Creativity in Glasgow

By The Drum, Administrator

March 14, 2003 | 14 min read

An image of Maguire Advertising’s ad for Campbell Lee.

There was once a time when, on making the mistake of looking at Glasgow from ground level, your eyes would fall upon the erosion of urban life. Indeed, the great thing about Glasgow, said Billy Connolly of his beloved home town, was that if there were a nuclear attack it would look exactly the same afterwards.

However, in more recent times, the city has dragged itself kicking and screaming into a new age, led, perhaps coincidentally, by the city’s creative industries; the “Glasgow Smiles Better” slogan – launched by one-time Glasgow giants Struthers Morgan – was the turning point in a campaign to rejuvenate the inner city. In order to survive, Glasgow was forced to change.

Yet, despite the more obvious changes on ground level, a number of inherent characteristics – other than Taggart and Connolly – remain.

However, you only have to look at the idiosyncrasies of these Glaswegian icons to see the layer of west-coast allure that has refused to rub off. The gritty realism, the honesty and the down-to-earth eccentricities. All of which have added to, rather than distracted from, the buzzing creative community that plies its trade from the banks of the River Clyde.

Glasgow has perhaps never been viewed in the creative mould of its Eastern counterpart. But when has reputation ever worried Glaswegians?

Keith Forbes, group managing director at 999 Design, shrugs off the claim: “Glasgow agencies have never been overly worried about how they are perceived by their peers. How they are perceived by their clients has always been more important.”

It is this sort of hard-working attitude that has spurred the growth and success of the ever-enlarging creative habitat of the western end of the M8 – the attitude perhaps a relic of times of old.

“Glasgow really has a no-nonsense approach, a West of Scotland work ethic, if you like,” says Alan Frame, director of FrameCunningham. “The long lunch doesn’t really exist while the ship-building mentality has lingered. But, because of this culture, clients come to us if they have a problem that needs solving and now we’ve been growing by a third every year for the last three years.”

Although this growth might buck trends in a problem period for the creative community, Graeme Jack, director of hatch-group , believes that Glasgow often fares well when times are tough: “Glasgow often seems to do well in a recession. I think a lot of that is to do with the culture of the agencies in Glasgow. But it can also be down to the loyalty of the clients. Still, a lot must go down to the work ethic. There is a hardworking mentality and the will to do a good job even through difficult times.”

Yet despite the hard-working attitude the marketing community is split in its opinions of the city as a hotbed of creativity.

Brian Crook, managing director of The Bridge, says: “If you were to ask if Glasgow was the home of creativity, I would say no.

“If you were to ask if Glasgow was the home of creativity in Scotland, I would still say no. However, Glasgow does have an honest reputation. Certainly, we won’t shirk from calling a spade a shovel. Furthermore, Glaswegians will engage in conversation with anyone. These traits should leave a fertile ground to be furrowed. But that often leaves you with a question. Doesn’t it?”

But perhaps it is across the advertising and design communities that this split is most evident.

Guy Robertson, managing director of Guy Robertson Partnership, states: “In advertising terms, I feel that sometimes Glasgow is perceived as the second city of Scotland. The agencies are often guilty of hiding their light under a bushel – the higher you build yourself up the harder you fall.

“However, the regard is of a higher degree in terms of design and new media. Here, Glasgow really does hold more than its own.

“We started out seventeen years ago as an ad agency. But over these years sometimes more than fifty per cent of our work at any particular time has been design for print. What perhaps swayed the balance more recently was when we picked up the Toyota ad account.

“Over 17 years you do see a great deal of change – the highs and the lows – and, in order to stay successful, you have to accumulate during the peaks to soften the troughs. Design, especially in the mid-90s, could offer higher margins than ad work. So, you have to be able to specialise in all areas to remain healthy. Some people forget the boring truism that when you are designing great adverts you have to earn more than you spend.”

