Northeast Focus

By The Drum | Administrator

March 15, 2007 | 8 min read

It’s not terribly controversial to state that Newcastle doesn’t get the credit it deserves. For several years the city has enjoyed the introduction of new cultural, property and financial developments, resulting in large parts of the ‘Toon’ being regenerated. All this has had a positive impact on an already healthy marketing agency scene, which continues to expand through the acquisition of regional and national accounts.

There are still challenges to overcome, however, and with this in mind, The Drum sets off to speak to some of Newcastle’s leading marketing companies to find out the state of play in the northeast. “I think on the face of it the market is quite buoyant here,” says James Allen, managing director of Guerilla.

“There’s a proliferation in the number of design agencies in the area, so it’s buoyant, but also a lot more competitive. It means the big boys have to stay on their toes.

“There’s also quite a lot of public sector work in Newcastle, and that’s something behind the increase in the number of agencies setting up.”

Ben Quigley, managing director of Different, agrees. “I get the impression that everybody’s quite lively at the moment,” he says. “At Different we do have business in the northeast, such as Barker and Stonehouse and One NorthEast, but apart from that, most of our business is national, which has been very lively as well.”

Alan Whitfield, founder of design agency NE6, is also keen to sing the praises of the area. “The northeast is vibrant and a great place to live,” he says. “I believe the region is doing well on the business front and receives massive inward investment.

“But through personal experience and through conversations with friends in the industry, not many agencies are getting the opportunity to benefit from the affirmation investment. What I’m trying to say is that after spending days completing tender documents and doing pitch work, it seems that the contracts - with boring regularity - find their way to the usual agencies. Having said that, we’ve had a good year, but sadly with a heavy reliance on clients outside the region.”

Despite the success of several Newcastle-based agencies in securing national business, there’s a feeling among some that too many agencies are relying on local accounts. This is a worry shared by Jim Richardson, managing director of SUMO Design. “The industry is going to have to look outside of the northeast for work,” he says. “European funding will start to be phased out over the next year and a lot of the cultural organisations’ spending will shrink. That will all have an effect on the region’s agencies. The agencies here will have to look outside the region, and encourage the larger client companies based here to have more loyalty to the local agencies.”

“There’s still a sufferance from being in the northeast,” agrees Iain Gibbons, managing director of Mobious. “There’s the opinion that Birmingham has stopped being the UK’s second city and that Manchester has taken over - but where has Newcastle fallen away to? “We [the industry in the northeast] have always been too regionally focused. There isn’t enough of this attitude that we need to go out and win business wherever it may be. And that means there are a lot of small design companies fighting over the same regional authority accounts. If the industry is going to grow, it needs to go outside of the northeast and bring in more business - and be confident that it can do that.”

Other challenges facing Newcastle’s businesses are more common to marketing agencies in general and not specifically those based in the northeast. Chris Hill, managing director of Cravens, explains: “The big issue is exactly the same as anywhere else: the challenge of offering our clients a truly integrated marketing communication service. The opportunities presented by new media are amazing, but controlling them and delivering excellence is another story. Having had a few false starts we invested in a start-up web design and development company some four years ago.”

Digital agency TH_NK also believes that, despite its growing reputation as a digital hub, the northeast hasn’t harnessed the full potential of new media. TH_NK’s managing director Tarek Nseir says: “There has been tremendous industry growth in the northeast, as we are increasingly recognised as a digital centre of excellence. “However, the potential of the online channel is not near to being exploited to its full potential. There is a need for knowledge transfer to northeast businesses from those with digital experience. We have the challenge of informing our clients as to how the web can transform the way they do business.”

As with the marketing community in any area, the northeast’s agencies can only be as strong as the staff they employ. Generally, the opinion on the northeast’s talent pool is very positive, but most believe there is still room for improvement. This is certainly the case at Cravens.”

The harsh reality is that we still have our work cut out to build the perception of a seriously improving creative community here,” says Hill. “That said, it’s never been easier to recruit people from outside of the region. Newcastle is a great place to live. Quality of life here is fantastic and a lot of ex-pats with loads of experience know that there is more to life than fighting for a seat on the tube. We are retaining more graduates too.”

It’s a different story at Guerilla. “I actually find recruitment to be very difficult,” admits Allen. “There’s a lot of budding young talent up here, but not a lot of established, experienced people. A lot of folk are now interested in moving back up here from London, but you’ll often find that when you get those people in front of you, they’re not used to working at the same level that we do up here.”

Sarah Hall, deputy head of Golley Slater Newcastle and chair of IPR North East, agrees that the recruitment of more senior staff is a challenge for the northeast. “The recruitment of skilled practitioners - say from an account manager level upwards - can be a struggle and it’s one that appears to be experienced across the board,” she says. “The northeast has some top talent, but it’s only a small pool. That means you often have to look further afield, which usually requires building an attractive enough package that people will relocate.”

Aside from attracting experienced recruits from further afield, the other obvious solution is to poach them from other local agencies. And that’s something Karol Marketing has found to be an increasing problem. “As an agency we have become known by the university lecturers in the area as one of the best training grounds for young graduates,” says Leslie Curtis, account director at the agency. “But this comes at a cost. We have recently decided to cut back on out graduate positions because they are costly in terms of training and experience - and the graduates are often poached by competitors. “This isn’t good for the culture and development of the business. Our strategy now is about retention, and we are training the staff we have and bringing in people at a more senior level in order to provide great service with teams that gel.”

The availability of further training for staff is another area where opinions seem to be split. While advertising and PR agencies speak highly of the training courses available in the region, their design and direct marketing counterparts are less enthusiastic. As Gibbons remarks: “On the digital side you’ve got Codeworks, and that’s quite good. The Direct Marketing Association has got lots of courses and seminars but they’re all based in London. Regionally, you’ve got the North East Productivity Alliance, which is really more of a networking organisation.

“I’m also a member of the Institute of Direct Marketing and have found that trying to organise courses and seminars up here is like pulling teeth. We have done some events in the past where we got really good speakers and did fill the room, but it was a long, slow process.”

These little problems aside, there is no doubt that the northeast is home to a talented and highly creative marketing sector. Perhaps with a larger choice of industry training courses, together with an increased drive to attract business from outside its borders, the marketing industry here - much like the region itself - will finally start to get the credit it deserves.


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