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Dundee focus

By The Drum, Administrator

December 3, 2003 | 11 min read

The past 12 months have not been easy for those in the Central Belt. Mass redundancies and closure have made headlines in what will definitely be seen as the biggest annus horribulus this industry has seen in recent times. But, while this has been the case in the two largest cities in Scotland, what has been happening elsewhere in the country?

Dundee has, over the past few years, been quietly building up a strong reputation in terms of the creative and gaming industries. But at the same time the city as a whole has prospered and with that a number of firms have popped-up to make their mark on the city.

So, has it been doom and gloom in Dundee, or have the bigger cities taken more of a hit because they are closer to where the real financial problems are? Speaking to many of the companies within the Dundee and Tayside area, there appears to be a real feeling of optimism that the city will finally be able to hold its own against the big boys of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Creativity is at a high and a strong tourist market has meant that many of the firms have yet to be hit as hard as some might have predicted.

Dundee has a long tradition of printing due to the heritage of DC Thomson, but the latest publication to come out of the city, Vibe, is independent of the publishing giant and has high ambitions.

Already the company has expanded from being offered as a free magazine in the city’s pubs and clubs to a national focus, with a fully functioning second office based in Glasgow recently being acquired. For managing director John O’Rourke, the radical moves that they have made in the past 12 months are beginning to pay off: “We are a national magazine now, 12 months after we launched. Initially, when we set the magazine up we covered the East of Scotland, but the popularity of the magazine grew and so did we. Dundee, over the past five years, has really grown and I would say that there is a big buzz around the city, especially with the fact that over 30 per cent of the population are students. It certainly has helped our magazine grow. We work on a national level and being based in Dundee hasn’t ever hindered this. I can be in the centre of London in about an hour-and-a-half from my home.

“The overheads that we have here are low – we have a really luxurious office that we just couldn’t have if we were in Glasgow or Edinburgh. There is, I think, a snobbery from people in the Central Belt about Dundee, but life is good up here, and the fact that we are the fourth-largest city in Scotland shows that we really have something to shout about.”

Jackie Malcolm set up Arc Visual Communications three years ago, and the company has gone from strength to strength since. Malcolm runs the company on her own, bringing freelancers in as and when she needs them. This, Malcolm says, keeps her overheads down and allows her to get on with creative work: “I do a variety of work – of course I have to do the bread-and-butter work, but that then allows me to do creative stuff too. I think that the real difficulties I face are having to choose the work I do carefully. Sometimes I might get a great creative brief and not a great budget and it is at those times that I have to make a certain choice. The way of life up here is so great and I have a much better standard of living than if I were living in Edinburgh. I think that is what attracts people when they come up here and makes them want to stay. The opportunities are just as good in Dundee, there are a great many creative people in this city, and the way of life is great. People don’t have to worry about getting a parking space, nor does it take 30 minutes to get from one end of the city to the other and I think that it helps when it comes to working in a creative environment. I am more than happy living and working in Dundee and I think that there are more and more opportunities coming up in this city all the time.”

Evelyn Hardie founded design agency the Puffin Room in 1999. This year, says Hardie, has been a busy and productive time, with the company working on a variety of projects, including law firm WD Johnston and Carmichael and Fair Trade goods Equal Exchange, along with the Dundee science centre, Sensation. “We have been very busy this year with a lot of new business wins and regular clients. Most of the work that we get, however, is through recommendation, and I am a member of a few networking companies in both Dundee and Perth. It does help to do that, as it means that you are out and about getting new work.”

Hardie maintains that the success of the art school and colleges has meant that there is a definite creative change happening. “We are not recruiting at the moment, but I have to say that when we do get CVs the majority of them are from the art school and colleges, and they are doing an awful lot of good and creative work here.”

This sentiment is echoed by Malcolm, who teaches at Dundee College of Art on a part-time basis: “The job that I do means that I can work for the College of Art in Dundee two days a week. There are a great number of students who are from Dundee who are extremely creative. They maybe don’t consciously want to stay in Dundee, choosing to go to Glasgow and Edinburgh and London, but the majority of them come back.”

“It has been a challenging and productive year. Challenging, as we have experienced ups and downs that I think the rest of the company has experienced too. It has also been productive as two of my staff are now on maternity leave,” says Neal Scott of Beattie Media.

