Nottingham focus: Forest on fire
Nottingham once boasted the largest ad agency outside the capital and revelled in its stature as a centre of marketing excellence. But, with the demise of its great bastion of advertising power came a change to the city’s creative outlook. The Drum inveMirroring these fortunes, as 23red Central’s Stephanie Drakes explains, has been the city’s marketing industry. At one time a key centre for marketing excellence and prowess, Drakes argues that things have changed dramatically over the years.
“15 years ago, Nottingham was as much a centre of excellence for advertising as its peers – Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham – being home to arguably the largest advertising agency outside London of that time – FCB Garrat Baulcombe. In its heyday it probably billed £50-£70m (real advertising spend) and clients included giant brands such as Boots and Raleigh.
Clash of Culture“Sadly, the great bastion of Midlands excellence fell foul of acquisition, clash of culture, and eventual closure. Its talent was scattered through the city and up blossomed the next generation of talented medium-sized, owner-managed agencies which,” Drakes admits, “while competent and capable, were not able to retain the larger name clients which sought comfort and credibility in ‘size’ and moved their business South to the capital. Thus, these businesses were never able to gather the critical mass of business that secures a strong regional agency brand for the long term.”
Chris Arthur, managing director of Perspektiv Marketing Group, agrees that Garrat Baulcombe’s fall from grace was a pivotal moment in the Nottingham creative scene’s history.
“After the break up of Garratt Baulcombe (latterly Cross Hill Conwill) Nottingham was void of any sizeable creative agency for a number of years. It did have a wide range of, what I would class as, design and advertising agencies with emphasis on producing quality off-the-page or design for print.”
However, Arthur is sceptical that Nottingham has ever been in a position to challenge the strength and depth of agencies in cities such as Manchester and Birmingham.“There were a number of specialists in disciplines such as brand marketing and sales promotion but Nottingham has historically lacked agencies of the size and resource of its regional counterparts in Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester.”
Lawrence & Pierce moved itself from London to Nottingham in 1988, so is well-placed to have witnessed the changes on the local scene. It’s managing director Martin Lord believes the onus is on Nottingham agencies to prove their worth.
“Maybe agencies in Nottingham just have to try harder, as it’s not seen as a centre of advertising, like Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester.
“It might be linked to the down-to-earth approach of our staff. There’s a gritty reality about people from Nottingham. The industrial, coal-mining heritage of the area means we don’t like pretence and are slightly out of synch with elsewhere. People from Nottingham get to the point quickly, which is what advertising is all about.
“There’s also a rebellious spirit locally, which can be seen in famous people from the city, like DH Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe, Brian Clough, Lord Byron, even Robin Hood. This local trait of having the courage of your convictions really helps in advertising. It stands you in good stead when dealing with senior managers. You have to know your own mind and stand up for yourself when selling creative proposals.”
One of the city’s largest players today, BCS Creative, was formed in 1995 as a management buy-out from another sizeable player, Grey. It’s joint managing director and co-founder Murray Carmichael-Smith has noted significant change in that time.
Victims“When we set up, there were four or five large agencies and they were handling full accounts for major clients. Over time, we’ve seen this change. Work has become far more project driven and, for some of those big players, an over-reliance on one or two big accounts, which have subsequently moved on, has resulted in them falling by the wayside. “Back in 1995, almost all of the senior people in Nottingham agencies were former GB staff. It was agencies like this we admired, and even aspired to be like, but the majority no longer exist today. I think many were victims of having not planned beyond the senior management team’s own retirement plans.
“They perhaps weren’t bringing the second tier of management through at the right speed and once the heads of the agencies left, they weren’t able to continue their success. Clients didn’t stick around to find out either and many migrated to London.”The project-based new business trail, which has burdened all but the biggest of agencies, makes it difficult for new start-ups to launch in cities that don’t have the recognised identity for marketing services, as Carmichael-Smith explains: “It’s very difficult to launch an agency these days. You have to be very entrepreneurial and chip away at accounts by doing a good job on smaller projects. I can’t think of many agencies [in Nottingham] that have more than 10 people, so they’re not really in a position to sustain the major accounts. It’s disappointing that there aren’t more big agencies here.”
Lord adds: “Generally speaking, in the 80s, many agencies were competing against each other for work with the big local companies, like Boots or Fisons. Now, we’re competing on a wider stage against regional and London agencies for national and international work.
“Over the years, standards in Nottingham have improved although most agencies are still fairly small compared to other areas. Nottingham has always dominated the East Midlands. There isn’t one big agency in Nottingham like there was back in the 1980s. And in terms of big nationals, there’s no significant presence.“The environment in Nottingham has changed dramatically over the years. Back in the 1980s, manufacturing dominated local employment. Now, Nottingham has reinvented itself as a creative city.”
That view is backed up by Drakes, who believes the current economic climate could also benefit Nottingham agencies.
“Nottingham is an enterprising place, the City was founded and is grounded in fashion and style and this has always nurtured a strong passion for creativity. In the last two or three years, several if not scores of very talented, smaller, creative businesses working across specific disciplines have sprung up and relative newcomer 23red, working in the integrated space, has made Nottingham its Midlands regional base. If in these tough times the big brands are looking for creativity and cost efficiency then it might make sense for them to once again look closer to home.”
Like most agency bosses, DiVersity founder Diane Slaney is keeping a close eye on the economy and is optimistic about the impact it might have on out-of-London agencies.
Good work“In recent years there certainly seems to have been greater polarisation of agency size – small, very creative hotshops producing excellent work for a few clients with minimal staff, and larger outfits with 25-plus staff and big name clients outside the region. It will be really interesting to see how the current economic downturn affects us all – will the smaller ones survive on the strength of good work and low overheads, and will the larger ones pull through with the greater ability to punch above their weight against agencies in London and other regions?
“Local folklore says that in the whole of the UK, Nottingham is last into recession and first out – so it would be good to keep a watching eye on the Nottingham marketing scene to see how we all stand up to the strain, and which are the strongest to survive.”The uncertainty over the recession to one side, the fortunes of Nottingham’s agency scene appear to have turned the corner. It may not have a Garratt Baulcombe in its midst, but the agencies mentioned here, along with hotshops such as Purple Circle and Jupiter Design, are making the scene look very healthy.
Meanwhile, the East Midlands-based organisation CIN (Creative Industries Network) is also working hard to drive the sector with a series of inspiring initiatives.
Coincidentally, Nottingham Forest will start the new football season in the Championship and few would bet against the club returning to Premier League in the not too distant future... so who knows, maybe the city’s marketing scene can follow suit and re-establish its reputation for creative excellence.