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Higher Grounds

By The Drum, Administrator

March 30, 2003 | 17 min read

The hotel was booked. The meetings arranged. However, to cut a long story short, thick fog and a car crash later saw the hotel cancelled and the meetings postponed.

In a nutshell that is perhaps one of the major problems with the expansive Highlands and Islands region – they can be hard to get to and around. Without a car, virtually impossible.

However, there is an established and growing creative industry in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

A number of independent agencies have set up their stalls in the Highlands and Islands to service ‘local’ businesses and bodies as well as a number of national and international clients.

Business, as you might say, is booming. But, because of the often lesser scale of such agencies, the fact that very few in the area are geared-up to provide all client “requirements” remains. It was this shortfall that was central to the creation of the Association of Integrated Media in the Highlands and Islands (AIMhi).

AIMhi acts on behalf of the creative content industries in the region and works together with other vested stakeholders such as the public development agencies.

Since its inception three years ago AIMhi has grown from an original six members to over seventy.

Within the Highlands and Islands an enlightened climate now exists and active strategy formulation and co-ordination is occurring between public agencies, national bodies and the private sector. Within this environment one of the key challenges is to nurture AIMhi’s principal asset – the indigenous creative talent in the region.

Perhaps the most striking feature in the Highlands and Islands over the last 20 years has been the range of new businesses that have sprung up in an area that used to have a narrow economic base. Such new business offers major opportunities for collaborative working, and many Highlands and Islands firms that were competitors only a year or so ago are now forming collaborative networks. Enlightened decision makers are also beginning to realise that a series of interlocking relationships involving many players that form a network, with a prime directive of providing customer value, can be far more powerful and profitable.

A good example is the successful and ongoing Highlands and Islands “Speak up for Broadband” campaign, says Alistair Murray, chairman of AIMhi and founder of Caithness Multimedia. The campaign has been designed and implemented by a regional consortium fronted by the Caithness-based Naver Technology Group: “All consortium members belong to AIMhi – an example of collaborative working through a geographical web of individuals and companies. Key agencies include; Caithness Multimedia for project management and technical consultancy (Thurso); Michael Fraser Associates, creative and strategic communications (Ardersier); Key Commercial Services for database and direct mailing (Bonar Bridge); Internet Promotions handling Web activity (Thurso), ITP Solutions, call centre support (Inverness), Spirit Media for media strategy and placement (Edinburgh), Seabridge Consultants, focus group activity (Orkney), TV Aye for the production of film and radio (Inverness) and Bluethistle Media for language development (Strathpeffer).”

Murray continues, “The Highlands and Islands contains many small companies that are highly innovative, but fragmented. The Naver Technology Group contract with Highlands and Islands Enterprise highlights a working model for the region, driven by AIMhi, whereby specialists seek each other out in order to form strategic alliances to formulate solutions for any customer.

“Significantly, AIMhi members who actually competed against each other for this particular tender are now actively working together on other projects, demonstrating a growing industry maturity.

“Many people stay here or move to the Highlands and Islands for the quality of life available. Just because individuals work in small firms doesn’t mean that they offer inferior skills. AIMhi has members with previous experience in London advertising agencies, the film industry, global business development and leading edge programming expertise. The regional economic development agency (Highlands and Islands Enterprise) has grasped the mettle and we are now working hand in hand to ensure that the future of the region benefits all.”

Platform PR

Platform PR was launched in September by a team from North of Scotland Water’s in-house PR division after the water authorities merged. Jane Cumming, chair of the IPR Scotland, heads up the firm which has offices in Beauly and Aberdeen.

“There are many independent practitioners in the Highlands and Islands,” says Cumming. “A lot of the larger companies from around the UK, especially the central-belt, have talked of setting up in Inverness. But it’s simple. If you are not there, then you won’t get the work. It all goes locally. It’s a six hour round trip to Inverness if you are travelling from the central belt, so if you can’t get there you won’t get the business.”

But this doesn’t necessarily have the same falling-points in reverse, continues Cumming: “Travelling is just part of the job. Being based in the Highlands means that I’m used to it. Yes, this does have its down points, but I’d rather spend an hour and a half driving to Fort William through some of the most beautiful scenery, than sitting in a traffic jam in the centre of Edinburgh. Sometimes you forget just how much of your time is spent travelling anyway when you are in this profession.”

Although competition is getting stronger Cumming says that the collaborative nature of the region helps drive business forward: “Collaborative work in the creative industry is common-place in the Highlands and Islands. In fact the communications industries are moving this way in general. It provides a larger platform for smaller niche players to form teams.”

Recently Cumming ran a recruitment event for the IPR in Inverness. It attracted 30 – 40 members. Seven years previously, they could have “all fitted into a phone-box,” she says.

However, still one of the greatest challenges is to get client companies in the region to use creative agencies at all: “Agencies here have to keep low overheads to, in turn, keep costs down and provide a good value for money service. That is very important for clients in the Highlands and Islands.”

