Digital Dundee

By The Drum, Administrator

January 26, 2007 | 8 min read

Dundee has branded itself as The City Of Discovery, and on the face of it, that might be a reasonable claim to make. For example, we’ve discovered that not only is Dundee allegedly the sunniest city in Scotland, but it’s also the birthplace of the voice of Mickey Mouse, James MacDonald. On top of this, many people might be surprised to discover that over the last couple of decades Dundee has become synonymous with digital industry, and is now one of the UK’s leading digital hubs, with around 350 businesses dedicated to that sector in the region.

And despite the closure of some of its more recognised video game developers, the city is undergoing major redevelopment as it looks to maintain its growing reputation in the digital and creative arena. In short, Dundee remains the base for Scotland’s groundbreaking digital industry.

With DC Thomson long established in the city, there has never been a shortage of creativity in Dundee. But it was the development of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, at the now defunct Timex Factory in 1980, which heralded the birth of Dundee’s digital boom. “That started an interest in games,” says Carri Cusick, project manager of Interactive Tayside. “A lot of people making the hardware at the factory started making games at home, which then spawned a generation of game developers producing games such as Lemmings.”

Interactive Tayside is a partnership formed by the Scottish Executive and the Tayside universities, colleges and councils as a result of the growing digital industry in the region. The initiative exists to promote and support the digital work going on in Tayside.

“The University of Abertay was the first university in Europe to offer a degree course in computer game design,” says Cusick. “That really put the city on the map. There were several big games companies in Dundee, and the games industry had a big role to play in several smaller companies starting up to supply the bigger firms with everything from digital sound design to animation.”

Dundee is now responsible for around 10 per cent of the UK’s digital entertainment industry, with an annual turnover of nearly £100million. David Rankin, of MTC Media, believes the growth the city has enjoyed in recent times is attracting an increasing number of creative companies to Dundee.

“Dundee is certainly a high-growth town in all sectors including media,” he says. “We’re now attracting a lot of attention throughout the world as more and more people are using Dundee as their base. There is a high percentage of start-up media companies within Dundee that are spin-offs from the university, but the city doesn’t just attract people who go to the university.

“The city’s had so much of a focus on games companies which became successful through the likes of Chris van der Kuyl [of VIS Entertainment] and Dave Jones [of DMA Group]. They helped develop Dundee’s name in digital media, and on the back of that – along with Abertay’s games courses – Dundee has become the focus of attention, with start-ups and developers seeing it as the place to open.”

As part of the city’s redevelopment and to help fuel the growth of its media industry, Sea Brae’s Yards (formerly known as Dundee Digital Media Park) has opened up at a former railway site overlooking the River Tay. The building was created to house and help develop digital agencies, but just a couple of weeks after the building was opened for occupation, the owners fell into administration. Midway through 2006, the site was purchased by new developers with plans for a second building, which is due to open around spring. Such an investment seems to indicate the continued belief in the success of the digital work happening in Tayside by the Scottish Executive.

“Hopefully it’s just had a bit of a false start, and if it’s a success it might encourage other businesses to come into Dundee,” says Wideopenspace’s Andy Flack of the development’s previous troubles. “That would be better than shifting businesses from one place to another, which would be a bit counter-productive in the end.”

Due to the success of games design in the city, online design and build reputations have grown in parallel. “Marketing has taken a whole new direction in the last few years,” says Paul McDonald, MD of Tayfusion. “It’s extremely important for companies to pursue online excellence and embrace digital communications just as aggressively as they would traditional marketing and advertising.”

However, Flack says there have been setbacks for the city. “Dundee’s reputation has been damaged over the years by the collapse of some games companies who were paving the way with digital work – some of them provided the initial spark for Dundee’s strong digital reputation. That’s been quite damaging, both in terms of reputation and contributing to the economy, but I think the spirit is still there for Dundee to be an important centre for digital work.”

Derek Soutar, managing director of DJS Creative, is not convinced by claims that Dundee is a digital trendsetter though. He believes that while there has been a great deal of work in the video games sector, digital marketing has not been affected by good word of mouth.

“The guys who worked for VIS and Visual Sciences have just broken up into smaller companies, but they’re tapping into the same distribution,” Soutar says. “The clients are still using the same teams, but at a different company. The hype comes from the fact that there are creative people who have good ideas – and they will always be there.

“To be fair to Dundee, though, it has addressed the fact that the university courses attract high-calibre graduates looking to set-up businesses in the city. Projects such as Embryonics at Abertay give them a dry run, which teaches people at an earlier stage what can go wrong.”

Cusick says Interactive Tayside also provides plenty of support to this still developing sector. “We offer regular networking events which have proven to be hugely successful. And there’s lots of business support, advice, potential funding, and assistance with property, as well as assistance with marketing and PR.

“People are interested in helping the digital industry – and not just people in the public sector, but in the private sector too. We have good relationships with local legal firms, for example, who are willing to offer advice to companies in order to see the sector grow.”

Despite all this help, some people believe that if the city is going to compete on a nationwide level, it has to do more to promote itself to the rest of the UK. “Unlike other cities in Scotland, Dundee does not market itself as aggressively as it could,” says Tayfusion’s McDonald. “Dundee could use the fact that there is talent sitting here – often unknown to the rest of the UK – that could readily be utilised.”

Soutar believes it’s the city council’s outdated marketing which is hampering Dundee’s growth. He says it needs to be brought into the 21st century, a move which could involve the digital sector. “Dundee City Council could really do with investing in a proper, market-led, impactful campaign because the one it currently uses is out of date,” he says. “However, Dundee will do better due to the shrinking of geographical barriers, with many more opportunities presenting themselves.”

Rankin agrees that more could be done to promote the work in the city – and, in his view, it’s not just the digital sector that needs to be promoted. “Dundee, as a city destination, has built a bad name for itself over the years,” he says. “But it’s extremely vibrant. It is growing and a lot is happening to bring the city into the 21st century. I don’t think it’s getting enough good PR. Scottish Enterprise and Dundee City Council could be doing a lot more.”

David Mill at Media Co also believes the success of the sector should be used as a marketing device for Dundee, but he’s happy with the opportunities created by local bodies such as Interactive Tayside.

“There are a number of networking events, many of which are sponsored or generated through Interactive Tayside,” he says. “At Media Co, we’ve built our own network of contacts and regularly collaborate with other agencies within the area. Everyone has their different skill sets and focus so, through collaboration, we’re able to effectively assist each other.”

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