West Midlands focus

By The Drum | Administrator

November 27, 2003 | 13 min read

With the exception of one or two, the majority of West Midlands agencies have been a little quiet recently, while a plethora of agencies in Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle have been busy winning a succession of multimillion-pound accounts. Fearing that the region’s marketeers may be trapped under something heavy, Adline set out to free, then quiz, them over where they’ve been and what they’re up to.

Kicking off with the worthy recipient of Midlands Agency of the Year at the Adline Agency Business Awards, Rees Bradley Hepburn is first port of call. Sitting pretty within the confines of its idyllic Meriden headquarters, RBH has become the leading light of the region’s agency scene.

This year RBH has won the account for Hyundai dealer marketing (setting up a bespoke agency for the firm), created the campaign to support the launch of the revamped Bullring and has continued to work with a string of impressive existing clients.

So, is life lonely at the top? Managing director Debra Hepburn commented: “At RBH it disappoints us that we remain one of a tiny, ever-decreasing clutch of agencies of note. The vibrancy that existed when we broke away, when Big first started, when Wallis Tom was at its height and Cogent was still a national name seems to be in short supply in 2003.

“Yet when that vibrancy is found in the Midlands we believe it is more defined than ever before. RBH continuously finds itself up against other out-of-region and, increasingly, London agencies.. We’re producing the kind of work for the kind of clients many London agencies would give their eye teeth for.”

The region’s biggest agency, McCann Erickson Birmingham, has had a busy year – this summer saw the recruitment of Paul Baker as creative director, after the agency’s 18-month search, and the resurgence of the group’s Bristol operation has been of great benefit to the central office, as the two are working closer than ever before. The acquisition of Barkers has also bolstered the agency’s offering, particularly in terms of public relations, for which the agency is regarded as the region’s strongest.

Chief executive Dean Lovett believes attitudes need to change for the region’s agencies to benefit, commenting: “Instead of bleating on about how much coverage other regions of the country get in the marketing press or having a pop at other agencies in the area, Midlands agency heads should spend more time supporting and developing the marketing scene in the West Midlands and giving the press something to talk about.

“I would like to see the region up its game to support PACE, create training opportunities for the young talent, to work together more, be more professional and create a Midlands marketing industry that we can all be proud of.”

Joining Lovett on his soapbox is Julian Reynolds, joint managing director at Golley Slater. The Edgbaston office of the Golley Slater group sits as one of the stronger of the medium-sized agencies within the region. Reynolds is convinced the region is looking for a united force: “The West Midlands agency scene has been quietly successful in what have been quite tough times. I’d like to see agencies getting together in some kind of forum to shout from the rooftops about our collective successes.”

Golley Slater’s client base includes David Wilson Homes, NFU Mutual and Transco as well as recent win Young’s Brewery.

HRO’C is another of the region’s strong medium-sized agencies providing a comprehensive full-service offering to a diverse client base. HRO’C’s 39-strong team is headed up by managing director Steve Riley. Following last month’s announcement that Talisman Marketing had gone into liquidation, Emma Wilkinson, Talisman’s managing director, stated that there was little future for the medium-sized agencies today. However, Riley is adamant that HRO’C, along with other agencies in the West Midlands, is fighting fit. “The death of Talisman and one or two other minnows over the last couple of years signifies nothing more than reinforcement of the survival of the fittest syndrome. HRO’C, McCann’s, RBH, Cogent, Golley Slater and WAA – the bigger ones remain and continue to grow and strengthen, perhaps to the cost of those smaller outfits who remain obsessed with self-publicity, but who are not always quite so consistently good at publicising their clients. Birmingham today has some fine agencies, produces and attracts quality staff and offers an impressive collective portfolio of clients handled in the region. The future is promising for those companies that are sensibly structured, are committed and demonstrate good old-fashioned integrity,” Riley said.

