Lewis Blackwell reviews Bristol as his travels across the UK begin, examining the health of the media and marketing scene and speaking to some of its main players as he goes.
Places have names, and rough coordinates, but little else is fixed: from the currencies and languages, to the software and funding sources driving the business operations, to the decreasing loyalties and increasingly nomadic life of a workforce – it’s all fluid. Everything can change and often does. Even barter economies are subject to climate change. This seems worth pointing out up front as Bristol and Bath are neither one place, nor are they a neat region, nor do they operate independently of national and international economics. Indeed, it is the willingness of the local creative industry to compete on a national and global level that has done much for the cities.
As we kicked off our tour around Britain’s creative industry centres, the positivism coming out of the leaders of Bristol and Bath’s creative industry was enough to make me wonder what they put in the water. From ad agencies to branding specialists, from digital hot shops to animation superheroes, there was great uniformity around what a splendid place it was to work. And yet, as we wrapped the interviews, the headlines in the Bath Chronicle struck a different note. Hundreds of staff at Future Publishing have been placed under potential redundancy threat as this large local employer, a key office of a troubled publicly listed media company, started formal redundancy consultation as part of a global restructure. Jobs may go and jobs may come (roles in London could shift to the mothership in Bath) but this was a stark reminder that these are not times to operate as an independent city-state. Perhaps that realisation is a clue to the area’s positivism. From civic and cultural leaders, to the bosses of the creative companies, the attitude is outward-looking rather than parochial. “We’ve never been a regional agency,” says Neil Collard, MD at digital agency E3, which he describes as “a national agency that happens to be in Bristol”. “This is a great place to do business, it is strong in digital skills. It’s also a great place to live and do this kind of work – it is a vibrant creative hub,” he says. With clients such as the Royal Navy, Kia Motors and the National Trust, E3 seems to find no problem in playing on a national stage. “Being in the digital space gives you the freedom to knock on various doors and break down barriers,” says Collard. He says two things in particular stand out as helping lead the image of the creative industry. “Having a mayor is important and with George Ferguson, an independent politician, this makes a massive difference. When it comes to making Bristol an exciting creative place to be, George does a massive job.”
The second is Bristol Media, a networking group of the creative industry companies representing a creative community of circa 20,400. “Bristol Media does great work in oiling the wheels of collaboration,” says Collard. Fraser Bradshaw, CEO of Bristol Media, as well as CEO and founder of advertising agency Saintnicks, could hardly have put it better himself. “We’ve always had a strong creative sector but Bristol Media helps take the collaboration to another level. There is a lot of inter-dependency of companies and individuals – it’s how we work together that helps define us.” He says the old ‘bigger is better’ logic has to be questioned and that ‘closer is smarter’ applies to an agile industry such as the creative one. This philosophy Bradshaw also applies to Saintnicks, which he started after resigning from running the local McCann’s office. Perhaps it was that background that means he is determined that growth doesn’t necessarily mean getting bigger. “We believe you can do great work for major clients, and remain very agile and profitable, with a company that might only be 15 to 25 core staff.” The agency’s main office is in the Temple Quarter enterprise zone, a 25-year project to regenerate the central area around Bristol’s Temple Meads station. Opened by George Osborne in 2012, the zone has business rate discounts and relaxed planning rules that have attracted 350 companies, some major players but also many small businesses from the creative industry. But there’s more to place-making than incentivised financial deals. Nobody knows this better than George Ferguson, not only mayor since 2012 but a past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects and an architect whose practice worked on the Paintworks regeneration project, a multi-use creative quarter developed out of a derelict paint factory site. Ferguson has a more holistic agenda that involves supporting the creative industry for its wider social benefits. “Creativity has helped define Bristol and I would like to think the city can be a better place for creative and entrepreneurial people to work in.
Creative industries help the quality of life. They encourage good place-making and differentiate a place,” he says. He is keen to create the conditions for more startups working with both the industry and the strong talent base emerging from the universities in the region. The city has helped draw in the nationwide Creative Employment Programme to spend some of its £15m central funding to create around 100 internships. Ferguson sees the creative industry as “an inward investment tool – whether you are in the creative sector or not, you benefit from the aura that it helps create in a city.” He extends that aura to Bath: “We market ourselves together abroad and Bath is also keen to work up its creative sector as a key part of its offer.” For Brian Mansfield of Taxi Studio the city isn’t hard to sell as a place to work: “it’s a very attractive group of villages”. He sees the 13-year-old studio as a “London-style agency that is based in Bristol because that’s where we like to live,” while he says that 90 per cent of the company’s business is outside of the UK. While the quantity of talented people to draw on may be less than the capital, Mansfield says the city stands out for having extremely high quality in both people available for being on staff and for freelance, and points to the strong creative and technology hinterland of the universities and major historic employers that have underpinned the local economy and technology base. Chief among these are the BBC and Aardman Animation. BBC Bristol has had a long association with the area (indeed Aardman set up in the area when it worked on children’s TV series Take Hart in the 70s). This state-funded production flow has clearly been key in fostering the local creative industry over the decades, but the local businesses have moved on to create their own eco-system.
Alistair Bryan, CEO of Bray Leino, knows a bit about creative cultures. This wide-ranging integrated agency, part of the Mission Group, has an original office in North Devon, near Barnstaple, “where they have definitely created their own ecosystem”, while leadership is now equally split between Bristol and Devon, making a virtue out of being diversified. At Mr B & Friends, a lively Bath-based agency, founder Simon Barbato can point to a growth path through recession that has seen him double headcount in two years to 25 people. His client base is mostly outside of the area: “Clients care about the service, what they need and when they need it… not our geography. That’s rarely a discussion point.” Neil Sims, MD at Oakwood, is another whose company has prospered out of Bristol’s can-do culture. As with his peers, growth comes from an outwardl ooking quest for clients, a Bristol business operation that draws on the strong local talent pool and the lower costs (relative to London) of working from the city. “Only 30 per cent of our clients are local,” he says, pointing to a roster that includes brands such as Mattel. One recent project brought Oakwood back to reflect on its home turf: a commission from Destination Bristol to create an identity that encapsulated the city. The expressive, calligraphic result is one that (according to the press release) displays a “a hint of Bristol Blue glass, Banksy, Brunel and unlimited creative expression…” Curiously, this is the only mention either Banksy or Brunel received in any of my interviews. The former, despite reputedly being Bristolian, is perhaps too anonymous, individual and maverick to really stand as a pillar of the wider community. Meanwhile Brunel is long dead and the industry has newer heroes, media and projects to acclaim.This piece was originally published in the 11 June edition of The Drum magazine as part of Blackwell's Britain series, exploring the creative sector of some of the UK's largest cities and regions. A copy of the magazine and the accompanying supplement can be purchased through The Drum store.This feature was supported by the IPA and Creative Skillset.