'We must be very global in what we pursue' – what could Scottish independence mean for the creative marketing industries?

Ahead of the referendum on Scottish independence, we can expect the final weeks of the debate to crank up the noise from politicians, pollsters and the publicity business. But what could Yes or No mean for the creative industry? Lewis Blackwell investigates as part of The Drum’s Blackwell’s Britain series of regional features.

Blackwell’s Britain is taking a detour. After Bristol and Birmingham, we were set to check out Manchester (and indeed we do, in a couple of weeks or so). But with the independence referendum kicking into its final few weeks of fevered Yes/No debate, it’s time to warm our thermometer and place it somewhere sensitive in order to take a reading on how the creative industry might feel north of the border.

As with every other angle of view on to the referendum, looking at the creative industry throws up a similarly divided set of opinions, selective facts, and emotional froth. However, it’s also true that agencies and designers of all stripes and persuasions tend to be more circumspect in pushing their opinions too publicly. Most would rather not be drawn on their personal preferences. The general attitude is that the creative and communications business is a service industry and needs to be happy to work both sides of the line, now and whatever the future brings. It may sound a little floppy, even amoral, but it is best for business.

Image courtesy of Kyoshi Masamune

An exception to that caution – but perhaps one that partly illustrates the rule – was apparent in the forthright views expressed just a fortnight ago in an online piece at thedrum.com by Gerry Farrell. As one of Scotland’s most notable creatives of recent decades and until June the creative head at The Leith Agency, Farrell’s clear call in favour of the Yes campaign was a bold move.

He pictured a vote for independence as the path of visionaries, while only conservative functionaries backed staying in the union. But then it’s easier for him to sound highly visionary as he can now stand individually, uncompromised, as he articulates his personal beliefs in what he believes is best for Scotland and his industry, with no need to be shackled by an agency’s position and its balancing of various client views.

Simon Farrell, managing director at design consultants Tayburn, is meanwhile unashamedly cautious in expressing a position for the industry. “We’re not pro or anti and I think you really have to be neutral as an organisation if you want to reflect different clients.”

He’s also an Englishman by birth (but of longstanding in Scotland) who has a Scottish family and friends. Caution may be a moral duty, too, at a personal and professional level.

Image courtesy of Shahbaz Majeed

He says the industry can see it both ways when thinking of the economic outlook. “There is a case that a new independent Scotland could shake things up and create lots of new business opportunities. There could be new identities and new brands to build out. There will be new public sector work. There could be lots of work for us as brand consultants.

“But for Tayburn, it’s also the case that more than 40 per cent of our business comes from outside Scotland and that is where we expect to see more growth. We’re not alone in that ability to compete from Scotland more broadly across the UK. We don’t want anything to change in circumstances that could erode that opportunity. It’s a real fear for us and other parts of industry that looks from here beyond Scotland, to consider that a vote for independence might bring about barriers to that growth.”

Standard Life brand repositioning and visual identity refresh by Tayburn

Tayburn’s Farrell recalls a heated discussion he had with friends recently where what became apparent as one of the biggest issues for Scotland will be finding a way to heal the damage of a ‘divided’ Scotland after the vote. “We want a Scotland and a people that are proud, passionate, united in projecting their culture and country, and we want that to come through in Scottish business, too. It’s going to be a challenge if approaching 50 per cent of the voters feel disenfranchised after the referendum, whatever the result.”

He draws the comparison with the Commonwealth Games, which engendered a very positive projection of Scotland and of a united people. The referendum could do the opposite, he fears. “The Games presented a Scotland that was very proud of itself but there was also an openness and friendliness to the other ‘home nations’.

“That being able to work together is a key part of success in business, in a country. We have to be worried about how we can achieve that after the divisiveness of the referendum campaign.”

The feel-good success of the Commonwealth Games is something that Andrew Stevenson, director at Glasgow’s Tangent Graphic, knows well as his consultancy spent four years working on the creation and roll out of the brand identity. He knows that for a company like his, which is still relatively small but has a global ambition and reach in its work, the future often needs to be outside his home country. “We’re almost saturated in Scotland and with the expertise we have from working on the Commonwealth Games, we have to be very international in looking for the kind of business that we can and should go after. The natural progression for us goes beyond a ‘UK vision’ or even Europe – we must be very global in thinking what we pursue.”

Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games pictograms by Tangent Graphic

He doesn’t see a Yes or No vote changing his objectives but admits the conditions for doing business easily abroad must be maintained or further developed. “We are looking to work with clients who have a shared vision about high quality design, who understand its value. They are not so common but are all around the world.”

The challenge will be for a business from Scotland to be able to easily and convincingly reach out internationally and look as competitive and convincing in their skills, resources, and experience as agencies that might come from a more orthodox major centre. But it’s a problem that applies whether a creative business is from any location outside London or other capitals.

People Make Glasgow city branding

The challenge for an independent Scotland will be to not allow any further illusion of difference and distance to creep in to perceptions, condemning the Scottish creative talents to be seen as somehow isolated. Whether heading towards independence or staying in the union, Scottish consultants face the challenge of needing to look beyond the relatively modest bounds of the Scottish economy if they want to be world-class. And they want to be confident that they are not becoming more provincial, more of a backwater.

For Ian Dommett, a former marketing head of the Yes campaign and founder of the marketing shop Cor Agency, such a situation is one that exists today and is one that independence can begin to rectify. “The UK marketing industry is far too London-focused. Independence will help redress this by positioning Scotland within a wider European and global market.

“Geography is not an issue in the far larger US or European markets and it is the concentration towards London that has been biggest obstacle to business growth for Scottish agencies.”

He says it is high time to counter the 30-year drift of marketing spend to London from having it managed directly within Scottish agencies.

“Scotland became a region of the UK commercial world and suffered from the dominance of the London market. While a Yes vote cannot guarantee an immediate change to this, it does offer an opportunity to create a new Scotland focus both for indigenous companies and international organisations recognising Scotland as a potential new market opportunity.”

On top of this, he predicts a boost in public sector communications that will have a wide effect across the industry and society.

Among the first fruits of a successful Yes vote, says Dommett, will be in public relations, “as the world’s media starts to arrive in Edinburgh as a new, real capital city. The marketing services industry will grow as Scotland establishes itself as a defined market.”

I’m almost won over by Dommett’s rhetoric, and Gerry Farrell’s visionary passion, but then I’m also with Simon Farrell’s caution. I also love Alex Salmond’s singing voice and my Scottish wife likes Alistair Darling. In other words, this whole debate still seems to be highly personal. Emotion and prejudice run high alongside the selective factoids. Nobody has landed a really effective blow.

However, the creative industry really should take heart from the referendum, whatever the outcome. Scotland has rarely ever had it so good in having a raised profile: with a general international uplift in economies – this is a time to sell the country’s services, at home and abroad… whatever ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ might mean.

The economic cycle, and the scale of the Scottish economy, points up the need to get out there and compete on the biggest stage available. That’s the lesson of Tangent Graphic’s success with the Commonwealth Games, and one that any marketing business should aspire to emulate – whether selling tourism, whisky, tartan, oil, sports and arts branding expertise, or the Scottish Government. Seize the day; this is Scotland’s time. In opportunity terms, this is as good as it has been for a while.

Lewis Blackwell is a former editor-in-chief and publisher of Creative Review. He has also served as the worldwide creative head of Getty Images and chief creative officer at Evolve Images. Blackwell’s Britain sees him tour the UK to analyse its creative hubs.

This feature is published in The Drum magazine out today (20 August).

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