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The Drum

Creative coffee morning

Joining us for coffee and bacon sandwiches at Love’s headquarters were TBWA\Manchester joint creative directors Mike Foden and Richard Sharp; Pravda creative director Simon Sinclair; And Partners’ head of art Sam Haslam, CheethamBell JWT creatives Richard Sorensen and Matthew Crosby; and Love’s own Alistair Sim and Jonathan Rigby.

Acknowledging that some of the best work at this year’s Roses came from north of the border, The Drum challenged the panel on why Manchester wasn’t cleaning up in the way Scottish agencies have.

The Drum: Scottish agencies seemed to dominate proceedings this year

- particularly with the big awards - what factors are prohibiting agencies

in Manchester from being able to produce work of that calibre?

Sam Haslam: It really seems to be ruthless with clients at the moment. There just seems to be too much emphasis on hitting targets and meeting deadlines and not enough value in the creative product.

Simon Sinclair: From their point of view, work has to be able to demonstrate that it will get results very quickly, so taking risks is not part of [clients’] culture.

Mick Foden: But when you do take risks like Cadbury’s did with the gorilla, everyone in the country goes ‘what a fucking great piece of work that is’.

Sam Haslam: I think there’s a dearth of quality account handlers. There seems to be a bit of a rift between creatives and account handlers.

Mick Foden: You can’t do great work unless you’ve got a great client buying it. Maybe our accounts people don’t understand what great ideas are in order to explain them to clients.

Matthew Crosby: Trying to get the clients themselves to be passionate about the work is a big factor. We need to educate the clients through the account handlers to make them want to put more money in.

Alistair Sim: Some account handlers haven’t gone into this business because they’ve got the same passion that we’ve got for the job. It’s just slightly sexier than working in estate agents. But the good ones really get the idea of selling the idea and want to be involved in the creative process.

Richard Sharp: The emergence of design agencies dabbling in advertising is also making the job of the bigger ad agencies much tougher. The smaller design firms are seen to stand for creativity much more.

Alistair Sim: Since a lot of the planners we have outside London have gone freelance, it’s meant that smaller design agencies can compete on a strategic level and even pick up FMCG stuff that they couldn’t before.

The Drum: Is it a different type of client, culturally-speaking, that uses a north

west-based agency?

Matthew Crosby: Potentially. If they know they want great work a lot of them just automatically go to London. So there perhaps isn’t as much passion in terms of creativity, it’s just more a case of getting work out.

Jonathan Rigby: I’ve spoken to clients who’ve gone from a London agency to a regional agency because they didn’t like how the London agencies were pushing creativity so much. They wanted an agency which was more ‘collaborative’ – essentially, one which they could get to do what they want. I think that’s sad and it sets the rules and relationship of what it means to be a northern agency, which is to be quite safe.

The Drum: You guys will be pitching against each other often, how much of a part

does that play in quashing a scene from developing?

Richard Sharp: Actually, when you know people it’s quite nice to beat them. It’s even better when you’ve got relationships with people because it just makes you keep trying harder. You do want to win and you do want to do better work.

Mick Foden: It’s quite healthy to know what you’re up against, in order to keep the creative standard high, rather than just being insular.

The Drum: Are clients more receptive to moving their accounts up here now, is it

getting any easier?

Alistair Sim: I would say so. When we set this place up nearly seven years ago it was a pretty stupid idea to try and establish this kind of agency here. But things have caught up and clients do take us seriously. The kind of clients we work with might have an agency in America, or northern Europe, so to have one in Manchester, just 200 miles away from London, isn’t such an issue.

Mick Foden: We’ve also got to make sure we keep the local businesses happy, because historically, if we don’t do that, they will go to London. We’ve got to make sure our standards stay high to ensure we don’t lose great local firms.

The Drum: How tough is it to find creative talent here? A lot of agencies we meet

bemoan the preparation of students coming into the industry….

