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Aberdeen exposed

By The Drum | Administrator

October 15, 2002 | 11 min read

Aberdeen Youth Festival poster by Mearns & Gill.

Aberdeen. The Granite City. Some stereotypes persist – cold, grey stone and the call of seagulls as they pick at harbour scraps. However, the only comparison that the city's creative community could draw from the stereotypical image of Aberdeen is its solidity.

Where Aberdeen may be perceived as grey, the creative industries are currently vibrant. While seagulls pick at scraps, the agencies live on relatively rich, if often indigenous, pickings.

Still, even within Scotland's creative community, certain stereotypes continue to linger. One such casting is that of an industry that is fuelled solely by the oil market. Although the oil trade does act as a barometer for business in Aberdeen, it seems that it is a myth that agencies in the North depend on an income generated by the energy companies themselves, with many unwilling to rely on the unpredictable nature of such projects.

Aberdeen may not be the city that it was in the halcyon days of the 70s, when the oil business was in full swing – it has been said that, at that time, working in the advertising and design game was a licence to print money – but its rich business heritage survives.

Many central belt agencies have, in the past, tried and failed to crack the rich Aberdeen market; Woolward Royd and Grant Forrest among the few to attempt the shift, ultimately unsuccessfully.

“Aberdeen is a complex marketplace,” confirms Allan Mearns, managing director of Mearns and Gill.

Mearns and Gill was established in 1936 – perhaps staking the claim of being the longest surviving agency in the UK – by Mearns' grandmother. Today the agency remains one of the most respected in Aberdeen.

“Because of the close network and specialised markets,” continues Mearns, “you have to know who does what and where. It can be more complicated than you can imagine. And it's not just the oil companies. But if you don't understand the market, then you can't work in it.”

Currently, business in Aberdeen is good. Oil prices are at their highest for more than ten years and because of that the social side of life in Aberdeen goes up and house prices have gone through the roof. However, Kelly Kilner, PR director at Fifth Ring, says that the creative community cannot afford to be complacent: “There is a real sense of money in Aberdeen, a sense of opportunity. The business scene is more insular. There is a thriving network of businesses that are entwined in each other. A lot of agencies will get work from this network through referral and recommendation. But most of this business is Aberdeen-focused.

“Sometimes Aberdeen can seem like its own economy. It can come out relatively unscathed while other areas are struggling. In saying this, we aren't unaffected by shifts. We haven't got a steel wall around us.”

Graham Davidson of Brand Advertising, which works for the likes of Aberdeen Asset Management, John Clark Motor Group and the Food Standards Authority, agrees: “Aberdeen is a little bit cosseted because it has the oil industry. Things are buoyant at the moment because oil is at its highest price for the last ten years.

“Whether the good times will continue in Aberdeen depends, really. A war on Iraq will have an impact because oil fields in the North Sea that are not operating at the moment will be opened up again. Obviously, all these platforms need workers, so there will be more people in Aberdeen spending money.”

At the last count – a trawl through the phone book – in Aberdeen there were around 60 design agencies alone – a homage to the strength of the industry, but also in part maybe down to the strength of the local economy and surrounding educational strongholds.

Mike Hampton, managing director of Hampton Associates, which works with clients such as Kraft, Grampian Country Foods, Scottish Enterprise Grampian and Kenco Coffee, says: “The design industry in Aberdeen has grown and as it has grown it has grown more fierce. We are catching up, up here. And now, as an industry, we are catching up fast. The majority of accounts that we work on are national and international pieces of business.”

Mearns adds: “The standard of education in Aberdeen is high. We have a very good art school in Gray's, we have a very strong college and an excellent business school. They all pour out talent every year. This encourages a strong entrepreneurial streak among the creatives in this city.”

However, despite the high standards of creative and business talent flowing through from the universities, recruitment is one area that still poses a problem for agencies in Aberdeen.

Despite handling accounts for the likes of Kraft and Grampian foods, as well as a number of other sought-after brands, Hampton Associates still finds it tricky to tempt potential staff into that two-and-a-half-hour journey north: “Aberdeen is seen as a small, cold city,” says managing director Mike Hampton. “Although it is getting easier to attract clients north, getting the right people can take longer. But the boundaries are being abolished.

“Look at the Kraft account for example. They put their accounts up for review and we came out on top of their roster. The fact that we are based in Aberdeen means nothing to them. We have to be flexible, yes. In fact, some of our clients may never even come into our office. The advancements in technology help and even the internet is such a driver. From our website we were invited by a chain of London curry houses to pitch for their business.