Andrew Ross

Freelance PR consultant and journalist Andrew Ross moved to Berneray, Isle of Uist, last year from Oxford. Having worked previously as editor of a trade magazine, he joined a Hertfordshire-based PR agency, Romerco, to become account manager, but six months ago he moved to the Isle of Berneray.

The move appealed to him on an emotional level and was made possible by the improvements in travel and communications. And, the first step for Ross, after finding the right premises was to invest in a good communications system, including the first ISDN connection in Berneray.

After six months on the Isle, Ross already talks-up the benefits of island life: “I was attracted to the Western Isles because there is so much going on. Technologically almost anything can be done. Creatively it is invigorating and stimulating and the local bodies provide great support.

“I’ve been lucky enough to have understanding clients (which include Fischer Fixings and Addis, the largest housewear brand in the UK), and the first six months have been spent servicing them and getting set-up.”

However, as you would expect, there have been problems too. Ross says: “I’m hoping to tap into the local market now I’m established, but in the meantime most of my clients are based in the South. Although technology is greatly enabling, I do still have to journey south every month or so. The air service from the Island to Glasgow is very good, but costs can be prohibitive.”

Furthermore, the ferry to Skye takes little over an hour, but the service to Oban can take over six. Still, Ross would recommend the move: “I feel strongly that the future for this area is attracting more people to live and work here. There is a serious depopulation issue, but a mixture of new businesses and traditional could encourage more of the islanders to stay. It is the perfect antidote to city life and technology makes it more possible now than ever before.”


Dynam Graphics was established over 30 years ago in Inverness. Seven years ago it underwent a management buyout and was reformed under its new management team as Dynam.

The full-service agency now employs eight staff working on a raft of clients, public and private sector, local and national. Eleanor Neilson, a partner at Dynam, says that the company, after reaping the rewards of its experience in Inverness, is now looking to the central belt to expand its client list: “Inverness is often thought of as a Backwater. When people think of the north they tend to think of Aberdeen, and no further. But the clients that we have worked with help us translate our skills into experience. Because of the low overheads inherent to Inverness, our fees are competitive and creatively, we are just as good. There is no reason why we can’t steal business from the central belt.”

And Neilson is qualified to judge. As well as time in London she has grafted in Edinburgh working at Davis Design, the stomping ground of navyblue’s founding directors. Furthermore, Dynam has already been successful in doing so, having secured business from Tulloch Construction, amongst others.

However, Neilson admits that the Highlands and Islands is a completely different marketplace to that of the central belt and other regions: “The creative process can be challenging. You often have to hold the clients hand through it. You have to convince them of the merits of utilising a specialist agency.

“But clients are waking up and becoming more conscious of their image and I think that City status has helped Inverness.”

Moray Firth Radio

Gary Robinson took over as MD in 2000 with a remit to make the station more youth focussed, yet retain the loyal market that had enjoyed the station over the past couple of decades.

Robinson reveals that when he first took the reigns the sceptics were quick in coming, however that has now changed: “I got quite a lot of stick at first. The die-hard listeners did not like the changes that were being implemented. But we had to change for the sake of the future of the station. Before it was almost a community station. That perception had to change. We’re a business and it’s not just our listeners that we have to keep happy, it is the share holders too.”

The station’s play-list now caters for both markets and listeners can be listening to Gareth Gates one minute and The Beatles the next. However, MFR now splits its programming every evening, and while the FM broadcast continues to focus on the youth market MW dedicates its airspace to its traditional, diehard fan-base, a policy that seems to have paid off.

In the last round of RAJAR Results MFR had 131,000 listeners a week from a population of 237,000 – a 55 per cent reach and a 35.5 per cent market share. Compare this to December 2000 when the audience was just 119,000 with a 50 per cent reach and a 26.6 per cent market share. The facts suggest that perhaps the station is now successful at being all things to all people.

Moray Firth Radio (MFR) celebrates its 21st Birthday later this year with a series of events and competitions including the biggest music festival ever to be seen in the North of Scotland.

Shaw Marketing and Design

Shaw Marketing and Design has been operating in Edinburgh since 1986. However, three years ago, on the back of a series of new business wins, the agency decided to open an office in Shetland. The company had been working closely with the Shetland Islands Tourism Board and a small raft of clients from the region when Isabel Johnson, the deputy chief executive of the tourism board, approached the agency about opening an office in on the island.

Alistair Bruce, now joint managing director of Shaw – along with Johnson, associate director of the agency – following a recent MBO, claims that the opportunity was there to grow the client base, however to do so the agency needed a presence in the area. Shaw Marketing and Design now employs three members of staff in Shetland working on clients in the food and drink, art and craft, and the huge sea food industries. Recently it has also started work on the North Link Ferries account.