Guy Robertson Partnership recently scooped a handful of accolades at the Cream Awards for its radio advertising. Another area, perhaps, that Glasgow excels in.

“The larger agencies in Edinburgh deal with a number of big brands and with that come big budgets. Sometimes maybe they feel that radio is not necessary if huge TV campaigns are being planned. But Toyota is the fifth biggest brand on the radio. And that strategy has been rewarded.”

David Clelland, managing director of The Hub design agency, also feels that there is a definite respect held in the creative community for Glasgow’s design agencies: “Plenty of talented people work in Glasgow, and in a highly competitive marketplace we survive, often driving each other on to break down barriers and produce exceptionally creative work. As more and more Glasgow-based agencies receive professional recognition for their work we all benefit and the reputation of Glasgow’s young guns improves.

“It’s natural in a competitive environment that relationships with your peers will have their ups and downs. What is clear in Glasgow is that, despite being in competition, we all need each other to survive. We drive each other on to produce creative work and, at the same time, together we champion the cause of Glasgow as the design capital of Scotland.”

Forbes agrees: “The creative community in Glasgow has never been stronger. I would say the talent base in Glasgow is every bit as good as, if not better than, in Edinburgh. We have never had a problem attracting the best people to 999, with CVs coming in on a weekly basis from top London agencies and as far afield as San Francisco and Australia.

“We simply go out and do great work for clients across the UK, Europe and the USA, blissfully unencumbered by any thoughts that we couldn't or shouldn't.

I highly recommend all Scottish agencies to gather their not insignificant talents, and do the same.”

This view is also echoed by Stephen Burns, director at Curious Oranj: “Creativity is inherent to Scottish culture. But we do still have our problems. We continually belittle ourselves. Even just look at the difference between the FA and the SFA. The English are the Football Association. We, almost apologetically, have the Scottish Football Association. Things can often seem to be a bit colloquial.

“But Glasgow is under a bit of a resurgence. They say that you can tell the extent of economic regeneration by the number of cranes in the skyline. Just look at Glasgow’s skyline.

“Many of these cranes are working on Glasgow’s newly planned financial centre on the banks of the Clyde. Hopefully, another sign that will give agencies a better belief.

“Glasgow is perhaps less gentrified than other areas of the UK. There is an east coast/west coast divide and the barriers are still there. However, they are not now so high.

“But there is a great co-operative nature in the Scottish market. There is a real community. I would like to see that community join to rid any west coast/east coast split and turn that to a north/south divide. We shouldn’t be so insular; we have nothing to be afraid of. All that’s needed is opportunity.”

And inward investment may be just the tonic to provide a platform for opportunity, says Nick Maguire, managing director of Maguire Advertising: “We should all be giving Glasgow creatives the opportunity to express themselves. We shouldn’t be shipping the work out of the city. We have a huge amount of talent here all already. Just look at the production guys or the photographers at The Picture House, for example. We should be trying to project the talent from the city.

“There is a great underlying skill-base in Glasgow, the opportunity just isn’t always there for it to shine. I’d like to see the city become a magnet for quality, but to do that the city needs investment and more of a confidence in its ability.

“Maybe more partnerships could be forged to help showcase the talent. It would give everyone the opportunity to flourish.“

However, many feel that opportunities are being lost, as Glasgow’s creative community remains reluctant to boast of its success. Andrew Grant, director of Nation 1, says: “We are not proactive enough in pushing our reputation, be it the reputation of Glasgow or Scotland as a whole.

“Maybe Glasgow isn’t being creative enough, but there isn’t really an excuse. If you want to be creative you have to find clients that will allow you to do so. We’ve managed to find clients that allow us to do creative work with our reputation and limited resources.

“It is all about what you offer people, and in Glasgow I feel that we do go that extra mile. If clients see that you are doing something a little bit different, then that can be attractive.

“I think that a problem within agencies in Glasgow, and Scotland as a whole, is that they are not employing an entrepreneurial culture and pushing staff to think on their feet.”

