West is Best

By The Drum, Administrator

April 7, 2005 | 17 min read

Glasgow has had more identities than most cities. It’s had (cringe) a lot Glasgowing on. It’s been (grin) Miles Better. And now it’s (confused) a city, or perhaps a country, ‘with style’.

All in all, Glasgow is a changeable city (for better or for worse). However, at present it’s better. Glasgow’s status as a thriving hotbed of culture and diversity is growing.

Long gone are the days of the tobacco merchants. Gone also is the industrial grime of the shipyards. In its place is an ever more polished city – with a few character building cracks and chips, mind – that is getting a bit of a reputation for itself.

The Arts are an area that Glasgow already has a strong standing in. However, with the growth of the city centre and the regeneration of the Clydeside, Glasgow is beginning to forge a strong commercial revival in a host of diversifying markets. This growth is already being felt by Glasgow’s creative agencies.

“There seems to be more confidence in the approach to communications, and the city itself is slowly becoming more cosmopolitan, which reflects in the way companies communicate and the channels that they use,” said Gerry McCusker, of Dog Digital (the newly formed company that consists of MMI and Limone Media). “The explosion in the number of start-ups choosing to have their base in Glasgow is perhaps due to the renewed air of confidence in the city, with the ‘gallus’ Glaswegian gene coming to the fore again.”

Graeme Johnston, of Graphical House, agreed: “The extent of Glasgow’s economic and physical regeneration is providing new opportunities for every type of business. The city continues to develop as a cultural hub, providing a healthy creative environment.

“The client base is naturally evolving with the regeneration of the city. We are seeing our client base grow in the arts, cultural and public sectors on the back of city initiatives. And we anticipate the blue-chip sector will evolve with the development of Tradeston and the riverside, although most of these developments don’t seem to be procuring design yet, beyond the architects involved in the construction.

Glasgow’s renewed confidence can be found reflected in the work that its creative agencies are produce, says James Young, managing director at D8: “Glasgow is a very forward-looking city, and is perceived as such. Although Edinburgh is perhaps thought of as Scotland’s cultural capital, I would argue that Glasgow should be. If you want new and cutting-edge culture, then Glasgow is the place.

“It’s an innovative city, and our work reflects that. Glasgow asks questions. It challenges. It asks, “Why can’t we?”

The changes that are being noticed by the city means a slow halt to the traditional retail-based business that Glasgow had previously built its marketing reputation on. But this is not always a bad thing, says Alan Frame of Frame©: “Glasgow has had a great deal of entrepreneurial success over the years: Tom Hunter, Chris Gorman, David Moulsdale. Successful retailers coming out of Glasgow often decided to use Glasgow-based advertising agencies.

“There is an interesting correlation between the two [Glasgow ad agencies and entrepreneurs]. But these days, I’m not sure where all the entrepreneurs are going to come from. The work coming out of Glasgow is quite different now. It is more brand-led, integrated with tactical work. We don’t pile them high and sell them low so much these days.”

This is a view reflected by most agencies based in Glasgow.

Mark Noe, of Third Eye Design, said: “Our client base has certainly evolved over the past five years in Glasgow, with many clients buying design more effectively and being more aware of good design capability. With so much design in the city clients have become far more aware of what is on offer.”

Keith Forbes, of Good Creative, agreed: “Clients, as a whole, are much more educated now. They know what they’re looking for, what will work for them, and they’re less likely to be bamboozled by creative for creative’s sake.

“Another change is the number of design agencies here. I first joined the industry working at Scott Stern, and there was a very set agency scene then. Now there are a lot of smaller agencies, with lower overheads, operating as creative hot-shops.”

“Glasgow’s evolution is no different from that of the industry,” reminds Merle’s John Morgan. “Following the break up of the big ‘oil tanker’ agency scene and the fragmentation of agency disciplines, the ad agency has now become more of a consultancy.”

Having been formed almost 19 years ago, GRP has noticed these changes. Guy Robertson, managing director, said: “There is a lot more brand focus reflected in the jobs that are being undertaken by agencies in Glasgow. You have to get underneath a business and really understand it. We have to create an informed view of the business through a thorough planning process.

“Location now matters very little. Glasgow is no better or worse than anywhere else. But a lot is happening in Glasgow, and it rubs off on the creative industries. At the moment Glasgow is blossoming.

“There is plenty of experience for people to gain, from pub culture to high art, although it does come down to individual agencies – good salary, and a vibrant atmosphere, and a thriving city, all help make it a better experience.

“While Glasgow might be no better or worse than other locations to base an agency, it’s certainly better now than it was when we first started out.”

Stephen Halpin, of CuriousOranj, has also noticed changes in Glasgow’s agency scene: “In Scotland, the big brands aren’t really there anymore. We lack the big budgets. However, the SME market in Glasgow is realising the difference that marketing can make. The public sector, which traditionally threw money at things without knowing what they were throwing it at, is now starting to understand the importance of marketing and the impact it has too.”

