Over the past ten years Leeds has undergone the kind of facelift that Michael Jackson must dream of. It has emerged better looking, more confident, undeniably proud of what it is and what it stands for and, what’s more, it doesn’t look like it’s on the brink of falling apart.
Like Manchester, it has emerged as a proverbial phoenix from the flames of the post-industrial furnace, shaking off the ashes of a reputation as a gritty, flat-cap, working town and proudly displaying its fresh cosmopolitan plumage for all to see. If you’re now thinking “what a load of old bollocks”, then you clearly haven’t been to the city for quite some time. Or, failing that, you’re just a very good judge of the written word.
Leeds recently came top of a poll in Conde Nast Traveller magazine as the UK’s favourite city to spend a weekend away. Walking down the streets, in the day and especially at night, the place has an undeniable buzz that permeates right through the shop, pub and club culture and deep into the business bedrock. The commercial and financial sectors are truly thriving, whilst the burgeoning media and marketing scene is inflating to the sort of size where its buoyancy is now one of the key factors in keeping the city and its reputation firmly afloat. A lot of firms have dipped their toes in the water, liked what they’ve felt and dived right in. Some have sunk (CWG seems to be a name that continually crops up) whilst most have bobbed along nicely. Brahm is definitely in the “strong swimmers” category.
The agency, currently employing 115 folk and boasting a turnover of £15m, is now entering its 21st year and looks as if it’s enjoying coming of age. John Morgan, joint MD alongside Julie Hanson, revealed that the agency has just completed its most successful year to date and is understandably a keen advocate of “the Knightsbridge of the North”.
“The new ‘coolness’ of Leeds means more graduates are happier to settle here and work with the big agencies, rather than trek to London as they did a few years ago,” says Morgan. \"Leeds is now the third largest media and communications centre in the UK and as a major player in the city. We like to think that Brahm has played its part in making this happen.”
Alongside Brahm, agency stalwarts such as Poulter Partners and Advertising Principles have unquestionably played a huge role in sculpting the modern day marketing scene, and both seem to be happy continually chipping away at their masterpiece. On the media side, Brilliant has the biggest hammer in town and, since forming in 1999, the team have carved a niche that, whilst not unchallenged, is difficult for their competitors to contend with. Like Morgan, Cathy Burns, Brilliant’s recruitment director, believes the firm has benefited from Leeds’ renaissance.
“Investment into the city has made Leeds an attractive city in which to live and work and this has, in turn, attracted talent from the south and improved business opportunities for all.” Burns believes more and more people are making the lifestyle choice of moving into the city, from London in particular, meaning; “We are therefore able to increasingly offer our clients the very best talent at a reasonable cost. Convincing clients that there is ‘no need to shop in London’ has never been easier.”
Which is a bold statement to make and one that is not met with uniform acquiescence. Mike Phillipson, the man with his foot firmly on the accelerator at fast-moving ad agency PWLC, believes that, despite the fact that the city and the industry within is motoring along, more fine tuning needs to be done before it can be assured of beating other centres over the finishing line. He noted, “There is a big job to be done here and in the regions. It will take another three years of hard work from the more creatively and strategically focused regional ad agencies, like PWLC, to deliver anything close to the consistently high standard of advertising work that is produced on a regular basis by the London advertising agencies.” He does, however, believe the talent is already in the city but hard work and “plenty of education” is required to overcome preconceived ideas and prejudices.
James Eate from the Thinking Agency has spent twenty years working for ad agencies within the confines of the capital and believes “there’s nothing there that clients can’t get in Leeds with a lot less hassle”. Nevertheless, if he were having a one-on-one chinwag with Phillipson, he’d certainly agree that work needs to be done to sell the city’s firms as the marketing services providers of choice. “I guess, at the end of the day, using a big brand London agency is no different to choosing other branded products that enhance the image of the user,” Eate observed. “So, what we have to do is make our brands more desirable. We have to raise the image of our agencies to the point where they attract the clever money.”
