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Focus on Dundee

By The Drum | Administrator

December 12, 2002 | 12 min read

Unlike the boyhood features of Oor Wullie, Dundee continues to grow and evolve, and, as it develops, the city’s optimism follows suit.

But take away the city’s vibrant computer games industry and its creative cluster starts to look more than a little threadbare.

However, in the shadow of the tower that is Dundee’s gaming industry, a small but well crafted creative community flourishes and a number of creative agencies service a raft of local and (some) national clients.

“If you do not know Dundee then it is hard to see how much it’s moved forward,” says George Gall, managing director of Avian, one of Dundee’s largest agencies, employing 22 staff. “The city centre is coming on, with the Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre and the Overgate shopping centre bringing people into the city.

“But there are still too many who regard Dundee as the hell hole it was 20 years ago. It’s not, although perhaps it doesn’t make the most of its best features, though they are being developed now.”

Avian was established seven years ago after the agency was bought out of what was then Baillie Marshall. It now boasts a client list that includes Scottish Enterprise, Edinburgh and Lothian Tourist Board, Perth Tourist Board, and Lloyds TSB, yet Gall still insists it can be hard to attract the right staff to the area: “It is still difficult to get people to come here to work. In the new media field it is not such a problem because of Dundee’s technology reputation. But creative studio people are much tougher to get. Creatives in the Central Belt perhaps see London as their aspired market whereas the people in Dundee see London, but also see Glasgow and Edinburgh, as potential places to explore. But, in saying that, there are not actually that many places to get a job in this industry in Dundee. So it can still be tough.”

However, with new, multinational businesses such as Norwich Union, BT and Tesco all opening major call centres in the city, optimism continues to grow. Ally Ballingall, managing and programme director at Radio Tay, feels that Dundee is beginning to regain its swagger: “The area is bouncing. There is a bit of West Coast arrogance here at the moment, which will do the city the power of good. There is so much happening around Dundee just now.

“We now have the main Income Tax call centre here, NCR has its European research and development facility here and Tesco now has its main call centre in Dundee. There are new apartments going up along the waterfront, there is the new City Quay shopping centre and Apex Hotels are soon to open a new four-star hotel in the city, so things are happening. Things are very upbeat in Dundee currently.”

However, it is not just the birth of new business opening up in Dundee that has led to a newfound confidence. Much can be said for the environment that surrounds the City of Discovery.

Says Derek Soutar, managing director of DJS: “Dundee has found a positive image as a regional centre, perhaps because it now has excellent links to all the other centres. The universities too have brought a lot of people into the area and I think that they are surprised by the quality of living available in Dundee. Property prices are relatively cheap compared to Edinburgh and Glasgow, which are only an hour or so away. Also you are only minutes from some of the most beautiful countryside Scotland has to offer.”

Souter launched DJS a decade ago after a career that spanned Radio Clyde, the Daily Record and, latterly, Baillie Marshall. His biggest clients now include Scottish and Universal Newspapers, Saveway Furniture and Tayside Solicitors Property Centre. However, Souter still believes that, unfoundedly, the Central Belt looks down its nose at Dundee: “I think people’s perceptions of Dundee depend on where they are from. The English love it, but people from Edinburgh and Glasgow tend to sneer at Dundee, probably through years of blindness to the faults of their own cities.

“That said, there is not much of a creative community in Dundee. There is amongst the new media and website guys, but not on the graphics front.”

Blue Square is one of Dundee’s biggest design agencies. Its managing director, Jim Patrick, says: “Because we have been going for a long time and retained a large number of our clients over that period, a lot of people say that we have Dundee all wrapped up. That’s not so.

“There is a fair amount of business in the area. Dundee is very vibrant currently, especially in the gaming sector. And it’s expanding.

“We will be celebrating our 16th birthday very soon and we’ve gradually grown to 15 people over that time. That is I suppose where we often differ from the games industry. They tend to work in a boom and bust industry where they will be employing 70 one week and just ten the next. Most of our staff have been with us for a number of years as we’ve grown gradually over time.

“The area that seems to combine the two sectors, design and game development, is new-media. It certainly has encouraged a certain standard in the industry.”

Patrick continues: “Dundee certainly isn’t insular, however, when there is a recession elsewhere and budgets disappear we tend not to be hit so badly.

“It’s like the house markets. In Dundee the prices tend not to change as dramatically as down south. By the time the changes hit Dundee it is more of a ripple than a tidal wave. This applies to the marketing budgets too.”

Evelyn Hardie, who started The Puffin Room in 1999 after 20 years working in the design industry, first at Rex Stewart and latterly at Farm Foods as design manager, says that in Dundee, agencies have been quite lucky in keeping their heads above the water through organic growth: “We get most of our new business through word of mouth and by people passing on our name to other people. We are also part of a few networking groups like Business Networking International and the Chamber of Commerce. We just keep trying to get enough work to continue to expand. It would be good to get some larger clients, which would enable us to take some more people on. But we would never aspire to be massive.”

Although much of the business in Dundee can be generated through word of mouth, Gall refutes any suggestion that Dundee’s client base may be a little insular: “We do good work for clients all over Scotland and we have as a good a client base as any.”