“Also, ten years ago the marketplace was polarised in terms of the good agencies: Blue Peach, 999, Scott Stern, Keywest and so on. But Glasgow has become more fragmented. We’ve seen people breaking away from those agencies and doing their own, often smaller, thing.”

Pointsize, like GRP, has been on the go for 19 years, giving the agency a good perspective on how the industry has changed of late. Ken Cassidy, managing director, said: The design scene has grown and diversified. It’s a far bigger and more competitive marketplace now than in the past. It’s a much more vibrant and diverse design market.

“A lot more people have embraced design and become aware of it and its benefits to business, but because there are so many people, it’s a competitive market.”

“Creatives love to be challenged, and there’s probably a bigger pool of big names and big brands in London, and many young designers want to be challenged by that. But, I’ve made my life here, despite offers from London, and I’ve seen the city and the marketplace grow and prosper. What we should be doing is using the expertise that we have to tap into different marketplaces. There’s lots of things to commend this city, it’s been very good to me.”

Glasgow’s agency scene is fragmenting, and this has led to a rise in the number of start-ups choosing to base their agency in the city.

“Glasgow has always been a great creative hub,” said Mark Noe. “I think for a new start-up, the city has a buzz and an air of excitement that perhaps other cities in Scotland don’t have. Also, with the level of arts clients, theatres, clubs and music venues, there are many options for new starts in the areas that are traditionally targeted by young designers.”

Keith Forbes, who recently started his breakaway design business, Good Creative, agreed: “I think it’s a brilliant place to set up an agency. It’s such a vibrant, eclectic city. You only have to look at the city to see what’s happening; the whole environment is changing.

“Undoubtedly it’s an attractive place for young creative talent. I remember coming to Glasgow ten years ago. It was so different to how it is now. It’s very vibrant, and very creative. I’ve worked in Edinburgh and Manchester as well as Glasgow, and the folk here call a spade a spade. Nobody is hiding anything.”

David Clelland, managing director at The Hub, started his business in Stirling a number of years ago, but quickly realised that a move to the city would be beneficial. “Being in a thriving metropolis benefits a business. There are more decisions made here. There is a greater concentration of customers. And while Edinburgh might still have a larger concentration of headquarters, Glasgow is an exciting market. It’s edgier. And often agencies and clients are more willing to take a chance. The city’s diversity is quite often reflected in the work that’s produced.

“We have a good expertise and demand a fee for a good quality of service. Sometimes we do find that we can command a better fee outwith Scotland, though. Glasgow-based clients tend to drive a harder bargain. There are some canny, and clever, operators in the city, and they expect a lot more bang for their buck.”

Of course, there are some teething problems being experienced along the way in Glasgow’s cultural and business renaissance. Scott Witham, of Traffic Design, said: “Glasgow is an attractive place for a business to be based. For example, it offers more in the way of affordable office space with a wider variety and style of premises, even if we do lack Edinburgh’s wonderful views. However, It never ceases to amaze me when walking so close to Glasgow’s city centre to see buildings that are empty, in varying degrees of dilapidation, or simply left to rot. When was the last time this was seen within a five-mile radius of Edinburgh’s city centre?

“Glasgow City Council has to address this if it wants to entice more start-ups back into the city centre. Properties and rent are acceptable, but I’m sure I’m not alone in whining about the scandalous charges levied at small businesses in rates and local amenity charges.”

There are others, though, who feel Glasgow might have hit saturation point, when it comes to the number of creative design studios bursting on to the Glasgow market.

Richard Bissland, of 999 Design, is one: “We have been 23 years at the Glasgow design coalface, and we’ve lifted our heads occasionally to notice a few changes. Some good, some not.

“Creative standards are certainly much higher, as those entering the industry become ever more design savvy, and consultancies employ ever more sophisticated means to catch the attention of the audience. Glasgow now produces some great design talent in all the creative industries.

“There is a downside to being around a long time, too. Firstly, people are starting to call 999 the ‘design establishment’, and that hurts. 23 is young. Then there’s the old bogeyman: design as an industry still can’t get its act together to rid itself of the monkey on its back called ‘free pitching’. That’s a disgrace; and its mostly Quangos and public bodies who abuse it.

“Furthermore, there are way too many graphics businesses here already. Do we need to attract any more design start-ups in Glasgow? Do turkeys vote for Christmas? I hear Baghdad is crying out for designers. Though China looks like the smart place to start up. More snake anyone?”

With the creative industries growing in Glasgow at a rapid rate, one of the most important tasks faced by the creative industry is attracting and retaining the top talent.

Craig Mackinlay, of Breeze Creative, said: “Glasgow seems to incubate creative talent almost by default. Young people are drawn to Glasgow from all over the UK for its further education facilities and the scope to work within its various creative disciplines. Glasgow has some of the best creative houses in Europe, which, in turn, allow those young people to ‘train up’ in some of the most demanding creative environments around.”

