Aberdeen is seldom a focus for those in the creative industries who work outwith the area. However, over recent years the city has noticed a surge in marketing providers appearing to service the needs of the rich industry that is inherent to that area.
The creative industry in Aberdeen is growing. From the stalwarts of Mearns and Gill, who could claim to be one of the oldest agencies in the UK, to the fresher faces of companies formed by teams entrepreneurial enough to break free from the refrains of more established players, or those fresh from college who have seized the opportunity to break into the market.
With this in mind, The Drum arranged for a small group, representing a handful of Aberdeen’s top communications agencies, to assemble, focusing in on the industry in the city.
Gathered are representatives from across the marketing sector, including PR, design, advertising and new media. Kelly Kilner and Claire Cormack, both from Fifth Ring – head of the agency’s PR and design departments respectively, Zoe Corsi, director at the Big Partnership, and Mark Jennings, a director from Cynosure, sat together for the debate, while Derek Stewart, managing director of The Big Picture, was unfortunately whisked away by a client at the last moment, meaning that his input to the debate had to be through cables.
After introductions are made and cups are filled the discussion gets underway. First on the agenda is Aberdeen’s unique business climate. The Aberdeen economy tends to buck the trends in the UK. When the rest of the UK is in depression, Aberdeen isn’t. While Aberdeen’s depressed, the rest of the UK might not be.
In a way this might sometimes lead to an element of short-termism. But it is a situation that you have to learn to understand very quickly. “You just have to learn how to do business here,” agree the panel.
Overall, the business community in Aberdeen is a lot smaller and the need for networking isn’t as high as it is elsewhere. The business community is quite unique. Certain initiatives that have worked very well in Aberdeen haven’t necessarily worked so well elsewhere. Things like the Business Breakfast, through the Chamber of Commerce, were so successful in Aberdeen but that success didn’t really materialise when the initiative was transferred to Glasgow.
“I don’t know what that says about the business community here,” says one panel member. “Why are we so keen and willing to get up at an unearthly time in the morning to have breakfast with 150 other people and still get into the office for 9 o’clock?”
Even as an outsider, coming to Aberdeen to work, early on it is quite apparent that you don’t necessarily need to know a lot of key individuals ... once you get to know just a couple of contacts, word spreads. So, in that respect, the group believes that Aberdeen is quite a close-knit business community.
Most know what’s going on and who’s doing good work. However, if it comes down to a sense of community, the group agree that there isn’t really one in Aberdeen.
Despite parallels to a village community being made, it’s still very clear that Aberdeen is an internationally and outward-focused city, through the very nature of the industries that are inherent to the area.
There isn’t a parochial sense. Many of the companies that operate in Aberdeen are huge global brands and the fact that they will work with small, local agencies in Aberdeen is inspiring to many.
There are a lot of agencies, especially on the creative side, that are doing work with well-established brand names. Although some in the group feel that a lot of that can spawn from personal contacts.
Word of mouth is a strong pulling point for many agencies, although some of the newer agencies have been very successful in getting out to attract clients in.
A lot of companies wouldn’t normally work with an agency in the North of Scotland. The fact that they do is often testament in itself to the quality of work produced.
But clients have to get over the initial hurdle. You can imagine the situation: someone down in London says that they want to appoint an Aberdeen-based agency. “Well, why?” “Well ... because they are good.”
From a geographical sense, Aberdeen is very northerly, very easterly, and a long way away from a lot of things that are happening. But if you think of the industry that is local to the area, Aberdeen is the hub of a very international marketplace. No-one in the Central Belt (or not many, at least) will be working with countries like America, Angola, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, and places many people have never heard of, on a daily basis.
For most, the energy sector is the main pulling point, although some people have chosen to be located in Aberdeen and to base their business there purely on the quality of life on offer. Others have ended up in the city by default. In short, it is a great city to live and work in, but convincing people of that can be hard.
This often makes it difficult for creative and communications agencies in Aberdeen to attract the right talent, making recruitment the single biggest challenge that most agencies in the area continue to face.
“I find it very difficult to attract talent, especially good designers,” says one of the panel. “We all know who does a good job in Aberdeen currently but, apart from lateral-hiring from local agencies, it is hard to attract people from outwith the city up to Aberdeen, unless it is for personal reasons. I only came back because of personal reasons – I had no desire to work in Aberdeen initially.”
