Continuing our series of regional reviews, we invite Lewis Blackwell to give us his outsider’s perspective on Scotland’s creative sector ahead of what looks set to be the country’s biggest year in recent history. Here he argues that, for those operating in Scotland, great business works without borders.
The Scottish creative industry has been in a parlous state since the recession bit. The past five years have seen some former major players shrink,disappear, merge or retreat south. The death of some familiar staples seen on pitches or at awards nights – such as the recently absorbed Newhaven to the recession-crushed Navyblue and Redpath Design – still hurts, and that gloomy roll-call could be extended.However, you won’t hear much gloom around the survivors. They are not clinging to the wreckage but are putting up fresh sails after the storm. There’s more a sense of being in uncharted waters with new challenges.With the prospect of the country soon enjoying the marketing excesses of the independence referendum,the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup, it could be thought that this is a short-term feel-good factor for the industry heading into 2014. After all, it will all be over in a year – and nobody’s talking in London about any lasting marketing afterglow from the Olympics.For all that, some juicy accounts are in the offing for Scotland 2014, and may influence a wider uplift in spend. It is the longer-term rethinking of the base for the marketing industry in the last year or two that seems to reassure agencies large and small. There’s a sense of readiness, of the Scottish creative and marketing scene having worked out again what it needs to be in the future – whether a part of the UK or not.Gerry Farrell, long-time creative director at the industry’s most well-known business, The Leith Agency,has been through cycles of change before. He talks about reinvention as being at the core of what is necessary. The agency restructures “constantly, so we don’t get stale”, and recently turned the layout of the agency upside down, putting reception on the top floor and making a woodland glade on the ground that they call ‘Leith Links’. The agency encourages its staff to work on side-projects, out of which have emerged its own record label and beer. Leith is the kingpin within a network of other group agencies, such as the digital offering Blonde – also a thriving business in its own right.You can’t argue with success, and Leith seems to manage to keep pulling it out – from account wins toaward wins, with only the occasional hiccup. In my interviews of many of its competitors, large and small, it was clear that Leith has the respect of its peers for its lasting quality standard and ferocious will to keep winning and holding its clients, along with having moved enough with the times to not look old-school. And yet Leith’s mantra would seem to be in part an old idea of the ad agency – focus on the big idea. It’s the stuff of Bill Bernbach, who died before most clients were born (Google him if you don’t know). But never mind the DNA of the thinking, the key thing is that simplicity of offer – making big ideas work is compelling to clients if hard to deliver. It can be seen underpinning Leith’s relationships across a roster strong in government work and yet also strong in long-standing drinks clients and other highly commercial enterprises. On the other side of Edinburgh, Tayburn is perhaps the design consultancy equivalent of Leith. Also a venerable name but one that set itself new targets a few years back: it wanted to be in the top 10 of UK creative and design effectiveness charts. It achieved both last year. As managing director Simon Farrell puts it: “We are not really interested in comparing ourselves with the best in Scotland. It’s too small a pond. We have to measure ourselves by standards that apply more broadly.”At Tayburn the need is to demonstrate to clients across the UK and beyond that the agency is at the top end of a world standard. This can give it a strong competitive story – particularly against London competitors. In Edinburgh the consultancy might seem expensive, but in London it has to explain to clients how they can offer a cost advantage that can be almost embarrassing. “Our competitors might be asking £3500 a day, whereas we can do an equally good job for half that,” explains Farrell. “We have a small footprint in London and don’t have the overheads with our main office here. “I believe in a line of Brian Clough’s where he said ‘it is important to know your enemy’. His was Leeds United, but ours are the London agencies. We need to know our competitive position. By being able to point to our leading standards and yet also our price advantage, we have found an edge.” For Helen Hourston, managing director at The Gate, there is a clear sense that the old agency model is falling away. The drift to digital, the move away from as much paid advertising to new forms of media, all means that the agency business needs to evolve. In The Gate’s case, it has led to a more media-neutral and strategic emphasis. “First and foremost, we want to understand the business issue, rather than jump to use a specific channel,” says Hourston. “An ad-shaped output is notinevitable!” An example of this is that with some of the government work the agency does, where it realised the challenge was to build community relations with people who were not digitally enabled and were not reached by advertising. “We needed to work a lot more directly with people, which was not easy, but was the right solution to the problem,” explains Hourston. The Gate’s self-initiated, award-winning ‘Deadinburgh’ campaign is perhaps a corollary of a move into less visible media – it occasionally needs to generate its own projects to explore and showcase the range of talents at its disposal. Graham Sturzaker and Paul Sudron had nearly nine years leading the Scottish outpost of Elmwood, an international-scale consultancy that pulled them further away from creating the work. Elmwood pulled out of Scotland in 2009. Sturzaker and Sudron have since taken a very different path through their consultancy Project, based out of a former shop in Edinburgh’s New Town. “We never see ourselves being even 20 people now… we want to do great work, hands-on, being a boutique specialist,” says Sturzaker. And yet the agency already has 40 per cent of business outside of Scotland, working with a select group of clients across the country that came to the business through word-of-mouth. These range from a craft beer company around the corner, to elite schools in England to the international currency dealing site WorldFirst, where they set the look of the brand and continue to consult. Jon Evans, founder of Blood, and ex-Navyblue creative director, is another who is wary of growing too fast. His Edinburgh-based design agency is growing as he follows the needs of his clients, such as Miller Homes, the housebuilder whose marketing he supports across the UK. Most have found him by word of mouth, or from old relationships being rekindled. Both Project and Blood have principals who are originally English, travelled north for work and then stayed because it was a congenial place to call home. Now they are building businesses with no sense of a border. It is simply all about doing good work for the clients. More established larger players seem to have come to the same conclusion from a different point of view: that if they want to diversify, grow, maintain standards, they need to hunt for clients everywhere. And the UK is a small enough place to cover. Nobody speaks out against independence, but nobody speaks for it. Perhaps the Scottish creative industry shows in its behaviours what industry in general wants of the referendum vote. And that is that business works with connection and easy movement, not separation and barriers.This feature was first published in The Drum's 8 November issue, available for purchase or for subscribers to download.
The Drum's Scotland regional feature is sponsored by Glasgow City Marketing Bureau.