The company currently counts troubled Dundee Football Club, St Andrews University and law firm Thorntons WS as clients. “We have shown strength as a national company,” admits Scott, “and that has helped us to win business. Being based here hasn’t hindered us, as the creative industries around here are booming. There has been a complete change in the business landscape over the years, with the large companies moving in and being replaced by smaller creative industries, all of which have made a huge boost for Dundee as a whole, and because of that we are benefiting too.”

Jim Patrick heads up design agency Blue Square. The company currently employs fifteen people and clients include Traesco Pine and Don & Lowe. Although he freely admits that things have been difficult over the past year, Patrick still insists that the company has done well, all things considered: “We have managed to get three new pieces of business over the few weeks, which is always a boost for the company. I don’t know any one company in Dundee that has gone bust, which shows that we probably have had an easier time of it compared to other places in Scotland. But we still do have a way to go in terms of recovery – I would say the next six months will continue to be hard, but after that, hopefully, it will be fine. But it can be difficult. For example, we pitched along with three to four other companies for a job that is worth about £10,000. Then we find out that we haven’t got it and the £10,000 budget has been reduced to £1,000. It is madness but it is a sign of the times, too.”

Derek Souter, managing director of agency stalwarts DJS, agrees that times have been tough over the past year, but is philosophical about it: “Yes, it has been tough, but we are surviving and that is down to having a strong balance sheet from other projects, which you can put into the business.”

Souter, whose clients include Scottish and Universal Newspapers and the University of Dundee, believes that times are slowly changing though. “We have managed to pick up some new business wins recently, which always helps. We have a lot of work that comes from the West of Scotland. We do look outside of the Dundee area, as many clients in this area will stay with what they know, as their agency can deliver the goods for them. And that is fair enough. We normally get most of our business through networking and some pitches. The plan for the next twelve months is to keep working, and keep surviving, something I am sure we will do.”

One company that has shown significant growth over the past twleve months is Avian - one of the longest standing agencies in Dundee. Recently the company has announced that it is opening a new office in Glasgow in order to attract more new business. This, says client services director Scott McCallum, is down to the accounts won, and narrowly lost, in the past twelve months: “We were up for a couple of large pitches for Glasgow-based companies this year and we were told that the fact that we did not have a presence in Glasgow factored in the decision. So we decided to open up down in Glasgow as we believe that there is more business to be won. The past year has been very positive for us in terms of new business, and we feel confident enough to go ahead with our plans for the Glasgow office due to prospective new business wins in the forthcoming year. I would say that the future for Avian is very bright indeed.”

For Radio Tay the year has shown that, even in the toughest of economic times, as long as the local economic climate is booming then there is always room to capitalise. Managing director and programme controller Ally Ballingall comments: “We are doing really well at the moment – we are up in the RAJARs and our AM station is going from strength to strength. Financially, it has been our most successful year, and we are bucking the national trend. The cities that Tay covers – both Perth and Dundee – are becoming vibrant cities and there is definite growth and regeneration happening, which is always a positive sign, and that has an immediate effect on the station. And it’s reflected in our advertising revenues. Being part of the SRH network does have its advantages too, but at the same time they let us get on with our own stuff as much as possible and I think that is why SRH is doing so well. The financial backing that we get from SRH means that we can put new studios in and improve the overall sound. But I do think that things are buoyant up here. Digital radio has come in over the past year, which means that we have competition, but people enjoy listening to a local station with local information readily available to them.”

Part of a government body, Interactive Tayside has been responsible for development and regeneration within the creative and digital industries and the company is reaping rewards. Gary Grant is project manager of the government agency, and believes that the work that has been put in over the past few years is really starting to pay off for the city of Dundee. “I think that the success that we are experiencing is mirrored across the board in Scottish Enterprise. Dundee has, in the past, always been a very innovative city and it has embraced creativity and new technology and I think the work we are doing echoes that. But, I also think that the universities and colleges up here are a very important factor. They encourage the students to do as much as possible, creatively speaking, and from that the whole city is reaping the rewards.”

While the city is still evolving, it is clear that there is a distinct belief from the creative sector of the city that Scotland’s fourth-biggest city is getting ready to punch its weight and become a contender in the battle that is currently fought between the big city smoke of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Roll on next year.

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