One year ago, The Drum first did a feature about the boom taking place up North. This month, we catch up with some of the people who make up ‘Aimhi’, the innovative platform that aims to foster a more creative environment in the Highlands & Islands. The Association of Integrated Media Highlands & Islands was originally the brainchild of a handful of media professionals who first got together in 2000. Starting out as a basic networking vehicle, the group has since taken on a much wider scope of development work on behalf of the industry, and has grown to encompass more than 130 companies in the software, corporate communications, media, publishing and gaming fields.
Sue Anderson of Island Focus, and a former Scottish chair of the British Institute of Professional Photographers, was one of the founding members. “Aimhi started in a pub one dreary winter’s night when we were discussing the realities of working in a remote area. Rather than moan about the difficulties, we decided to treat it as a challenge and do something about it.”
Regular aimhi events are a good avenue for the region’s companies to meet and network, but in the past year, Aimhi has also begun to help send companies overseas to capitalise on business opportunities. In the past year, the amount of revenue that Aimhi has helped bring to its members is estimated at well into seven figures, with contracts from as far afield as Austria. In September 2004, 12 local companies represented Scotland in a premier networking event in Sweden. The event targeted sectors such as multi-media, content generation, and mobile messaging. There was a diverse selection of international companies looking for strategic partners, ranging from an Austrian 3-D modeller to a Swedish R&D lab specialising in defence contracts.
“We were attracted to Aimhi because its members are in control. We have no doubt that Aimhi is the most valuable trade organisation to be in,” said John Lavender, a marketing director, whose company Momentum Business Systems inked two deals in Sweden, and has a third pending.
Besides networking and trade shows, Aimhi also helps provide core business, financing, and legal advice via tie-ups with Aberdeen Business School and the blue chip law firm Tods Murray. Beyond serving core business needs, the grouping also tries to fulfil creative needs in associated or secondary fields.
‘This is a platform for likeminded individuals. The rational is that a lot of creative types don’t actually have day jobs in recognisably creative fields. JK Rowling was a teacher while she wrote the first Harry Potter novel, and neither being a teacher before she was published nor a dollar billionaire afterwards makes her any more or less of a creative,” said, Aimhi development manager, Jeremy Sim, who relocated to the Highlands from Chicago, in 2003.
There is a fair sprinkling of eclectic types among the membership, such as the software programmer who writes scripts for the BBC and the advertising executive who topped the Scottish bestseller list. The co-operative strives to allow individuals to satisfy their creative urges. One way it does that is by bringing influential media figures to the Highlands to enable its members to make the right connections. Past guests of Aimhi have included the winner of last year’s New York Film Festival, radio broadcaster Lesley Riddoch, senior executives from Sony, Jim Henson Company and, Boston-based broadcaster, WGBH. The broadcast commissioners of BBC, Scottish TV and Grampian TV recently made a visit to Inverness to hear television ideas from local companies and freelancers. One attendee, a freelance artist, eventually received a documentary commission from Channel 4, and is one of the more significant programme-making debuts from the Highlands in recent years. Other pitches have attracted interest from the likes of the Comedy Unit and Jim Henson Company.
“Besides our web design work, we also helped conceptualise the Fort William Mountain Film Festival and moved it to international status, adding quite a bit of buzz to the Fort William area,” said Jon Earnshaw, of HotScot Technology.
In fact, the success stories have resulted in the Aimhi model being looked at as a template for similar initiatives elsewhere in the world. From Australia to Sweden, aimhi’s co-operative structure has aroused interest from policy makers wishing to put in place a creative initiative of their own. In November 2004, Aimhi was instrumental in engineering a joint presentation between deputy First Minister Jim Wallace and US state governor John Baldacci to endorse the value of creative industries in Scotland and New England.
“It’s not all rosy. The sectors’ sensitivity to the business cycle and a current skew towards catering for public-sector projects are issues we need to look at. A bit more diversification is needed,” said Sim. “But it is funny how things are falling our way. Economy of scale is taking a backseat to flexibility and talent, and the Scots are about as flexible and creative a bunch as you can get.”
There has never been a better time for creative types to work out of the Highlands & Islands. 2004 has witnessed a Bafta winning production from a Highlands film maker, a pop artiste debuting high on the Billboard charts, and the emergence of critically and commercially acclaimed novelists; not bad for a region with less than a tenth of Scotland’s population. This strength is across the board, with a University of Glasgow study tabbing the Highlands & Islands creative-based industries with the highest job growth rates in the country. As a result, the creative industries have rapidly moved to the top of the priority list for the regional economic development agency.
“It’s very satisfying to see how robust growth has been. Turnover, profits, employee headcount, all the numbers for us have been going up in the last few years,” said Donella Beaton, managing director at Canan.
“The Highlands & Islands is an exciting and challenging place to work. In the last five years we’ve noticed a marked rise in the calibre of projects we’ve been asked to work on,” said Eleanor Neilson, partner at Dynam.
The region is growing in all sorts of ways. At a time when Scotland is faced with a shrinking population and tax base, the Highlands & Islands is actually increasing in population, thanks largely to an influx of migrants from the rest of Britain. The North’s unprecedented economic boom has led to negligible unemployment, a housing crunch and plenty of business opportunities. The Highlands is having more than a fling with success. Now, if only we can keep it a secret for just a little bit longer.
Visit www.thedrum.com for more features and information on the Highlands & Islands.