One body that is working hard to ensure that this clever money is wisely spent (meaning it’s spent in Leeds) is Leeds Media. The organisation, under the auspices of Terry Morden, has grown rapidly since its inception and, with the help of agencies such as Brahm, Poulters and Lynx PR, appears to be garnering huge industry support and making genuine inroads into eroding client misperceptions. The team’s latest initiative, the Refuel event on 18 November, looks set to attract in excess of 200 decision-makers and aims to further enhance the status of Leeds as a centre of excellence for creative media. We wish them well.
Another benefit of Leeds Media is that, along with the long established YPA, it helps to create something that some commentators believe the city’s industry lacks – a sense of community. Now, according to JDA boss Carl Hopkins, “there is definitely one developing”.
He said, with admirable candour, that “the industry, including clients, educational bodies and other suppliers in the food chain, [need to] make the effort to get off their arses and take part.” Adding, “It isn’t just a case of networking, it’s about education and promotion. Promote the skills and talents of the people within the area and we may ensure they don’t head south, while also attracting the budgets to head north.”
Ian Thompson, of Thompson Design, also noted the importance of working together – as much for instilling a sense of camaraderie as for promoting the city itself. “I think Leeds Media is fulfilling a vital role which simply was not happening before,” he explained. “Leeds as a city is now of a size where it should have a strong network of companies all talking to each other, sharing ideas on a basic level and having beers together.” Surely there can’t be that many people willing to argue with that sentiment?
So, what, apart from a sharing a few beers, does the future hold for the marketing services community within the ever-evolving cityscape of Leeds? Well, opinions vary.
“I think that next year will be a test for many businesses in the city,” opined Home’s Martin O’Toole. “Competition is tough and set to become tougher. Clients demand more from us today – more transparency, more hard work and more return on investment.” But, according to Alan Rogan from The SPIRIT of, O’Toole needn’t worry (not that we thought he was anyway). Rogan sees firms like Home flourishing, as “the advertising agency sector will change quite dramatically from the large full service offer to smaller specialised companies.” Rogan also believes that the design sector will remain buoyant, with agencies such as his and next door neighbours Lowd+Klea thriving. For their part Lowd+Klea seem content just to hope that the city’s “northern clients allow it to start using its creativity”. Gordon Forbes, from long-running PR success story Ptarmigan, wants to see “more companies achieving critical mass – there are too many small companies”.
Whilst James O’Donnell from The Church Agency wonders how the companies with that mass in the first place will remain fighting fit into the future. He speculated, “It will be interesting to see if the two other main players can survive the transition that Poulters went through from first to second generation ownership and management (anyone remember Charles Walls?). You need that critical mass of several big agencies to sustain a pool of talent to dip into – the big agencies define the city.
One thing’s for sure, with impressive new agencies (think Swamp and Mediavest), networked firms (The Union) and established players (like EHS Brann, Propaganda and MBD) all eager to make their mark on the city, the evolution of the marketing scene will continue apace as more and more clients follow the Conde Nast Traveller suggestion and take some time to hang out in Leeds.
It is fair to say that outside of Leeds, finding an agency scene is a little tricky. However, one city famed for an industrial expertise and a group of unemployed men who took their clothes off to the sounds of Tom Jones, is doing particularly well. Leaving the steel industry and The Full Monty out of the equation (not to mention Sean Bean), the marketing activity in Sheffield is putting the city on the map for all the right reasons. Admittedly, Sheffield doesn’t have the depth of agencies that Leeds does, but it is slowly building up a strong base of quality agencies.
One of the top agencies in Sheffield is The Source, which handles work for 3, DFS and Sony. Commenting on the “new Sheffield”, Greg Clark, The Source’s creative director, said, “Sheffield still has an industrial scene but nowadays there’s more of youth market, entertainment and technology sector influences. We are able to enjoy what we do and so we’ll keep doing it here. Sheffield is our location, but it doesn’t dictate how our business is run and the standard of work we do.”