It is a competitive market, and if an agency employs someone who is really good, they do everything that they can to keep them.
On the PR side, it is agreed that, contrary to what is said about the design market, there is no problem finding good graduates to develop and train. But it is hard when you need to employ a more senior figure, someone who can hit the ground running, someone with five or six years’ experience – it still remains difficult. Also on the downside of the business base in Aberdeen, if you are looking to bring someone in at a senior level, you will want to bring in someone who has had some oil and gas experience, someone with a knowledge of the sectors.
While there might be a high standard of graduates coming through the corporate communications courses in Aberdeen, fulfilling the needs of the local PR practitioners, the standard of pupils coming out of college and university hoping to enter the design arena is comparatively poor, according to some in the panel.
“When local talent lacks, the agencies have tried to recruit from the Central Belt in the past. However, there is an unfortunate perception of the city.”
The group feel that sometimes they are guilty of being their own worst enemy. “We don’t really publicise ourselves and our work as much as we should do. We don’t really sell Aberdeen as a creative community.
“People don’t promote themselves up here. It’s just not done. You just work bloody hard, and if you get a pat on the back at the end of it, then you are lucky. It is that sort of culture. I think the North East has one of the hardest-working cultures around.”
But is Aberdeen’s inability to attract talent a long-term problem for the creative industry?
It is certainly a challenge: “We know, from business planning for what we want to achieve in three to five years, that recruitment is potentially an issue,” says one panel member. There is a small pool of people, and an even smaller pool of people with the right experience.
“We’ve advertised creative positions with no luck. We’ve not had any knock-on effects from the downturn of work. I thought that that would have been the ideal chance for talented people, in search of employment or betterment, to spread their wings. The salaries and opportunities here are equal, and normally better, than what is being offered anywhere else in Scotland.”
Despite problems recruiting for the local market, a number of agencies in Aberdeen have set up office or established links to foreign agencies.
Dubai has been seen as a complementary choice of location for Fifth Ring to open an office in, capitalising on the oil links, while Big Partnership works closely with a large Houston-based PR agency on a number of oil and gas issues. Cynosure runs an office in Melbourne, Australia.
“In our business, having key advantages is very important. A lot of people do website design and build. So of course it makes sense to try and better your offering. Time can be a key driver. We recruited and trained teams before moving them to Australia. We are now able to use the time-zones to cut down development time on projects by at least a third.”
Long-term problems don’t just affect the marketing and communications industry in Aberdeen, though. The city’s main industry – oil and gas – needs to continue to attract high-calibre personnel. But people, perhaps spurned by the media, have been talking about the decline of oil and gas reserves. There is a perception, particularly among young people, that it is an industry in decline. However, according to the panel, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The new, fresh companies that are entering the market are really adding a buzz to the industry. And there are other attractions to the energy industry.
“A client of ours recently unveiled a survey for graduates: a graduate coming into the energy industry will be between 18 and 20 per cent better paid than any other profession straight from university.”
Despite the energy sector being the main industry in Aberdeen, most agencies try to balance the amount of work that they do for energy clients. Others have adopted a policy of trying to avoid being tied into the energy industry at all.
“We’ve had a policy since day one of not focusing on the oil and gas industry. We never wanted to be too reliant on one sector. Besides, working for the regional or divisional operation of a global company does not really allow us to do what we are best at – getting right in at the heart of a challenge and looking for a new solution. We have one oil and gas client. We work with them primarily because we work with the key senior management here, so we can really get to the heart of things.”
However, a lot of clients are professional services companies that work closely with the energy industry. And when there is a downturn in the sector you realise just how integral it is to the whole micro-economy of the city. You see the knock-on effect right down to solicitors and PR companies.
There is no doubt the Aberdonian economy remains strong – though Scotland may be catching up. Unemployment remains stable in Aberdeen – around 1.2 per cent. But the key issue is that Aberdeen is a one-horse town as far as industry goes – so that does continue to lead to a level of independence at a micro-level from the rest of the UK.
As a rule, most agencies try not to let oil and gas clients make up any more than 50 per cent of business.
The vital message that the group looks to get across is that there are exciting opportunities in Aberdeen, it can be exciting, and it’s a great place to live and work.
There is a certain exuberance and sense of entrepreneurialism about Aberdeen that you seldom see elsewhere. If you look beyond the usual stereotypes, there is a lot of very interesting work going on in the city.