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North East Focus

By The Drum | Administrator

October 29, 2003 | 9 min read

Hopefully, to those living in the sunny South the age-old vision of bleak-faced

Northerners scurrying around their bleak cities in bleak weather is finally abating.

The North of England has seen a hell of a lot of investment over the past few years, with all the major Northern cities enjoying a period of development and rebirth. Now every city in England’s North can boast a wealth of both culture and leisure. Tourists are learning it can be well worth stopping on their way between London and Edinburgh. And you can now get a decent pint of Stella Artois in most pubs.

But, of all the Northern cities, Newcastle has enjoyed one of the most dramatic regenerations.

From being driven to its knees in the 1970s, due to the loss of the formerly powerful coal industry, Newcastle has dragged itself kicking into the 21st century. The city’s redevelopment came first with its establishment as an attractive leisure destination, but has since expanded to have the city become a cultural centre as well.

Earlier this year, Newcastle narrowly missed out on the title of European City of Culture for 2008, a clear sign of the city’s growing cultural strength.

This growth in confidence is not confined to culture and clubbing, either. The area’s marketing community has come through the recent downturn more bullish than most. Now that the dust has settled, there’s even some optimism about the loss of the City of Culture bid.

“If I was handling PR for the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative, I would want to position Newcastle as the alternative capital of culture,” says Stefan Lepowski, managing director of Karol Marketing. The agency handles PR and strategic marketing briefs for clients such as Exxon Mobil, Nike and Barbour. He continues: “The reason is that journalists are going to want to contrast what is going on in Liverpool with what’s going on elsewhere.”

In terms of new business, the area’s agencies are increasingly confident in pushing south for clients.

Mere Mortals, an animation and post-production agency that works both with television companies and marketing agencies, has found a growing market among London companies. Since 1999, Mere Mortals has produced work for, amongst others, Channel 4, ITV Networks, Gillette and computer games giant Electronic Arts. Managing director David Jeffries comments: “When you get these guys up from Soho they are fearful of costs. They assume as soon as they step in the place it’ll cost them £300. We’ll take a look at what they need us to do and it might only take us a day. They’ll say, ‘Are you sure? It’ll only take one day?’.

“I think what’s happening is you don’t have to be round the corner anymore. You don’t have to be in Soho to do this. The sooner people realise that you don’t have to be round the corner to do global business the better.”

“Geordies seem to be in vogue, people seem to like us,” remarks David Urwin, chief executive of Black and White. Recently rebranded from Urwin Garton Publicity, Black and White handles a range of both local and national business, which includes Dixons, Jennings Motor Group and Edinburgh Woollen Mill. “I think people from down south have a positive view of Geordies as well,” Urwin continues. “We’re seen as down-to-earth, pragmatic people. And obviously the distance isn’t a problem anymore because of communications.”

The increase in confidence isn’t by any means confined to Newcastle and Gateshead themselves, either. Marketing and PR agency DTW group is based half-an-hour south of Newcastle, and counts several national accounts on its client list. Account manager Matt Rowlands says: “We’ve never really found it a problem being based here. We’ve always had clients outwith the North East, and quite a lot in the South. We’ve always managed to find talented people to come here and work. In terms of communications, you don’t have to have a face-to-face meeting every day, and when you do have one it’s easy enough to jump on a train.”

An outright advantage the North East agencies have, as compared to their North West or Yorkshire cousins, is overheads. Ian Gibbons left his position as managing director of the Fine Company in Leeds two years ago to set up direct marketing agency Mobius with former Bentley UK marketing director Martin Collete-Moss. He says: “We chose Newcastle for a number of reasons. One: emotional. I don’t have to work in Leeds anymore so I’m going to live in Newcastle. Two: there isn’t a dedicated DM agency north of Leeds until Edinburgh. And third: the cost. The cost of setting up and running an agency in Newcastle is considerably cheaper than Leeds or Manchester.” It certainly appears to have worked for Mobius, which, less than two years after formation, handles work for Mercedes Benz Daimler Chrysler, Greene King and Hyundai UK.

With the financial climate in the UK the way it is, the North East marketing community is also enjoying another of the area’s advantages. England’s big cities, and in particular London, are not known for their massively high quality of life. The North East, and in particular Newcastle, is.

The city, for the reasons already mentioned, is becoming an increasingly desirable place to live. Result: more talented people are being attracted to, and more importantly staying in, the area.

Chris Hill is managing director of Cravens Advertising. Though one of the longest-established agencies in Newcastle, work for Northern Rock, Beazer Housebuilding and Sport England, to name a few, more than serves to keep the company fresh. Hill comments: “Generally speaking, about the North East there is an optimistic tone. The town is alive and well and there’s a real feeling that people want to live here. A few years ago you would recruit a graduate, train them up for a couple of years and then they’d disappear off down to London. We’ve just recruited a couple of graduates who are really keen to live and work here.”

Another lure for young graduates (or, for that matter, more experienced staff) is the level of responsibility they will be given working in the North East, as Chris Rickaby, creative director of one of the area’s leading lights, Different, points out: “Traditionally, people from London, unless they’ve got a girlfriend or a wife from here, they won’t usually apply for a job in Newcastle. But I’ve noticed over the last couple of years there’s more and more CVs coming from down south.

“We’ve got a much stronger argument for people to stay here now. The industry is changing. They used to go to London but if you go there and work in an agency you’re not going to get the chance to work on the kinds of briefs we get here. You could go to TBWA and get the chance to work on some briefs that we couldn’t give you, but you’re up against a whole department, and Trevor himself, to get to work on that.

“I’ve seen guys’ portfolios who have worked in London for 10 years and they’ve got nothing to show for it. If you worked here for 10 years you’d have 10 portfolios.”

However, despite the area’s growing popularity and confidence, there are those within it who still believe more needs to be done for the North East’s image. Newcastle’s popularity has grown over the past few years as its reputation for vibrant nightlife has spread throughout the country. Is this a bad reflection on the city? Its marketing community certainly seems to think not. The counter-argument is that, with all the recent investment in the region, the Newcastle and Gateshead area is becoming much more than a good place for a “piss up”.

“It’s always been something that’s been associated with us, but I think the cultural element of the city has superseded that,” says Jane Longrigg, a director of Blue River Design. The consultancy does work for a number of the city’s cultural developments, such as Baltic Contemporary Art Centre, and is strongly in favour of pushing the region as a whole.

“There are a lot more things about the city that would make people want to come here than just the level of ‘well, it’s a good place to go for a night out.’ I was disappointed we didn’t get the City of Culture, but the run-up to it, for the last three or four years, did an awful lot for us in building up the area.”

Steve Reed, a director of Martin Tait Redheads, agrees. “When the news of the culture bid came through, the city took it really hard, it was a real blow. But the thing is, all the things that the city of culture was about are already here. I think everyone is feeling now that the city of culture is already here, we just have to bring it to life.

“The city is, rightly or wrongly, known as being a nightlife city, and of course the thing about that is that it is tied into relatively mindless activities. But I think the culture is coming through now and balancing it out.”

MTR is playing its part in the promotion of Newcastle’s culture through the advertising for client the Biscuit Factory, the largest commercial art gallery in the UK.

Throughout Newcastle and Gateshead there is a strong feeling of determination not to be trodden down by its Southern counterparts. And with London, and other areas throughout the UK, becoming tougher places to live and find work, and Newcastle, by contrast, becoming stronger and more desirable than ever, it seems England’s North East may just be in position to capitalise.

You’ll find few bleak faces in this toon.

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