“We get CVs from people as far afield as Pakistan looking for jobs. To a certain extent it can still be remote in Aberdeen, but it is getting better.”

Derek Stewart, managing director of Big Picture, agrees. Stewart founded Big Picture in 1993 and the consultancy works with clients such as SMG, Highland Distillers’ The Macallan and the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

He says: “We are based in Aberdeen because we like working here. The quality of life available is high and the way business is now with advancements in communication technology its means you don’t just have to work with clients on your front doorstep. Geography really isn’t an issue anymore.”

However Bruce Milne, general manager and head of production at Viscom, an Aberdeen-based video production house, says that getting good people as opposed to clients to consider Aberdeen is another challenge: “Attracting people to Aberdeen is a problem. I sit on the Aberdeen Community Purpose Board, which looks at how the city should be positioning itself and how we can go about getting people to come to Aberdeen. The city gets a lot of bad press, undeservedly really. There is a certain age of creative person who wants to be in the centre of everything so they head off to Glasgow or Edinburgh or beyond. If they do come to live and work in Aberdeen then they do tend to be looking for other things, like a high quality of life.”

However, it is not just perceptions that make it difficult to attract people north. It is the price too. Raymond Morrison, managing director of Covey McCormick, another of Aberdeen's most respected advertising agencies, says: “Recruitment is a problem. Some of the salaries being paid in the central belt mean we cannot really compete with them. We are currently looking to staff up in the studio, so you are looking for people with some experience. But we are getting inundated with CVs from students with no experience. The problem with that is that you need people to be earning as soon as they walk in the door.”

The Aberdeen business community is quite tight and a large percentage of new business is often won through referral. However, the creative agencies tend not to bond as they do so eagerly in the central belt.

“Improvements in technology have allowed people to move out of the city centre,” says Morrison. “All the printers and typesetters used to be in the city centre, so obviously the agencies that used their services tended to be there too. That is not now the case.

“The Aberdeen media and creative communities have split up terribly. Ten years ago we were all within half a mile of each other and everybody would meet in the pub on a Friday afternoon and talk about what they were doing. There does not seem to be the same camaraderie anymore.”

This has been noticed by Bryan Campbell, who launched his design agency, Concrete, in Aberdeen two years ago. He says: “Ninety per cent of our business is word of mouth. It can be like that in Aberdeen. But although we do tend to know what other people are doing, the creative communities are not great at bonding with each other. But, in saying that, the local business community as a whole is quite close. Word of mouth travels easily.

“Aberdeen can be quite insular. We have such a strong business community that sometimes you don't really have to look outwith its realms. It's a very rich city, but to tap into that you have to be in the loop.”

Ellis Whitaker of Eclectic Designs agrees: “It is tough and there is a great deal of competition in Aberdeen. More every day almost, but the business has been built around trust and honesty. Most agencies build their business on a local client base. The culture of constant pitching, in my experience, is not so evident up here. We have developed through ongoing work and relationships. The client base is quite loyal.”

However, despite the loyal client base, there are some frustrations. Bryan Campbell says: “Creatively, you don't always get the chance to go the extra mile with your design. Experimentation is never really encouraged. In Edinburgh and Glasgow I think that there is often more of a chance to be creative. In Aberdeen the ethos is often to stick to a set format. However, we have clients like Stolt and Read Well Services that challenge that.

“In the North it is really only oil, and the occasional food and drinks brands, that have the big budgets. Our bread and butter is the pub and club work that we do. That's what pays the phone bills.

“Club work is often only a small job but, because of the design work’s limited lifespan, they are often willing to take more of a chance and also the work is frequent. Currently, we service about 50 per cent of the clubs in Aberdeen.”

Some of the problems faced by Aberdeen's agencies are more deep-rooted, though. “We want people to see what we do, but it is often hard to sell a product that people can't see,” says Whitaker. “That is one of the results of being based in Aberdeen. The big central belt companies are hard to reach. We are out of the limelight up here, and often it can be hard to get under it.”

Hampton, although not short of national clients, agrees: “You do feel bitter when business haemorrhages south. Our goal is to stop that happening. We have to make people aware of what we do as an industry in Aberdeen. People have to understand what we do and the level at which we do it. Clients can't assume that the level of work is better down south. We can compete with Edinburgh and Glasgow. The culture needs to change.”

Morrison adds: “The Stewart Milne Homes account going out of Aberdeen to Ten Alps in Edinburgh was discouraging for Aberdeen. But perhaps we should be looking more at taking business out of the central belt. As the Metro Shuttle Services account proves, there is no reason why we cannot get more from the central belt and North of England.”

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