Mark Noe agreed: “Glasgow is a creative city with some very good people in many small agencies. I think the designers get an opportunity to work on far more creative projects than they might do at larger companies, therefore really learn to express themselves and push their designs at an early stage.

“It’s never easy to get good staff, but our location has always helped us attract foreign staff as they are excited about working in Glasgow, and we have also found, with many of our team, their choice was between London and Glasgow. And Glasgow won.”

Shona Maciver of Locofoco, added: “We have had some good young designers from England and overseas knocking at our door. That’s relatively new, and it’s good that we’re importing staff now. A studio is at its best when it’s made up of completely different people.

“There are so many more designers now in Glasgow than there used to be. I can remember a time when I couldn’t think of another woman designer in Glasgow.”

However, David Clelland said: “We have quite a fluid skill base, and many staff will return to Scotland, be it after one year or after ten, having spent time away. They will come back with more experience and more skills. They will have had an exposure to the market. However, you avoid those that have returned disillusioned.”

But, if you want to keep the “great” creative people, said Richard Bissland, “there has to be the quality of sustainable work to keep them here, to stimulate them.

“Still, too much of the Scottish design pound is spent in England – ask the Scottish Executive, who put their design business into England; or any of the big Scottish-based businesses who fly people up and down to London every week.”

“Glasgow should attract people,” continued Alan Frame. “It is a happening city. But any creativity can be stifled unless we develop these people. In that sense, it comes down to the individual agencies, rather than the city itself.

“Creativity is encouraged anywhere there is different and new things happening. Experience and experimentation are two of the most fundamental aspects to encouraging creativity. And Glasgow, as a city, certainly has the ability to fuel both.”

James Young, of D8, agreed: “We’ve never had any trouble growing, and attracting the right people. It’s been straightforward. But I think that says more about our agency, and the culture that we have created, than the industry in Glasgow, in general. There are plenty of talented designers in Scotland; you just need to be able to attract them.

“That rings true with clients, too. I would like to, and do, think that no-one bases a decision on who they work with on location alone.”

Despite most Glasgow-based agencies feeling a strong sense of belonging to the city, Brian Crook, managing director at The Bridge, voices the opinion that is held by most in the city, if not the industry in general: “We have never seen ourselves as simply a Glasgow agency; we’re an agency that happens to be based in Glasgow. We see our primary marketplace as the UK.

“But Glasgow is a great place to run an agency. It’s a vibrant place. Full of energy. I can think of few places in the world that have the capability of both inspiring you and keeping you firmly grounded, at the same time. We’re only 50 metres from Argyll St and, believe me, all life is there.

“Research companies always love coming to Glasgow – groups here are never dull. Respondents have a view on every subject under the sun. Razor sharp analysis is often disguised as humour that offers some wonderful insights.

“There’s no doubt that Glasgow comes over as a friendly place, and maybe that makes the agencies friendlier too. Certainly some of our clients say they find us more relaxed and informal than agencies in other cities.”

Glasgow has a strong creative reputation, possibly the strongest outside London, according to some in the industry. It is often at the cutting edge of new cultural trends, and this lends to a healthy marketplace.

Yet one area that sometimes lies neglected is a community spirit among those that work in the creative industries.

“Although Glasgow is a very creative city, it lacks a creative community,” said Alan Frame. “We have been trying to build this by launching our Frame© Invites initiative. We have already held a number of nights where we invite big name speakers from across the creative industries to give a talk to guests. It is a free evening, and we try and invite as many different people as possible.

“Glasgow is famous for its creative communities across TV and film production, in the arts and in fashion, however, it is still lacking in a true community among the creative communications companies. We need to build a bigger and better creative community.”

Yet the buzz that surrounds the city’s creative community remains, a constant reminder of the regeneration that is underway.

Craig Mackinlay said: “Glasgow has worked hard over the last 10 to 15 years to improve its international image, and this investment has started to pay dividends. People’s perception of the city has changed, and it is now considered to be a cosmopolitan ‘happening’ place with an increasingly discerning and affluent consumer base. The result: an increase in interest in inward investment.”

Shona Macivor continued: “I think it was always an incredibly stylish place to live. There have always been creative and interesting people living here, and that hasn’t changed. But neither has Glasgow’s ‘boom and bust’ nature, but that’s nothing new.

“It’s a really exciting time to live and work in the city. There seems to be a constant array of good ideas, and change is seen as a very positive thing. I’m not sure if that’s the same in other Scottish cities.”

“Glasgow is the UK’s second city for entrepreneurs and innovation, and the support services for advertising and marketing are excellent,” said John Morgan. “We have all we need in the way of skilled and talented people, both home-grown and imported.

“Glasgow is culturally vibrant and progressive. It has a tangible, commercial buzz. It’s an easy place to like. It doesn’t take long for even sceptics to be converted.

“But what makes Glasgow truly different from almost any other UK city, is its people. People with vision and genuine heart, who say what they think. Clients appreciate our straightforwardness, and trust us when we want to go further with the work. Glasgow-ness is a state of mind.”

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