Bruce says: “It’s essential to have someone who understands the challenges. Working on the geographical fringes is different. You may think you know the market’s needs from your base in the central-belt, but you don’t. Shetland talks predominantly to Northern Europe, Japan and Russia because of the industry-base here. There is not a great deal of marketing to Scotland.

“You have to understand the market you are speaking to, even if it is tourism; it’s not your typical holiday maker that Shetland attracts.”


TVAYE is a new media partnership, based near Inverness. Founded by Charlie Wilson and George Cocker they combine more than thirty years experience in corporate video and broadcast television production. The pair have worked for many UK broadcasters as well as major international companies in the States, Canada and Japan.

Currently TVAYE produce TV commercials for broadcast by Grampian and Scottish Television as well as producing DVD and CD-ROMs for corporate clients, most of which are large organisations in the region .

TVAYE works for a number of media companies, PR and Ad agencies as well as government, council and educational bodies and charities in the Highlands and Islands.

However, as far as geographical boundaries are concerned they do not see a major problem and are able to function well in the environment.

Wilson says: “The industry in the Highlands and Islands is still controlled from elsewhere, most production companies use the region as a location while they are located in the central belt and further south. Since we set up last year, we have worked for clients who always used people from those areas, but we have found that they have been pleasantly surprised that we can facilitate their needs from here. We hope to continue to win new clients from the area with our expanding reputation and body of work. So, as far as we are concerned we would not like to work anywhere else.”

Pelican Design

Pelican Design on the Isle of Skye might have never happened. In the doom and gloom of Nottingham in the late-eighties Philip Slater was working as a graphic designer. However, he could stand it no more and moved to the West of Scotland to bring up his children and for a total life-style change.

But that wasn’t to be quite the case. Slater’s passion for design spurred him into setting up Pelican Design in Skye after just four months. Thirteen years later Pelican is working for a raft of clients around Scotland, including drinks giants, Diageo.

However, just under two years ago Pelican opened an office in Edinburgh to help secure more business from the central belt. Anne Slater, a partner in the business, says that this was done to overcome perceptions: “Although we had won business from all over the country I think that clients often felt that we were inaccessible because of our location. Many people see distance as a problem. They can’t see us being able to make a 9am meeting in Edinburgh. But meetings aren’t a problem.

“There is also the question of competition. With all the competition around Scotland why should a client give its business to us on Skye? Really the office in Edinburgh was opened to counter these perceptions.”

Yet the location has its bonuses too. Before Guiness UDV was taken over by Diageo, the client used to come to the island to meet the agency and tie it into a weekend away.

Designmill Partnership

Designmill Partnership has been in business for five years employing seven staff at its recently converted offices in a former stable block, just outside Inverness. The agency specialises in two main areas of work: Communications (which incorporates corporate ID, communication, design and exhibition design) aimed at clients locally, and Way Finding – a specialist sign design and analysis service which has already established itself as a UK-wide niche business, working with hospitals, embassies and consulates.

However, while agency boss, Tristran Wolston, feels that the time may be right to try and expand the geographical scope of the Communications side of the business in Scotland, he also feels that Scotland may not be the natural progression:

“There are intentions to expand the search for business into the rest of the country, but already there are a number of spin-offs from the Way Finder business and, to be honest, it is just as easy to get to London as it is the central belt from Inverness.”

“We have a strong studio team and everyone that works here wants to work here. They have chosen to live in the Highlands having held senior design positions all over the country.”

Wolston too, made the decision to move to Inverness in 1995 having spent his career in London and the home counties.

Perhaps the one stumbling block of the agency’s location is the cost of BA flights. And take into account too that Wolston would describe the company as Scottish-based rather than Inverness-based when pitching to a client: “When you are talking to a client in the south they could just about point to Scotland on a map. Ask them to point out Inverness and that reduces dramatically.”

The Oban Times

The Oban Times has been going for 142 years. Over time it has conquered its market and now boasts an ABC circulation of 18,000. Its two editions – Oban and Fort William – cover a 400 square mile area, including Mull, The Outer Hebrides and Skye.

And, if you consider the fact that Oban only has a population of around 9,000, then that gives you an the idea of the uptake of the newspaper throughout the rest of the UK, with newsagents from as far a field as Inverness and Edinburgh all stocking the title.

However it is the Western Highlands and Islands that The Oban Times commands. With four offices – in Oban, Campbell Town, Fort William and Lochgilphead – the title employs 45 staff and also publishes the Campbell Town Courier and Argyleshire Advertiser, both tabloids have a joint circulation of 7,000.

Furthermore, the Oban Times Group owns a stable of magazine titles Including Scottish Field and a raft of fishing titles which are based in Edinburgh.

Nicola Murphy, advertising manager at The Oban Times, says: “We are about the eighth largest regional paper in Scotland by area, so the market place is huge. Furthermore, I think that the regional press can be completely flexible, we can produce creative advertising ideas and tie into regional competitions. It is a very trusting medium, and what people read and see, be it editorial or advertising, they can trust and identify with. It makes the communication all the more personal.”


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