Blackwell's Britain: Minding the Manchester myth

Lewis Blackwell argues that while Manchester's swagger and bloody-minded pragmatism is impressive, the city can't afford to get complacent.

Manchester is a city that is in love with itself. To a fault, one might conclude.

More so than any centre I have yet profiled in Blackwell’s Britain, the creative and digital industrialists of modern Manchester (by birth and by choice) ooze selfconfidence.

They believe they are part of a great industrial city and, of course, they are right. TBWA Manchester even has a proud quot emblazoned eight feet high on its walls: “For Manchester is a place where people do things… Don’t talk about what you are going to do, do it…’ and on it goes, a long quote from Judge Parry in 1912 but every word still rings true for Fergus McCallum, chief executive, who says: “It sums up the spirit of how we do things around here.”

TBWA Manchester's offices

Not half. Manchester is a by-word for industry. It has for so long been a global city brand, from the 19th century of ‘Cottonopolis’ to one of the most international brands in sport, Manchester United, now increasingly ably supported – even overshadowed – by its enormously-rich neighbour, Premier League champions Manchester City.

Sorry to mention football so early, but it’s unavoidable. Mancunians mention it a lot. The football status is touched on like a magic lamp because it immediately confers indisputable stature. Next up in validating the swagger is how the BBC and ITV have moved into MediaCityUK (yes, it is in Salford, but that chippy rival is now swallowed into Greater Manchester). Then there’s a gush of other validations of varying quality – from Factory Records to Elbow, Morrissey to moneysupermarket.com’s Martin Lewis.

These are not my references but ones given to me by some of the city’s finest creative industrialists. Trying a little too hard, perhaps? And they need not, the facts alone are impressive – according to an Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report, Manchester is already the second-largest creative capital in Europe. Yes, London is number one, but forget the siren voices of Berlin, Paris, Milan and Barcelona – the ‘we try harder’ Avis-like creative powerhouse is in the North West, with a growing commercial and cultural might that should make it the toast of a government wishing to ninvest in this high-po industry.

But facts also show that Manchester is losing out to local rivals in getting government support. The IPPR report indicates a staggering three to one ratio of public funding per head of population in favour of London rather than Manchester. Furthermore, the West Midlands, the North East and Yorkshire also raked off more support from the public purse.

It seems good reason for complaint, but creatives don’t tend to do strikes and protest marches. They are either too fragmented or too focused on sorting it out with entrepreneurial zeal. McCallum agrees Manchester suffers a little from being number two, but believes clients suffer a little as a result too and need to pull their eyes north. “The London-centric vision of the UK is anachronistic. Agencies in the south are in danger of losing touch with the realities of life for the majority of people in Britain,” he says, and for those looking to build a business he pitches, “Ask yourself, do you go to London, where everyone is playing in someone else’s world, or do you go to the frontiers and be part of creating a world for yourself?”

Stirring stuff.

The fact though, is that for many it is not an either/or situation. Many of the leading agencies and consultancies in Manchester have either spawned a London offshoot or are themselves the spawn of a larger business. They do this to compete on a broader front both ways, to service clients better both ways.

Manchester is the second-city, industrially and creatively, because it is the second-largest population centre and geographically in a useful place to service the northern part of the country. With all the related business, and education, and raw population resource, that puts it on a level to compete well internationally. It’s all fairly basic economics to see how it works.

If Manchester did something about that, then it could better encourage other inward investment while backing new talent. For all of the scale of businesses in the city, there are underlying structural issues that could do with urgent help. The industry group Manchester Digital is working hard with the universities and others to address the skills shortage.

There’s a shortage of developers everywhere; the city that can be quickest to fix this may well be the one that wears the digital crown tomorrow. Diana Erskine, managing director at Reading Room in Manchester, is on the Manchester Digital council and calls the lack of an adequate pipeline of digital talent “a real weakness”.