He went on to identify that, along with The Source, there is probably only one other major player in the city. “I would say that Dig For Fire is the other big agency in Sheffield, but there are a number of smaller agencies that are growing. Sheffield has a lot of talent and it is our responsibility to champion the region.”
Returning the compliment is Charles Glover, the managing director of Dig For Fire – the agency formed via the amalgamation of Scope and Paradigm. He commented, “I suppose in Sheffield the biggest agencies are probably us and The Source, very few match us in terms of size, but that’s not to say there are not some smaller outfits with some great work. One key player is MB Advertising, which has 60 staff and deals purely with the motor industry. Iris is also becoming an important part of the area’s agency scene.”
As sickening as this mutual praise may be, it is a breath of fresh air away from the rivalry between Leeds and Manchester. The agencies that have achieved the most success in the region are very keen to see Sheffield emerge just as Leeds has over the last 20 years. Glover added, “It can only stand to benefit Sheffield if we have a number of high-quality agencies, whether it be for attracting clients, potential employees or supplier base.”
So, without this desirable infrastructure, can Sheffield agencies still turn the heads of marketing bosses? It would appear so, with some major accounts heading to agencies within the city. Dig For Fire itself lists HSBC, First Direct and Blue Sky Holidays on its client base. The Designers Republic, also in Sheffield, can boast of contracts with Nickelodeon UK, Warp Records and Nokia.
Quba is another of Sheffield’s rising stars. Darren Bristow, director with the new media agency, attacked claims that attracting staff of the highest calibre is a tough job. “Most of our staff are local to Sheffield or travel from Leeds; it has been difficult in the past but Sheffield is benefiting from new apartment blocks that provide the city with an opportunity to attract a more discerning and professional type of person to relocate,” he said.
Outside of Sheffield, the agency scene is nigh on non-existent. However, Doncaster, Harrogate and Bradford all have agencies that help to raise the bar for creative and strategic excellence in Yorkshire. The Publicity Bureau in Doncaster is one agency that has a reputation that precedes it – many of the agencies working in Sheffield and surrounding areas hold up the Bureau with some esteem. David White, creative director with the agency, is also confident that location is irrelevant when it comes to recruitment. White argued, “The bigger we have become, the easier it has been to recruit the very best staff to the agency, even if they are coming from out of the area. The profile has risen substantially over the last three years and I think if it hadn’t, we would have struggled to make the appointments we did in that time. Our current standing is either number two or three of agencies outside London.”
In Harrogate, RAM Media Group’s acquisition of PDA Public Relations ensures that, throughout Yorkshire, experienced and skilled agencies can be found.
The Ladders Agency in Bradford is also fighting against the knockers. Jean Fallows, a director with the agency, explained, “We used to be in Leeds, but we moved because of property prices and car parking. We have a great spot now and don’t need to be in Leeds to win big business. I think, as a whole, the Yorkshire agency scene is a thriving one; there are good agencies with some strong people and great client bases.”
The Ladders Agency, which also has an office in London, has Parcelforce Worldwide, Rizzla and Greenflag on its own impressive client base.
So, with so many high-profile clients handing their accounts to Yorkshire agencies, it would appear the county has more than enough to seduce clients who look beyond stereotypes and appreciate the agencies for their talent and skills base.
Stuart Ledger, PR director of McKevitt and Kenwood, also in Sheffield, commented, “The scene in Sheffield and the other smaller parts of Yorkshire is one of considerable growth. It will get there eventually. As a city, Sheffield is about five or six years behind Leeds and, as with the changes to Birmingham, agencies and local officials are doing their best to alter perceptions. However, it will take a long time to shake the old identity.”
So, be sure to keep your eyes peeled over the next six years for the rest of Yorkshire as it joins Leeds in a bid to conquer the Northern marketing scene.