and international as well. Leapfrog was formed a year ago by Hilary Berg and Jeanette Riley after they left the in-house PR department of frozen food retailer Iceland. Riley says: “We looked at Manchester and Leeds and wondered whether or not we should move to London, but we love Liverpool. It’s great here and it has really changed over the last couple of years.
“At the time we weren’t anticipating working with clients in local markets. We wanted national clients, and Liverpool, in the middle of the country, was ideal. All our clients are national or international and it’s not been a problem being based in Liverpool, there’s definitely not an image problem.”
Multimedia company ESP Multimedia is another to find no particular bias directed at the city. The company counts BSkyB and the BBC amongst its clients, and specialises in audio development for broadcast as well as DVD authoring. Partner Andrew Darley says: “Really, I think the industry here has sprung up in the last couple of years because there’s so much talent up here. Work that would traditionally go to London companies is coming up here. Being in Liverpool has definitely been an advantage for us.”
Others, however, have noticed that some of the old prejudices towards the city remain.
Mando Group is one of Liverpool’s highest profile agencies. Recently rebranded from Webshed, the company was formed in 1997 specialising in web design but has since expanded to incorporate print design and viral marketing.
“Sometimes, coming from Liverpool, we come up against people’s preconceptions of the city, which can be mixed,” says Dave Holden, creative director.
“Recently, people have been exposed to a lot of negative TV coverage, which gives people a bad impression. It’s fighting against that impression that is the challenge.
“It’s almost as if Liverpool could do with a big PR job on itself to sell all the renovation and changes that are going on,” remarks Jan Staley, co-founder of veteran Liverpool agency Staley Peters.
Now that the Liverpool marketing scene is coming into its own, it is also running into the same problems faced by agencies operating anywhere in the regions – how to fight the glamour of London. Liverpool, however, is having to fight this battle right on its own doorstep, as, despite the increased spending from many of the region’s clients, the majority of blue-chip business in the area continues to look outside the North for its marketing needs.
Staley says: “I think there is a lot of snobbery about appointing an agency in London. There’s a certain reticence about appointing a Liverpool agency. I think people have always liked to get on a plane and spend an afternoon in Covent Garden and I think that’s still rife.
“It should be about the quality of the work, not where you are based, and the quality of the work in Liverpool is fantastic. I think it’s very sad when a local client takes its business outside the area. It can be very frustrating sometimes when you’re not even given a chance, you’re dismissed right away.
“That is the worst thing, that sometimes you are ignored because you are in Liverpool, not London.”
Jon Barraclough, a director of Non Conform Design, states that the larger companies are not the only ones that need to be educated on the wealth of talent Liverpool now boasts.
“I think the standard of work here is perhaps as high as you’ll get anywhere. As far as clients go, though, I think there’s still a lot of educating to be done. I would say most of our business comes from outside of town. There are some companies that won’t shop in town, and some of them are companies who really should know better, organisations with a vested interest in the city.”
Getting client companies to take notice of the range of skills on offer in Liverpool is clearly a challenge. It’s a problem echoed throughout the regions and, as with other regions outside London, the prejudice against Liverpool’s marketing community would seem to be without merit.
Several agency directors believe that one helping hand for the local agency scene would be the presence of a global network agency in the city. It’s one of the things Liverpool currently doesn’t have, while neighbouring cities Manchester and Leeds play host to several each.
“What Liverpool doesn’t have now is an international agency,” comments Duncan Frazer, a director of Finch, one of Liverpool’s largest advertising and design agencies. “I think it would be an advantage for the city and would help build the gravitas of the centre. I think one of the networked agencies might look at the city, see it is on the way up and get a foot in the door early on.”
Ben Hatton, director of web solutions company Ripple Effect, agrees. He says: “If you look at Leeds and Manchester, a lot of big companies set up their headquarters there, which has turned them into major cities. That’s something we don’t have yet in Liverpool. That would give us a massive boost.”
Staley believes the clock is ticking until a major name player arrives in Liverpool. She advises: “I think with all the investment we’re going to see an influx of designers and agencies and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the big networks comes up and establishes a presence here, which would be a massive help to the city.”
If a network agency does decide to show its face, it certainly won’t find a shortage of creative talent in the city. One of the advantages of the recent investment most often cited by Liverpool agencies was an increase in the student population. One of the strengths Manchester is often credited with is the quality of its universities and the fact that many graduates choose to stay in the city. Liverpool now seems to be following suit. Not only are the universities churning out a wealth of talented individuals, but the quality of life in Liverpool is causing more and more of them to stay and seek employment.
Frazer, at Finch, remarks: “Over the years it’s been difficult to recruit locally. As is the way, if there’s nothing to keep them here the graduates go down to London. It’s only now we’re starting to provide some support. There are some small companies setting up here, very talented young people who came from the universities and it’s great that they have decided to stay here.”
With the talent pool increasing and the city re-inventing itself, the Liverpool marketing scene seems stronger than ever. Backed by bodies such as the Mersey Partnership, Creative Liverpool and ICDC (a body formed by John Moores University dedicated to encouraging and training web design and programming skills), the challenge now is to shout loud enough so that the larger clients in the region start to take notice.
With such talent on their doorsteps is it really that unreasonable to expect client companies to look at them?