Youthful optimism, diversity and a jobs pledge from the BBC are driving the future of the ‘city of a thousand trades’, finds Lewis Blackwell, as he continues on the second leg of his spotlight on Birmingham's creative industries.
If there’s one statistic, one thought, to hold in your head about the prospects of the creative industry of Birmingham it is this one: “Under 25s make up 40 per cent of the population – it’s perhaps the youngest city in Europe.”
Those are the words of Anita Bhalla, chair of the Creative City Partnership, the body set up to promote the development of jobs and wealth in the city. It is an umbrella group that helps yoke together the technology and creative economies, along with the young and diverse workforce, to forge a new wave of work that will grow wealth and spill over into the overall cultural richness of the city. Well, that’s the vision.
The recent announcement of a government strategy to double the UK creative economy by 2020, along with competition from Labour plans to boost regional centres and industry, did not say much that was new if you have read your reports from Birmingham. This is a city that has been on to the value of the creative economy for some time and has strategy documents in abundance. It has developed increasingly joined-up thinking around the value of the creative economy over recent years. Hence the CCP, serving the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership, with a focus on supporting the already powerful, but fragmented, creative industry of the region.
This is seen as not only good business – capable of generating inward-investment on a regional and national scale – but as a key element in regenerating the city, in creating a good quality of life. When harnessed together with the demographics of Birmingham, a powerful creative economy promises perhaps unique added value: the city’s great diversity can be turned from a potential for conflict and confusion into a rich resource to produce world-leading culturally rich and wide-ranging content. A younger population can be given routes to self-expression, self-actualisation through rewarding work… they are a force waiting to happen.
Or put into simpler terms – there are a lot of them and they are comparatively smart and cheap. That rich supply of human resource and the relatively low-cost of doing business in Birmingham (compared to London) can mean it is a compelling place to do business.
It’s a logic that even appealed to the hard-nosed folk at Deutsche Bank, who have established a fully-fledged new merchant banking operation in the city, taking jobs away from London in the process. Not exactly core creative economy, but it’s a business story that demonstrates Birmingham can compete at national, even international level, as a place to do business. Deutsche Bank is the kind of employer that makes others sit up and take notice about where it is going to locate.
As is the online fashion retailer Asos, which demonstrated faith in the city by establishing a major base for its digital activities, as of last year building out its international range of websites with a new team based out of the Custard Factory, home to around 400 creative businesses in the Digbeth area. The Asos jobs might have been placed in London in the past. Chief information officer Pete Marsden explains the decision: “Birmingham is a city with the talent, cost- effectiveness, physical infrastructure, plans and will to help our business succeed”. And he didn’t even take the advantages of putting his offices in the Enterprise area, but wanted to be immersed with the Custard folk.
We could go on with the fine words. But Birmingham has yet to have the image to match its output and its potential. For all that there are perhaps 50,000 creative workers and rising in the city area, and more than 5,800 companies (from larger agencies to small one-man bands), and lots of world-leading cultural landmarks, the city has yet to enjoy the ‘creative brand’ or even general cultural reputation that some of its peers can sit upon.
One of the city’s more famous sons, Trevor Beattie, creative director and co-founder of BMB, tells us: “It’s a great city and it has never been stronger in its creative industry. It’s really vibrant at present and I’m not entirely sure why. But at the same time it has always been in the shadow of London, because it is so close and so big, and then we’ve also suffered from being in the shadow of the arrogance of Manchester and Liverpool.” (Mancunians, Liverpudlians – don’t complain here, I’m just the messenger.)
Perhaps the city’s not blowing its own trumpet enough, as Paul Kehoe, CEO of the fast-growing Birmingham Airport, as well as chairman of Marketing Birmingham, suggests. “We’re a down-to-earth lot, we get stuff done. But that means we haven’t always been the kind that like to be shouting about ourselves. That has counted against us. It’s an absolute challenge at the national level to get the positive story across while at the international level the city is already seen much more positively. It’s a place with a great heritage in making things and we can be recognised for all the new creative things we do.”
‘Speaking with one voice’ is part of what Kehoe sees as the task. Wouter Schuitemaker, investment director at Business Birmingham, sees that coming by ensuring a viral community of evangelists. “We have been working with the tech and digital community to get them to do the shouting rather than the city,” he says. “We need to create the buzz. With Asos for example, it has an important story to tell. It came here because we have a powerful feed of digital talent. It was struggling to get the staff in London. Here you can hire well and people will stay. That makes it much more efficient for business than if you have a freelance culture of people jumping in and out of a business, difficult to retain, as can happen in London.”
A big win for the city and its creative scene recently has been the commitment by BBC director-general Tony Hall to put jobs back into the city. After years in which the BBC’s staffing fell from around 1,700 to less than 100 positions, the city rethought its strategy and appealed to the BBC on a new basis. As Anita Bhalla, explains, the city’s appeal was based on a vision of positive change rather than negativity.
“We didn’t come back to them with a complaint about how the BBC should support Birmingham because we have lots of people paying the license fees,” she says.
“Instead we focused on what made Birmingham really different and useful; our strapline was ‘young, diverse and digital’. We took that pitch to Tony Hall. We showed the BBC how there was a way to reinvent itself in the region.”
The outcome has been plans to significantly regrow its activities out of Birmingham in order to harness the culturally diverse talents. Hall recently announced that a new digital initiative, the Guerrilla Group, is to be based out of Birmingham with a broad remit to explore ways of communicating stories to all the audiences that the BBC wants to reach.
When a global creative brand decides that the city can be a place to innovate world-leading creative thinking, that’s an endorsement. It could be a keystone in building the image of Birmingham as a world-player for digital and creative enterprise. The human resource and talent is there: we can now start to really believe that they can deliver.
I’m prompted to think of an earlier era in the city’s history – that of the ‘Birmingham Enlightenment’ in the later 18th century. The great and the good of that era linked the scientific and industrial revolutions, and fed into intellectual and artistic movements. It was perhaps the finest flowering of the city of a thousand trades… until now?
This article appears in the latest instalment of the Blackwell's Britain series written by Lewis Blackwell and published by The Drum. You can find more Blackwell's Britain content here.