Mick Foden: We have to nurture students. We’ve just done some work with students from Uclan, and the standard was really good. What we find though is that the teams that are any cop are still going down to London. We need to get them in on placement and make sure they stay here.

Jonathan Rigby: We’ve had students in who don’t compute the difference between design, advertising, film-making, building a website and I find that really refreshing…

Sam Haslam: On the flipside, sometimes universities don’t make it easy for you to get inside and approach the students and get them involved.

Alistair Sim: We tried to organise a student exchange, getting students, tutors and agencies together and just two tutors turned up. You think, ‘fuck me, it’s your responsibility as much as ours’.

Simon Sinclair: A lot of students arrive unprepared for the reality of the job. We had some very good student teams in who said they had to leave early to get to a football match. Placements are sometimes seen as a kind of legalised child abuse in not paying the students. In reality, students are worthless to an agency at that stage, that’s why they’re serving an apprenticeship.

Richard Sharp: We’ve heard some quite shocking stories from students who have told us that they’ve been to other agencies who’ve told them, ‘you’re shit, you’ll never get a job anywhere’. We’re trying to encourage new talent and bring it on but before it even gets out there we’re telling it it’s rubbish. That attitude is just crap.

Matthew Crosby: Because it’s such a hard industry to get into, and because people have to really fight for it, the ones that do make it tend to be the ones who see it as more than just a job and really want it. The ones that don’t get jobs are the ones who prioritise other things as more important. I think if we make it too easy to get in they’ll lose that conviction in their creativity.

The Drum: What about senior positions then? With the likes of Mick’s [Foden’s] arrival and Billy Mawhinney moving up, do you think we’ll see more senior people seeing this region as a good career choice?

Mick Foden: I think so. From the outside looking in I saw a lot of energy in Manchester. What we need to do is keep hold of the big business in this area and if we can capture some big client wins people will take notice.

Jonathan Rigby: For people to see it as a valid career choice I think we have to establish this scene. As a group it’s much easier to express just how good the creative work is here. If we can do that I think we’ll notice more and more people, both senior and graduates, seeing this area as where they should be.

The Drum: What is it that the industry in the north west is missing at the moment?

Richard Sharp: From bigger agencies I’ve heard phrases like ‘commercially acceptable’, so the standard has become a little more workaday. That’s made big agencies here commercially successful businesses, but what happens is a little group from within there think this isn’t very creative, and off they go and setup their own agency. Suddenly you’ve got a smaller agency, much more creative, with a ‘can-do’ attitude. Then they start taking those clients away, and we realise that being safe is not what clients want. The energy is coming from the smaller agencies and so the more we start talking like they do, the more clients will find us, bigger agencies, refreshing to listen to.

Mick Foden: There’s a tendency in the regions to be apologetic about being in the regions where we should be celebrating the great work we’re producing here...

Richard Sorensen: ...Especially with the reputation this city’s got. Manchester’s renowned for being mould-breaking in things like music but that attitude hasn’t filtered through to what we’re doing.

Jonathan Rigby: When you work in an ad agency in London it’s your life. You want to be seen in the right pubs with colleagues from other places, and talk about the work all the time. It’s not a job there, which to a lot of people up here it is. If there was more of a scene in Manchester, and more of a reputation for the work that’s created here, that would shape clients’ expectations. Instead we’re worried about pinching each other’s clients in our small little circle, and that’s ridiculous. We should be thinking about how we get clients from Europe, or America. If you get a client from America, whether you’re in London or Manchester doesn’t matter. We’re a little bit too inward looking.

The Drum: So are there any solutions in motion?

Jonathan Rigby: In Birmingham, they have something called Creative Birmingham. It’s a website where agencies provide the content and it aims to support and promote the city’s creative scene. We’ve been talking about doing something like this in Manchester, although the idea is still at a formative stage, so maybe this is a good place to get the word out there and see how we can take the idea forward.