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Harwood-Matthews sparks NW creativity row

MD of TBWA\Manchester, Robert Harwood-Matthews caused a stir by dismissing last year’s winning Roses work as ‘rubbish’ and decrying North West creative standards in general.

That wasn’t an earthquake that struck Manchester on the 12 February. The rumblings you felt as you supped your morning coffee were the collective howls of discontent as the region’s creatives spat out their cornflakes, stamped their feet in rage and beat a pitchfork-wielding path to the doors of TBWA\Manchester, looking to spike the skull of Robert Harwood-Matthews, who wrote disparagingly about the quality of the entries for last year’s Roses Awards.

“I think I’m right in saying that the entries for the Roses creative advertising have just closed for this year. I also hope that if any of my crew are reading this we remember to book a table,” he began.

“I’d like to go, if only to see if there is any hope of a decent creative scene here in the north west. Last year it was rubbish,” he wrote in the Manchester Evening News.

“A lovely tarted up night in the Hilton which, to a newbie like me, was exciting enough and lots of new people to meet, but the work was depressing.

“I often wonder why this city settles for creative mediocrity when there’s so much rock and roll in its veins. Maybe the suits crush the life out of it or encourage their clients that OK will do. Maybe it’s this insistence that ‘hardworking’ stuff means no imagination, I don’t know.”

Legitimate debate

Were the remarks intended to provoke legitimate debate, or merely to cause offence? None taken incidentally, Robert.

Harwood-Matthews has been undertaking something of a southern style revolution since joining TBWA a year and a half ago. A raft of key personnel changes has certainly indicated that he means business and is determined to be a vigorous new broom.

But there is also some old school wisdom that cautions against dumping your mess where you sleep, and perhaps vomiting on the creative industry of an entire region is not the best way to endear oneself to our colleagues or encourage a spark of fresh creativity. Or is it?

His comments have kick-started a thoughtful debate on the merits and demerits of the vibrancy of the Mancunian creative mettle, and provoked genuine, productive navel gazing on the part of industry insiders, whose opinions vary from agreeing that perhaps Harwood-Matthews may have been on to something (although perhaps could have put it a little more gently), to those who think the comments were ill judged, and might have benefited from the perspective of a little distance in time.

“Mediocrity; isn’t that what BDH\TBWA have been peddling for the last 10 years?” one creative director told us anonymously.

Alistair Sim of Love also pointed out that Harwood-Matthews’ own agency has not set the creative world afire with its own recent offerings.

“I can’t remember BDH making much of a show at any of the regional awards since the mid 1990s,” he said.

“Mediocrity is the enemy of agencies, but complacency will kill you. I think by adopting that stance, it sounds a little like they are now going to show everybody exactly what the opposite of mediocrity is.

“I think it is a wonderful piece of PR from Robert. He’s got everybody talking. But everyone will be waiting with baited breath to see what they are going to do to enlighten us all. I wouldn’t like to be in their creative department,” he warned.

“I think he is just winding everybody up. I don’t like to use the word ‘mediocrity’. I think it is what slightly pompous agencies say. That is fine if you are at the very top of the pile and your position is unassailable.”

Sim, however, offers support for the view that there is a legitimate debate to be undertaken about the creativity in the region as a whole.

“There is a whole bigger question about why isn’t better work produced. Fair play to Robert for raising the question about creative standards in the region. It is a much bigger debate,” he said.

The chairman of last year’s Roses judging panel, Billy Mawhinney was less than enthused about Harwood-Matthews’ assessment of the awards – pointing out that some of its winners went on to win further accolades at shows such as D&AD.

“The winning work certainly was not rubbish,” he said. “But it is fair to say there are always good years and bad years. In the spirit of taking something positive from his comments I would look on it as a rallying call. Manchester, like Scotland, has always responded to these kind of challenges.”

Mawhinney believes that Harwood-Matthews’ comments, whilst possibly ill-judged, may force the Manchester creatives to at least reappraise their own work with a more critical eye, and acknowledge that the harsh comment may in fact be ultimately fair.

