Aberdeen Focus

By The Drum, Administrator

October 9, 2003 | 12 min read

It’s time, as the marketing magazine for Scotland, to shatter a myth that has hung over the Scottish marketing industry for too long. This myth, whether instigated by agencies in Glasgow and Edinburgh out of spite, animosity or just sheer laziness, has been giving people the wrong idea for years.


Aberdeen is not actually very far away from the Central Belt.

The truth is, far from the weary trek envisioned by most people when faced with the prospect of travelling to the Granite City, a mere two-and-a-half hours will see you arriving in the biggest city in Scotland’s North East. Maybe less if you “boot it”, in Glaswegian.

Further evidence of the proximity of Aberdeen was, upon arrival, finding the main vein of conversation to be remarkably similar to that in the Central Belt.

“What a shame about Faulds,” was one of the most uttered sentences in The Drum’s Aberdeen trip this month, proving once and for all, at least to us, that the Scottish marketing community doesn’t stop at Stirling.

In fact, at this particular moment in time, the Aberdeen industry has a lot of good news to speak about. While agencies based further south in the country have been fighting through some difficult days over the last couple of years, the Aberdeen marketplace has been, if not booming, then certainly healthy.

This is partly because of the age-old cash cow that is the oil industry. Partly, but by no means entirely. In fact, many members of the Aberdeen agency community are keen to stress that they have a lot more to their portfolios than oilrigs and hard hats. Gerry Kelly, managing director of The Art Department, is keen to distance himself from the stereotypical view of North East agencies as just energy promoters. Over the last few years his agency has been diversifying its client list to include, amongst others, a biotechnology research company, a software developer and the Government. Alongside this diversification has been the growth of the agency’s new media offering, which has facilitated the recruitment of in-house programmers.

Kelly says: “One of our designers, Heather, came up here a couple of years ago. Her partner came up for a job in the oil industry and she had to think long and hard about moving to Aberdeen. Her friends were all saying ‘you’ll just be drawing oil rigs all day.’ She came up anyway and was really surprised. A few years later and I don’t think she’s drawn an oil rig yet.”

Equally keen to stress their non-energy credentials are the directors of The Big Picture. The ten-strong agency’s client list includes international drinks brands The Macallan and Remy Martin, as well as the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

Director Mick McKie says: “I think if you looked at a lot of the agency portfolios up here you would see they have a disproportionately large amount of clients in the energy sector, which is unhealthy. If you took the energy industry away it would make absolutely no difference to The Big Picture at all. Absolutely none, and that’s entirely by design.”

Concrete, a young agency founded by Bryan Campbell, is another example of an expanding client list outside of the reach of the energy sector. The agency, which was initially founded as a design specialist, has grown to incorporate advertising in its offering to clients, who include Northsound Radio, international whisky distributors Duncan Taylor & Co. and Orkney-based clothes shop Klaize. “A lot of our work doesn’t come from the oil and gas industry, so if some people are finding it’s slowing down a bit, it tends not to really affect us.”

In fact, this “slowing down a bit” is one of the reasons people are looking elsewhere for clients. Though the oil and gas industry in Aberdeen is far from dying off, there is a general feeling that, in the years to come, it will be spending gradually less on its marketing as the major companies begin to wind down their operations in the North East.

While it should be stressed that the energy industry in the area will doubtlessly remain strong for years to come, more agencies are realising that it makes sense to have a more diverse client list. John Doyle, creative director of Greybar Design, says: “I think the traditional perception is that it’s just all about oil and gas, but I think it’s becoming much more diverse. The oil industry is great for the city, but whether it helps to nurture creativity is another matter.” Steve Duguid, managing director of Greybar, adds: “The downturn in the oil industry has forced agencies to look outside that sector for business.”

And in looking outside the sector several companies have also looked outside the area. Just as agencies in Glasgow and Edinburgh are finding that, in this age of e-mail and videophones, distance is becoming a steadily smaller barrier, the Aberdeen agencies are also pushing out of the North East for their new business.

One such is Hampton and Associates, an agency that has picked up work for, amongst others, Kraft Foods. Managing director Mike Hampton comments: “Gradually the location of a business is meaning less and less. It is no longer all that important. It is the quality of people that count. And we have managed not only to produce some very good work, but some major work for major clients all over the country and into Europe.”

McKie, at The Big Picture, agrees. He says: “When we got to Paris Remy Martin told us that our location is a secondary consideration. It doesn’t matter where we are.”

However, while several agencies are enjoying success outside of the region, some feel that the region itself is being neglected. Aberdeen agency Covey McCormick has built a client list that includes a number of national and international accounts, including First Group and Nautronix. Yet director Raymond Morrison feels agencies in the area could still be doing more to capture local business. He explains: “I would like to see agencies in Aberdeen fighting harder to get a bigger slice of the local business: the big food companies, the big distillers, Baxters and the like. Currently, there is very little being handled by local agencies. It is the same argument that you see in Edinburgh with the big banking business going to London. People do get up in arms and it is, or at least should be, the same here.