One of the agencies that Riley highlights is Cogent, which at one stage of its life was far and away the biggest and strongest of the entire region’s marketing agencies. Unfortunately, as tough times have hit a host of agencies, Cogent has ostensibly suffered more than others. However, strategy planner Mike Rayner explains that the future is bright: “Currently, the prospects look pretty good. We’ve won a couple of large pieces of business recently and there is more decent-looking new business in the pipeline than we’ve had for at least three years. It’s not Ferraris all round by any means but I personally am feeling more bullish looking forward to next year than I have for ages.”

Much in the way Cogent has faced difficult times, PHWT has also been in the wars. In a deal that should have created the region’s most potent agency, the merger between Palmer Hargreaves and Wallis Tomlinson has not exactly gone to plan. A shell of its former self, PHWT needs a much improved 2004.

While so many within the region have been quiet with regards to new business wins, one agency that has enjoyed a particularly buoyant year is WAA. The Sutton Coldfield-based agency has over 50 TV commercials running this Christmas, including work for Duo (the new airline), Hornby, Tomy and Vivid Imaginations. The agency’s growth in the toy market has been spurred by the London satellite office of WAA, although much of the work on brands like Scalextric has been done from the West Midlands base.

Like Lovett, WAA’s creative director, Chris Hughes, is despondent at the lack of effort made by some of the region’s agencies in creating a close-knit agency community. He said: “We’ve got PACE down here trying to create bonding amongst agencies. I don’t know if it’s lack of numbers but there are still some agencies who aren’t interested, whereas the Northern publicity associations have managed to achieve more bonding between agencies.”

As one of the most well established West Midlands agencies, at the grand age of 40, Edgbaston-based Wyatt International is a stalwart of the region’s agency landscape. Working predominantly in the business-to-business market, the agency is one of the strongest of the medium-sized firms. Under the helm of managing director Karen-Anne Bernie, Wyatt is renowned for its proficient PR division, which is part of an equally developed full service offering. Wyatt’s clients include Minova, Thomson Directories, 3M and BAC.

Also in Edgbaston is Seal Communications: deputy managing director Claire Deeley believes the region is lacking in the way of major agencies who can compete with the best from across the country. “The region could maybe do with some bigger agencies with some more clout, who can command really big clients and the best people. However, that’s not to say there isn’t talent already in the region.” Seal itself is a medium-sized, full-service agency, with a strong specialisation in the travel, leisure and pub sectors. Working with clients such as the Punch Pub Company, Tourism Malaysia and Hanco ATMs, Seal has just expanded on its team of 28 with the acquisition of a London-based agency.

One of the quieter of the region’s players is BDW. The retail and channel marketing specialists have a growing list of blue-chip clients including Marks & Spencer, T-Mobile and Alfa Romeo. Chief executive and founder of the agency, Alec Thompson, commented: “It has become vitally important for agencies to differentiate themselves. We have achieved success by creating a niche to become one of the UK’s leading agencies within our field of specialism.”

And in Wolverhampton, full service agency Connect has become widely regarded as one of the region’s most adept medium-sized operations. Managing director Rob Hampton has steered the agency to success working on clients such as Multivision, LDV and Bentley.

Three-time winner of the Agency of the Year award at Cream, Coventry-based Parenthesis is another sitting squarely in the medium sized agency bracket. Spearheaded by Tim and Linda Holmes, this 30-strong team is led by its creative charms. Born out of a design agency, the now integrated marketing firm is highly respected for its flair and creative approach. Tim Holmes commented: “It has been very difficult for the small to medium-sized agencies, but we’re confident about the future. We have a team of 30, plus freelancers, and have ambitions for the agency to grow, ideally to about 50 people – we don’t want to lose that hands-on approach.”

In the realm of public relations, the West Midlands can boast of a legion of talented agencies. Haslimann Taylor, the Sutton Coldfield-based agency, was last month acquired by Huntsworth plc, which owns Harrison Cowley. Bron Eames, managing director at the agency, commented: “Before being acquired, we were the largest independent PR agency in the region. Despite this, there are still a number of leading Manchester PR agencies that are bigger than us. But, the West Midlands does have a strong PR offering – ourselves, McCann- Erickson, Citigate, Harrison Cowley and Willoughby are all solid and talented PR firms.”