“What would be worse would be to say ‘it is all bloody fantastic and brilliant here.’ A wee bit of Roy Keane-ness never goes amiss. You have to take it on the chin. Maybe it wasn’t as good this year. I have never known any creative, anywhere, who is satisfied with what they have done.

Stimulate not masturbate

“Great stuff is undoubtedly getting harder to do. It is much thinner on the ground, all over. Things like the Roses are there to stimulate, not masturbate. A bit of controversy creates a lot of determined people.”

Simon Broadbent, creative director of Manchester’s Connectpoint attributes Harwood-Matthews’ remarks to frustration, pointing out that it is common for driven people to relocate to a new region from elsewhere – the south or Scotland – believing they can apply their own distinctive thinking to a region they don’t fully understand. An inability to reinvent the wheel can prove disheartening.

“People think they can change the world, and I don’t think it is ever going to happen. I don’t think they understand the workings of regional advertising,” he says.

However, he does agree that the creative industries in Manchester are currently not punching their weight. Not in terms of creativity, but in business practice which fails to stimulate opportunities for competition.

“The last great campaign which people remember was Silentnight. Then we were fighting on a par with London. Nowadays, it is very difficult,” he says.

“In London, production companies are continually showing their new work. If there is an idea in that, you can see it. We don’t get that proliferation of talent shown to us up here. I genuinely do think he has a point.”

The atmosphere in Manchester is certainly unlike comparative creative markets such as London or Edinburgh, according to Pete Armstrong, creative director of Iris Manchester, who has experience working in all three. The Roses Awards are the best and most prestigious awards gongs in the industry outside the London conurbation, he says, and to criticise the awards event would be harsh indeed. He does however believe that the onus is on the creatives themselves, who should ensure that the highest standard of work is entered for the awards to make sure the regional scene is showcased appropriately.

“Awards are only as good as the work entered into them. It is down to everyone to make the most of it and enter the right quality of work,” he says.

“There are good years and bad years in awards, and it is a reflection of the standard of work that is being done. I think he has a fair point about Manchester. It is not like Edinburgh, Glasgow or London. There is not a competitive vibe about the city amongst the creatives.”

The reason for the lack of inter-industry interaction is principally down to cultural networking factors peculiar to the Mancunian scene, he argues.

“It is as much of a social thing as anything else,” he says.

“You’ll know what bars you can walk into in Edinburgh and Glasgow and London and meet friends who work in other agencies. You’ll talk about work and have a healthy competitive vibe. There is a lot of banter. That doesn’t happen in Manchester. There is not that ‘we’re going to out-do you this year’ vibe.”

The result of the absence of competitive face is an accidental complacency, fostered by the lack of knowing a desperate competitor is snapping at your heels, threatening to out-do you at every pitch.

Different thinking

“I don’t think they push each other as much as the agencies do in Scotland or London. It is more of a retail city. It is harder to do better creative work on those sorts of accounts. Those clients demand effective, fast-turnaround work. It is not easy to do challenging, creative work on those accounts. It is everyone’s responsibility in an agency, not just the creative department, though.

“Every region has its peculiarities. You can’t walk in somewhere and apply some London thinking to sort it out. Different thinking come into play in different parts of the country.”

Notwithstanding Harwood-Matthews’ public dismay at the standard of last year’s Roses entrants, Broadbent thinks the injection of a fresh perspective from another creative culture will be in the best interests of the scene.

“Harwood-Matthews will only improve the gene pool. It is good to have people who are outspoken and say what they think,” he says.

“If it gets another agency’s back up and they want to prove him wrong, better work will come out of it. He is right. There is no reason why the standard of work shouldn’t be better year on year on year.”

Although if you don’t see Harwood-Matthews out on the town networking over the next couple of weeks, you’ll be able to bend his ear at the Roses Awards itself.

Are standards higher this year? See the Roses Advertising Awards 2008 nominations at www.thedrum.com. Results will be announced on 1 May 2008 at Manchester’s Hilton Hotel. To book your table email katy.thomson@carnyx.com.

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