Blackwell's Britain: to integration and beyond in Birmingham, with Cogent, McCanns, WAA and 383

Integrated, flexible and collaborative is the name of the game for Birmingham’s creative industry, as Lewis Blackwell finds out when he continues his investigation of the city’s creativity.

There’s been a cheeky campaign down at Old Street tube. You probably read about it in The Drum: Birmingham going head-to-head with the Tech City crowd on their way to work, to tell them to up sticks and relocate 100 miles north to a land of plenty.

The creatives behind that were the folk at Cogent, a veteran of the Midlands ad scene and yet not actually from Birmingham. Instead they are all in a nice barn-like place in Meriden, a few miles away, all 230 of them.

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“I guess the ad industry in the Midlands has always suffered in some way, at least image-wise, from not having a central area,” says Richard Payne, creative director at Cogent. So ironically, while he can genuinely create a message that draws the digital crowd to a highly attractive digital scene in the creative quarter, he is typical of the major ad businesses of the area in being relatively loosely connected. “We don’t really have that community scene that might be seen in London, or in Manchester.”

He feels it impacts on recruitment, but responds with a mix of “growing our own” and also hiring in from all over, notably providing a lifestyle alternative for talent wanting to head out of London. The agency aims high and has held a national ‘integrated agency of the year’ award. That means in the one building it can work as lead agency on one account across a whole range of channels, or might be a specialist supplier into a different agency with specific skills. For instance, with the recently won Kwikfit work, it is doing the local dealership work, with lead TV and strategy coming from Adam&Eve.

Integrated and flexible is also the story at its principal ‘rivals’ as substantial agencies, McCann and WAA. Both are not really in Birmingham at all, but are of that area, comfortably ensconced in dedicated single office locations. As with Cogent, they make up sizeable portions of their roster from clients outside of the region. Having sights often set firmly outside the region helps make them leaders in it.

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John Sanders, group executive director of McCann Central (which covers the Birmingham, Luton and Bristol offices) says: “Typically we are pitching against London agencies, or ones from Manchester and elsewhere. We’re getting on the pitch list because of our special strengths, not because of where we are from.”

The creative approach is not that of a creative community so much as a fortress. “We have everything in-house; we can be a one-stop solution. We have strong media expertise, a digital business, and one of the largest PR agencies around. With this way of working we can find powerful integrated solutions very quickly and effectively.” He aims for ‘best in class’ agencies within the agency. “Each unit has to be able to compete in a pure way, excellent at its own specialism as well as ready to work well together.”

Sanders believes the output and image of the region’s advertising is changing. More work has spawned more quality, and this is more of an attraction to draw talent to come to the area.

Andrew Wilson, founder and CEO of WAA Group, speaks proudly of the geography and culture of Birmingham and its industry as being a key influence on the work. “There’s a commercial and industrial heritage. It is in the spirit of our approach. This area was the workshop of the world; got things done. We see ourselves as being creative with a real commercial approach. And yet we don’t present ourselves as being particularly ‘Birmingham’ because we need to compete on a wider front.”

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Creativity includes ‘growing your own’. All three of these larger agencies in the area are actively looking at how to develop and retain their own talent… they can’t just be buying in the expensive hires from London, but want to have talent that can grow with them.

It’s exactly what Joanna Birch, acting director of research innovation and enterprise at Birmingham City University, wants to hear. This university, to the fore in arguing the case for the creative industry to respond to the diverse cultural riches of the city’s youth, has 133 different creative courses to help match up with the wide range of industry. Each of those courses has students wanting to find two eight-week placements in an internship. “We have to build that launch pad to work,” she says – and the ‘we’ is a responsibility of the industry as much as public sector agencies. However, the distinctive nature of the creative industry where there are many ‘micro-businesses’ unable to offer internships has led to an extensive use of ‘live project briefs’ – getting practitioners to share real project briefs and then assess the student work back in the college.

“We’ve had graduates taken directly into jobs as a result of the live project process,” says Birch. She sees a future when there will be a better networked and self-supporting community of the fragmented small business and freelance culture. She wants Birmingham to be a pioneer in developing a “co-location, café and cloud culture” – three ways in which small businesses or sole practitioners might link up, support and learn from each other. Technology – such as new forms of geo-location apps – could better connect the industry, she argues, creating a compelling community that is richly joined by real and virtual co-location.

Maverick TV, a pioneer of programming (international hits include the likes of Embarrassing Bodies for C4 and others), is also to the fore in seeing new connections that can drive fresh output. Founder and director Jonnie Turpie knows ceaseless reinvention is part and parcel of the media, his company and the city itself.

For Maverick, the young talent pool of Birmingham has been vital in how it can operate its “digital innovation department”, where the aim is “to reflect a whole country through the diversity we have in this one city”. Television sits alongside a powerful move into digital programming, which is becoming increasingly significant in viewing numbers. The company has been working with both Microsoft and Google for content that exists wholly online. “We can do things in Birmingham that would be very difficult to do in most other cities – we have input into programmes from high-end academics through to all kinds of productions skills,” says Turpie.

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And so to our sign-off story, that of 383, an agency that epitomises the lift-off potential of this industry – and perhaps why the government can hope for a doubling of revenues in the creative economy in just five years. “We have averaged 80 per cent year-on-year growth”, says strategy director Jacob Dutton. That’s since 2007, through the recession. Not bad.

But what does it do? Nothing as straightforward as advertising, design, TV, etc. “We’re not a marketing agency,” he asserts. “We help to make products and services better.” Put a different way, it has insight into where digital and technology is heading and can use this to think strategically and creatively for clients.

On a city-scale, there is a sense that Birmingham may just be starting to do to other cities what has been done to it. It’s now getting a cool image. It is starting to have a buzz, have its evangelists preach the same story; one that fires up belief that Birmingham can be a world-leading place to do business, particularly creative business. Where the map once showed a lot of roads crossing and leaving Birmingham, now it would seem they lead us there.

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