She says the whole country needs to “address a huge skills deficit” and in this context, says Manchester’s size is an asset – not as big and tricky to turn as London, but with the education and other resources that beat smaller cities.

A key advantage of Manchester for many, as Erskine confirms, is that it can deliver a great combination of high quality work that can be underpinned by competitive price advantages (cheaper rents, cheaper people). But if the talent fails to come through, or can’t be brought in easily from London, and becomes too expensive, then both sides of the appeal break down. “We need to find ways to also encourage more start-ups here, to create the spaces they can thrive in,” adds Erskine.

The Hive is an example of a development that might fit the bill, a public-private joint venture in the creative district of the Northern Quarter, where the Arts Council has parked its northern office.

But it looks almost too swanky for hungry start-ups. At media agency PHD, which also has offices in London, there’s a clear sense that having a strong base in the city is one half of an equation for success in Britain. As MD Dani Briers puts it, “this offers the best of both worlds” – national buying power with local accountability and sensitivity to client needs (nearby clients include AG Barr, Man City and Bentley).

The Hive in the city's Northern Quarter is home to the Arts Council

But there’s also another ‘best of both worlds’ that he likes – “in 20 minutes you can be out in the country”. He believes this is ideal for the creative and media industry to flourish as a lifestyle preference, retaining talent and also attracting it back from London. Perhaps the indication of Manchester’s economic creative industry muscle is that many of the city’s most successful businesses push out from their North West stronghold to target a piece of the London action.

While the PHD and TBWA story might be seen as imperialist London expanding to Manchester, the story also goes the other way. From design consultants The Chase to agency BJL to (just a few weeks ago) film company The Gate, the move south to take business away from London, or at least become bi-locational, is a familiar route. BJL CEO Nicky Unsworth admits that opening in London and putting senior staff there was necessary for growth “because London is a massive global city and we can’t necessarily expect clients to reach out to Manchester – we’re not going to be on the radar of some of them however good our work or our competitive offer.”

However, she believes Manchester agencies have some natural competitive advantages: “We did integrated before it became the thing because we often work with challenger brands that have to think that way – they can’t have specialist agencies in all areas.” That said, she emphasises that BJL is not working with local clients but with national players, and says the Manchester situation fosters a way of working that is different, more efficient and productive.

She admits to a cost advantage over pure London agencies but says that is never the reason to work with them – first and foremost the work has to deliver, has to compete and perform. But clearly, clients care about costs too. Like Erskine, she is concerned that more needs to be done to foster the talent pool in Manchester before it really becomes an issue for growth.

The Wheel of Manchester in Piccadilly Gardens

I began by suggesting that self-regard is almost too high in the city’s creative economy and I still believe that. Several creative industry figures happily speak of the Manchester confidence, but while there are many companies doing well and expanding, we have to wonder how Manchester drifted behind London and other centres in public investment.

Perhaps having the BBC move in big time was seen as enough, but it is a creative jungle and rival UK cities will be using those funds to improve their competitive situation.

And European rivals probably have their own handouts as because the creative industry is seen as a key helper of economies everywhere. Should we be impressed by how Mancunians get on with it, how they combine their talk of ‘swagger’ with bloody-minded pragmatism and getting stuff done?

Yes. But they must not be so in love with their own magnificence that they miss out to investment going elsewhere.

As the financial documents warn, the past is no guide to future performance. The situation is delicately balanced: the region may be set for more growth and real consolidation of itself as an international status centre for creative and digital industry, but it must remain vigilant to the fact that there are plenty of others looking to wrest business and status away from it.

If it keeps the head down, puts away the swagger, fights for everything, the Mancunian creative industry can be a world-beater – never mind London, it can go on to be a major force on an international stage. But it is not really of a size or an attraction that it can relax.

While other regions in the UK and across Europe want a piece of what the North West has, there is no room for complacency.

This piece was originally published in the 3 September issue 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.

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