“I accept that we are not big enough to handle the likes of the Baxters food group in its entirety, but I would like to think that we, as an industry in Aberdeen, could play the bigger part in it. Maybe it is that we don’t push ourselves hard enough.”

The problem may not be confined to Aberdeen either. Some have found that clients throughout the North of Scotland can be decidedly close-minded about which agencies they look to. Alan Mearns of Mearns & Gill says: “Sometimes it is actually easier to get work internationally than it is in other Scottish cities. And I don’t think that it comes down to rivalries. It’s more down to local understanding and differences.”

However, it hasn’t stopped a particularly pro-active new business approach at Mearns & Gill, which, as well as the updating of the agency’s website, has seen a television commercial airing on Grampian Television. The ad, which has been airing since Christmas, has, according to Mearns, directly brought in a number of new accounts to the agency.

Another route to picking up new business is through alliance. Though Fifth Ring has long been one of the biggest agencies in Aberdeen and has enjoyed success bringing in its own accounts, a recent partnership with PR group Hatch has proved a further boon.

Fifth Ring director Ian Ord and Hatch director Graeme Jack had already known each other for years when the first discussions took place to join forces. However, despite an initial promising meeting, nothing further was discussed for months. Ord explains: “We’re huge believers in business planning and towards the end of the last financial year I’m thinking ‘we still haven’t got this together.’ I picked up the phone and we got together again. I said ‘You can spend a lot of money starting up in Aberdeen, but very few companies have started up an office in Aberdeen and succeeded here.’ We decided that the best use of resources was not for them to do an Aberdeen thing but for us to do a project together. We would represent their interests up here and in return they have specialisms down south that we can take advantage of.”

Since then the agency has worked together with Hatch on a number of client projects, including Ernst & Young.

Fifth Ring is not alone in the alliance stakes, either. Both Mearns & Gill and Covey McCormick have broadened their offerings with ties to other agencies (Barkers and the PR Partnership respectively).

Word of mouth has long been another major source of new business for agencies up and down the country. It’s also become very important for an Aberdeen design agency named Foyer Graphics. Foyer Graphics is part of a local charity organisation called Aberdeen Foyer, an organisation that provides training and educational support to homeless and disadvantaged young people in the city. Foyer Graphics is the trading arm of AF, and has built a portfolio of more than 70 clients, all through word of mouth. Laura McAra of Foyer Graphics says: “We have rapidly expanded, with over 70 clients to date, which is a great achievement, especially since it has been through word of mouth. Our clients are key partners, other charities and private companies. We are very happy that our particular style of personal service and commitment to high standards is valued by regular clients and our reputation continues to grow. Our variety of clients is comprised of oil companies through to a local charity on a limited budget.”

Aside from the issue of finding work, there is another problem facing the agencies of Aberdeen, however. Staffing. Though by no means unique to the Granite City, the problem of finding good staff is one that cropped up several times amongst a number of the agencies The Drum interviewed. The problem, it seems, is not the lack of graduates coming out of the various universities in the area, but that most of these graduates are heading south as soon as they graduate.

Greybar’s Doyle says: “I think the main problem here is being able to find good, experienced staff. Aberdeen is not the sexy place to live, but it’s a great place to live. Maybe that’s the problem, that the city should be doing more to promote that. It’s definitely a problem not to be able to tap into a pool of very talented people. I think Aberdeen as a city has to do more to market itself as an attractive place to be. As far as the energy sector goes, it’s attractive because it’s the place to be, but the creative community needs to get together and present it as a desirable place for creatives to live and work.”

Which brings us back to the problem of perception. Although there are a number of agencies producing impressive work outside of the oil and gas sector, the city’s economy as a whole is still firmly in the energy industry’s clutches. Mike Robson, new business director at Mearns & Gill, remarks: “The thing is, the oil industry has an effect on everything. Property, automotives, it’s all tied to people coming in and working in the oil industry. It all comes down to the price of a barrel of oil.”

Ord, at Fifth Ring, agrees: “The reality of the economy here is whether you admit it or not, if the oil industry sneezes, the rest of us catch a cold, and that’s just the way it is. I think you’d be naïve to think that the single biggest contributor to the economy doesn’t affect the economy.”

Clearly there is good work being produced in Aberdeen that is not tied to the energy sector. But could the eventual demise of the oil and gas industry in Scotland’s North East spell doom for Aberdeen’s creative community?

Hampton, at Hampton and Associates, believes not.

He states: “Before the oil industry Aberdeen had the fishing industry. The transition, although not seamless, has happened, and it can happen again. I don't think that we will see the death of the oil industry in Aberdeen my lifetime, but Aberdeen will evolve and cope as it has done in the past.

“We are flexible as an industry and as an agency. We have to be.”


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