Harrison Cowley, which has a high-profile client-base that include, Land Rover, National Express and Mitchells & Butlers has witnessed the evolution of the region’s agency scene from the centre of Birmingham. Associate director Mireille Toddington, said: “Generally the Midlands scene is more settled and consolidated than those in the North. We had our major growth spurt in the Midlands a few years ago and only the strongest survived, so it will be interesting to see how the Manchester scene develops and who’s still around in five year’s time.”

Citigate Communications, which has a team of 30, works on clients such as Conoco Jet, Bavaria Beer, Claire’s Accessories and Tarmac. Managing director Christine Arthur believes it is up to agencies to support the region as much as they can. “The profile of the West Midlands is improving and it’s in all of our interests to support organisations such as Marketing Birmingham as they try and market Birmingham proactively.”

Commenting on the subject of recruiting talent to the region, Arthur explained: “The West Midlands does not have the reputation for marketing services that Manchester, Leeds or Edinburgh does. Graduates wouldn’t naturally put Birmingham on their hit list from which to start their careers in marketing.”

Ian Bates, managing director of one of the region’s most promising agencies, The Bright Consultancy, said: “The reputation of Birmingham agencies is growing and we are seeing more potential recruits from areas such as London and Manchester, but it has to be questioned whether this is more a reflection of tough times than reputation.”

While the region could stand to benefit from one or two more agencies in the mould of the high-flying Northern agencies and the West Midlands’ own RBH, the girth of stable, highly creative medium-sized agencies is promising for the future of the region. And the emergence of small, creative agencies with the potential to tap into the region’s marketing communications business is evidence that the region is far from entering its demise. The continued inward investment into Birmingham and the surrounding area to regenerate the region is also likely to boost the industry and, while the agencies may have been a little quiet of late, they do say it’s the quiet ones you have to watch.

Ones to Watch

Manchester United’s youth policy has secured them year on year success. Adline looks at which West Midlands agencies will be making the headlines in the near future ...

M3 Communications Limited

Since its rebirth in 2002, when M3 Communications merged with Advantage Advertising and Marketing and M3 Design, the company has enjoyed a period of fast development, growing its client base by more than 20 per cent in its first year. Account director Paul Shaw commented: “We’re recruiting at the moment and we’re doing more business than last year – we’ve got new clients and existing clients have been investing more into their marketing spend, which is very encouraging.”

Ad One

When Lesniak Jones Liddell closed its doors just over a year ago, one of the breakaway agencies was Ad One. The Stoke-based (yes, we know it’s not strictly the West Midlands) agency is a highly creative marketing communications agency, led by Mark Lesniak, Alex Swann and former Saatchi creative Richard Grisdale. Working with clients such as Michelin and Friends Provident, Ad One has the potential and ambition to hit the big time.

Mad Avenue

The brainchild of Andy Walton, the former managing director of Wallis Tomlinson, Mad Avenue has already picked up clients West Midlands Travel and National Express. The success of small breakaways like Mad Avenue suggests the region’s marketing scene has a bright future. And, with two former Wallis Tomlinson creative directors also expected to form a new start-up in the near future, could the region yet reap the rewards of the PHWT merger?

The Bright Consultancy

Formed in March 2000 by Ian Bates after he had left Barkers, The Bright Consultancy has grown to a 12-strong PR team, working with clients such as the RAC, Baxi and Fujifilm. With a creative approach to PR, The Bright Consultancy has the potential to become one of the strongest independent PR agencies in the West Midlands.

Austin Barrett Brock

The second breakaway from Lesniak Jones Liddell is Austin Barrett Brock, spearheaded by Phil Barrett. Operating mainly in the business-to-business sector, ABB has managed to secure deals with Samsung and Jacuzzi UK during the first 12 months of business.


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