One agency that is taking a different approach to work is 55 degrees. Director Russell Henderson – who, after three years in business, now employs nine staff – says: “We play to our strengths. For example, we operate a four-day week. On the fifth day the staff can work on other, personal, projects. I think that that leaves the workforce smarter, more creative and more fulfilled. Besides, a growing company will find it hard to find the time to do the training, provide the feedback and show the direction that it wants to. This can help. You have to be able to differentiate yourself from the clutter. And being smarter, more creative and more fulfilling can be one way to do this as an agency.”

Having moved to Glasgow (via London) after working in Cape Town, Warren Bader, producer at Liberation Productions, has seen much of what the creative world has to offer, and still he will not let a word of negativity slip into conversation when talking of his new, adopted home.

“Glasgow is just an incredible city to live and work in. It’s just so vibrant and gritty. There is so much talent, especially in production. That’s not surprising, though; Scottish Enterprise has bent over backwards to help in my start-up.

“Still, the creative community should work more together to grow, and really present a more united front. Then the reputation that the city has might be able to grow too.

“Glasgow has a good, healthy balance between old and new, and its plethora of start-ups will not dilute the marketplace, just let it grow stronger and provide more choice and outlets for the talent that might not before have had an opportunity.“

However, Donnie Kerrigan, co-founder of Chunk, feels that in today’s technologically forward world, there is now very little differentiation between cities in the UK: “With the amount of movement in the market, in terms of both agencies and staff, it is hard to identify a specific work ethic. Edinburgh’s only half an hour away and London just over that again on the plane.

“Glasgow’s not a hotbed of talent. But by no means is it under-resourced. Some work is better than others – the same as anywhere else. It’s a bit like football. The best talent gets snapped up by the biggest teams.

“Glasgow and Scotland as a whole can be a bit insular but the more competition there is then the healthier the industry will be. We should be looking at competition outwith Glasgow, outwith Scotland and outwith the UK. Especially on the Web; for us we should be looking worldwide. But creativity should be about the idea, not the technology. Quality control is most important. If your reputation is to stay intact, then you can’t let crap out the door. We are brutally honest with each other, almost to a fault.”

But technology is one of the tools that is helping to improve the migration of staff to Glasgow, widening the pool of resources available. Says Jack: “Glasgow is getting easier and easier to attract the right people to. The talent pool is deepening and we get a large number of CVs from all over the country. Technology has made such a difference. There is a much bigger movement of people. At Hatch we all hot-desk with laptops so it’s easy to move to where we need to be. You do your best work when you are near your clients, but no longer are we limited by geography.”

Geography is one barrier that needs to be, and is starting to be, breached. With a tightening client spend available in Scotland, and a number of large accounts dropping to London, many agencies in Glasgow have urged each other to work together to forage in the South and re-grow the market.

Says Clelland: “I think that it is imperative that we do start to look south of the border. There is undoubtedly more work and in Scotland we definitely have both the creative and management capabilities to make an impact in England.”

Alan Frame adds: “We’ve only had one Glasgow client. Most of the work that we pitch for and win is from down south or elsewhere. Glasgow is unfashionable and we tend to perpetuate this by getting wrapped up in any divide. But everyone has to be bigger than Scotland. You have to go fishing in every pond. You can’t position yourself as a Glasgow, an Edinburgh, or even a Scottish agency. You just have to position yourself as an agency that does good work. I certainly don’t consider this agency as a Glasgow agency. We just happen to work here with a west coast work ethic.

Crook also believes that business from the South is there for the taking: “Glasgow and Edinburgh offer a far more cost-effective advertising base than agencies down south. We have learnt to make £100,000 go a long way. Half-a-million pounds goes a very long way. We’ve learnt how to think fast on our feet. But the market here is disappearing and if we want to grow the market we are going to have to start raiding the market down south. I think that because Glasgow agencies have often had to work harder to make their money go further they can understand how important it is for advertising to not only work, but work hard.”


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