Souter adds: “Most of our work is for companies based outside Dundee. I would say about 65 per cent of our business is outwith this area. That said, the local economy does seem to be thriving.”

Jon-Paul Kitching, business development manager at Vibe, agrees. His company has branched into publishing and now produces a bi-monthly magazine that launched in Dundee six issues ago. The magazine reaches Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow, and Vibe is now thinking about launching UK-wide: “We get a lot of spin-off design work from the magazine. The work comes from all over. That is good for us because, although Dundee has been kind to us, there just wouldn’t be enough work in the city.”

But, despite the optimism that seems to flow from Dundee’s creative reawakening, it is not backed by foolhardiness. Gall says: “Hopefully, things will continue to move forward for us this year. However, I think it will be tougher next year. We are chasing more work than we’ve ever done before, but sometimes you just have no idea where the business is going to come from.”

However, Pat Kelly, director at Scottish Appointments, a recent MBO from Scotland Online, feels that Dundee is now reaping in the rewards since changing its focus from inward to outward looking: “Scottish Enterprise is doing a really good job in Tayside supporting and developing the industries. They have really pre-empted the digital revolution and, with the help of the local universities, the development has come a long way. Dundee is not short of talent, and it should never be. It has a very young feel to it and a large student element from across Scotland and further afield. When they come they often make a decision to stay. The pressure isn’t the same and the opportunities are great – so why shouldn’t they. The industry is flexible and not expectant of anything. The support is great and you are surrounded by like-minded people. That’s a result of turning attention outwards where before, it always seemed to focus in.”

Interactive Tayside is an initiative established by Scottish Enterprise Tayside to nurture the digital industry which has, for one reason or another, adopted Dundee as its home.

In December 1998 the Department of Culture, Media and Sport started looking at the creative industries in the UK, highlighting its strengths.

In doing so, it identified that Scotland had the second largest concentration of creative industries in the UK, just behind the South East of England.

And, furthermore, when Scottish Enterprise launched its interactive scheme nationally in August 2000 only two areas in the country were specifically identified – Glasgow and Tayside.

“That was quite a boost to the area. The companies on our patch took a certain confidence from the fact that they were being listened to, and that they were able to address some of their needs and issues,” says interactive Tayside project manager, Gary Grant.

“Interactive Tayside was spawned because of the issues that were raised by the companies. And since then we’ve always tried to remain focused to following the private sector agenda.

“We are led by the public sector, but it is very much in co-ordination with and on behalf of the companies and the academic sector in Tayside.”

The academic sector has, no doubt, played a big role in the development of Tayside’s interactive industry. But, traditionally, Dundee has always had a strength in the creative arts; a legacy of illustrators, animators and storytellers. Says Grant: “The strength in traditional creativity is now being matched with the new technologies, with the academic base providing the skills that drive the industry.

“What Interactive Tayside is trying to do is put together a triangle where the private sector can grow hand in hand with the academic sector, responding to meet the needs of the industry. And then, very clearly, the public sector, through this partnership, can address the needs and intervene where it makes sense.

“This is not a government agenda saying ‘wouldn’t this be great to do?’ It is the local businesses and academic houses saying digital media is hugely important to the economy, the growth opportunities and development opportunities are significant and if you can combine and work together there is a great future.”

Seven areas in total fall under the Interactive Tayside umbrella – games and electronic entertainment, software development, communications technologies, graphic design, publishing, music and new media. With over 200 businesses employing in excess of 1500 people in the sector in Tayside and a combined turnover of £100m, Dundee, as a city, is going through a creative and cultural renaissance as it is driven away from its old manufacturing past. It is re-inventing itself and digital media is one of the driving forces in that.

There are other areas in the UK that are running similar initiatives, such as Wired Sussex in the South of England. But different areas have different models. Other areas have taken a subscriber model, where the companies are contributing. However, Scottish Enterprise Tayside and its partners have agreed to take the initiative on until 2004 before revisiting it.

“Interactive Tayside as an initiative is, if you like, an umbrella that is complementary to all other business development services,” continues Grant. “We want to act as an information and networking tool to help support businesses and make sure that the opportunities, where possible, are not being missed.

“Furthermore, we want to help promote the sector. It’s not about pushing Interactive Tayside or Scottish Enterprise Tayside, it’s about helping the companies get their needs and their success stories out there and bring benefit to the businesses. Because that, in turn, will bring a benefit to the Dundee and Tayside region.”

Undoubtedly, many companies within the sector in Dundee have been hit by the recent downturn.

However, in a way, companies in Tayside, because they are quite small, can be quite flexible, says Grant: “They can move with the times and they have done that quite successfully. So they might not have been hit quite as hard as companies elsewhere. Perhaps small is beautiful in this sector.

“Still, in Tayside it is still viewed as a relatively small and fragile business base, but there is clear evidence of growth and we are very optimistic about the future.

“Tayside is by no means insular. There are a lot of companies that will look predominantly to their local markets, but there are an increasing number who have started trading outwith Tayside and outwith Scotland. In Scotland as a whole we can’t afford to be parochial about things.

“You need to look at the collective strength of all areas of Scotland. A majority of activity is based in the four main cities but there are strengths everywhere that provide a fantastic opportunity to go forward together.”

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