To be honest Adline probably could have picked a better time to phone Iain Bennett. It’s not that he was in the library, bath or mid triple salko down his local municipal ice-rink when we rang, but he did sound a little harassed.
“Ah, you’re bang on time,” said the NWDA’s new head of digital and creative industries, with all the joy of a condemned man greeting the firing squad, “I was hoping you wouldn’t be.”
Bennett’s muted salutations, in advance of a 30-minute phone interview, were not entirely unexpected. At the time of speaking, he’d been in his new job for just two weeks and when asked how he was taking to the role could only retort, “I’ll tell you when I surface.” He probably needed a chinwag with me like he needed something disagreeable on the soles of his Hush Puppies.
However, as you’d expect from someone who’s taken on a position that sounds more daunting than Captain of Starfleet Command, Bennett knows how to cope with adversity and quickly put on a brave face, or at least telephone voice, for proceedings.
“In all seriousness, I think that this is currently the most exciting time for the North West since the industrial revolution,” he proffers after some small talk, with an instantly enlivened timbre. “And I think that that has been driven by the creative industries. As a result, on a personal note, it’s also the most exciting time for my own career.”
Before we career off ourselves, a bit of background. The NWDA, as you’re no doubt aware, is the government-sponsored entity charged with delivering sustainable economic growth to the North West. Guided by both a love affair with abbreviations and its Regional Economic Strategy (RES) it seeks to wield its annual £500m-ish budget to demonstrable effect in terms of the Gross Value Added (sorry, GVA) to the region. Our Mr Bennett has the not inconsiderable task of steering the development of the creative industries in such a manner that compliments and drives forward this broader ambition. It is, as you can appreciate, no small task.
“No it certainly isn’t,” relays our interviewee. “But thankfully that’s finally being recognised. The creative industries have only really existed at a policy level for the last ten years or so, so previously I think it’s been hard for government agencies to recognise their importance and know how to respond to them. However, now there’s a firm evidence base established to illustrate their worth and they’ve emerged as industries within their own right, not just as the trimmings that go with the ‘real’ businesses.”
He continues: “From the figures that I got yesterday, from our own intelligence, 321,000 people are now employed here in the sector and in terms of GVA, that’s basically salaries and sales, everything put together, in the North West region that amounts to £16billlion per annum. To put that into perspective that constitutes between 15 and 16% of the region’s total economy.”
Which makes his job sound even more buttock-clenchingly terrifying.
“Well yes,” Bennett responds, with a chuckle that breaks up the last of the remaining ice, “it does. But the fact that the RES has finally caught up with the reality on the ground makes life easier. The creative industries is now one of the priority sectors for the region, so we have the backing to take advantage of the great story that we have to tell.”
This backing that Bennett alludes to comes in the format of a new creative team over at NWDA central. Firstly, his role has evolved from that of his predecessor, Andy Lovett (mainly, it would appear, to include the ‘digital’ bit), and secondly, he now commands a new taskforce of four who, in his own words, concentrate on “business development and inward investment, particularly focusing on the BBC opportunity.” But more of that particular slice of the pie a bit later on.
Being that you’re reading Adline, you’re probably more interested in the marketing services side of the creative industries rather than the performance art, fashion or lesbian dance strands. Unfortunately, with our subject being so new to his role, he was understandably reluctant to divulge details of impending initiatives in our arena (“There are tons of projects I’d love to talk about, but there’s a danger of setting hares running far too early”), although he wasn’t so reticent with his opinions. Particularly when probed on how the NWDA can assist agencies in keeping client marketing budgets within their own region.
“Well, I think it’s an interesting question to ask for a sector that’s about marketing,” Bennett replies, with a suggestion of playful provocation. “I mean if the agencies are as strong as we feel that they are then they should be able to convey that themselves, to local businesses and beyond.
“However, I know that there are historic barriers,” he concedes. “One of the problems is that businesses don’t always have an understanding of the other constituent parts of the economy and may not realise the strength of the creative sector and its contribution to the region. They may therefore feel an obligation to look outside the area for what they perceive to be the ‘safe’ choice. There’s always those that will choose the London agency for kudos, but at the same time there is genuine ignorance as to what we have on the ground right here. That is something that we all have to work towards changing.”
Here Bennett cites the work that Adline undertakes with its awards schemes, as showcasing what regional talent is capable of, while saying that he wants to further links with D&AD to further recognise the work produced here.
“There will be new initiatives in the sector,” he promises tantalisingly. “There will be new initiatives around professionalism and quality assurance and also in how the value of design is communicated to businesses. “But,” he notes, quickly reining himself in. “I’m afraid the papers haven’t been signed yet.” A case of ‘watch this space’ then.
Staying on the protectionist tip, how can agencies, clients and institutions hold on to the young talent produced throughout the North West, rather than impotently watch it being seduced by the big boys in the capital.
“That’s a tricky one for me to answer,” is Bennett’s response. “I grew up in the North West and then spent 18 years polishing my skills in London (he returned last year, setting up Creative Lancashire before the NWDA came calling). But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. There has to be some recognition that it is a global market now and people will want to gain experience from living and working in different places. So, I don’t think we want to build a Berlin Wall around the region; it’s not a question of locking talent in, it’s a question of getting the best talent, no matter where it may come from, and getting it to work for our agencies.”
Bennett argues that the business sector needs to learn from the universities “who are already net importers of creative student talent” and “manifest what their strengths are to draw talent in”. However, at the same time he also proposes that stronger links are needed between the two and that here, the onus is on the universities to glean a better understanding of the commercial marketplace.
Obviously, we have to talk about the BBC. Here our industry captain sees an opportunity with the potential to give the entire region a step up. Not that it hasn’t taken a few important strides already.
“People tend to look at the BBC move as something that will be a catalyst for growth,” our interviewee ruminates. “I think that’s a bit misleading. The scene has exploded in its own right over the last five to ten years. A decade ago this opportunity simply wouldn’t have existed in the BBC’s terms and now it clearly does; they’ve seen what’s already here and that’s helped facilitate the decision.
“But before they get here in 2010, we’ve still got to do an enormous amount of work to ensure that the businesses that are already here can benefit. We also need to assess what the missing bits of the picture are and encourage companies that fulfil those roles to invest in the North West and provide the essential parts of the supply chain.
“If we get this right,” Bennett intones with quiet gravitas, “there should be a perceptual change in how English speaking media is received across the world. From now on the voice won’t always be coming from London, it’ll be from Manchester. It’s difficult to stress the size of the impact that will have on markets across the world. We’ve got the potential here and now it’s up to us to manifest it.”
And if Bennett can help in achieving that goal then this, the most exciting part of his career to date, may also end up being the most profitable era for the North West’s creative industries.
So, no pressure then Iain, no pressure at all.