Blackwell's Britain: An appraisal on the state of Manchester's creative soul

Is there such a thing as a 'Manchester style'? Not any more, says Lewis Blackwell, but this diversity means it is competing on a global stage.

Creatively speaking, ‘Manchester’ is dying. But, to misquote, I come not to bury, but to praise.

There is no question that great work for major and emerging clients can be seen all around the city’s studios. You could make a case that some of the best creative companies to be found on the planet are here. You can tell it by the buzz, by the client roster, by the vibrant and varied quality.

It is diverse. It’s no longer saying anything that marks it as provincial, regional or anything localised. It is not different from London, or anywhere else, it is different from other work in the Northern Quarter, or anywhere else in Greater Manchester… and it can compete on a global stage.

The city boasts a growing list of companies – from branding to advertising, packaging to gaming, from TV production to media innovation – that deliver a product hallmarked with international standards, not a stamp of origin.

But what is dying, or dead, is any sense of a Manchester style. That’s if there ever really was one. But there was a time, quite recently, when commentators on the city lazily described it by harking back to various moments of creative achievement ather than celebrating the range of production now.

This is unacceptable today. Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of Ben Casey, co-founder of perhaps the most respected design shop, The Chase, now approaching 30 years standing and with international honours to show for pretty much every one of them. He says: “I don’t see it as a negative thing to question whether there is any kind of Manchester style. I see that Manchester has matured as a centre."

"The industry has and is changing radically, and now there is real choice. There are companies with many different styles and many with The Johnnie Walker House in South Korean capital Seoul created by Love no specific style, but more known for their thinking.”

Johnnie Walker House in South Korean capital Seoul created by Love

He would put The Chase in that latter category, I suspect, because style tends to be temporary, while powerful thought and work discipline will last. “We have always been led by the brief and have not wanted to be known for any style. When we came here we chose to be based in Manchester because that approach was perhaps a bit different then – we had a different angle to other designers. Now there are lots of good designers, and lots of breakaways from good designers. It is much more competitive.”

What The Chase helped start has helped give it a creative reputation of being not just good in Manchester, but good by any standards (with year after year of D&AD awards to show for it when up against the stiffest competition). No wonder it branched out down to London – it had a demonstrable record of achievement that was rare in the capital, for all its riches.

For Casey though, there is a real sense that the highly disrupted market ensures no resting on laurels. Indeed, The Chase is just embarking on a major new step by incorporating a film business and looking to develop more into moving image. “The changes in media are forcing us to think about how we must evolve. We’re reassessing what we do. I think creative companies generally are going to become wider in what they do and less predictable.” However, while there may not be a Manchester style, there is concern that the industry is not moving fast enough to respond to the disruption of the market. Dave Palmer, founder and chief executive of Love, is building stories for brands all over, such as a recent project for Johnnie Walker in Seoul.

CheethamBellJWT's social media campaign 'Yawnie' for bed specialist Dreams

But while his agency has grown into exciting new experiential areas, competing internationally, he is concerned that the mood in Manchester lacks ambition and is a little stuck. For him, it is not opening out to Casey’s route of being ‘less predictable’ and is instead in quite the opposite situation at times. “The Manchester creative scene still seems to be stuck in silos – digital, regional advertising and design shops. Nothing feels that different from 10 years ago despite a massive shift in he way consumers interact with brands.”

One area where Palmer is a little less agitated than some is when it comes to finding great talent. While many are concerned that more needs to be done to bring on the talent stream and keep it in the region, Palmer sees it in simpler competitive terms – if you do good work it attracts people to work with you. It’s why many people go to London, but for Love it is why it attracts people away from that path. “Talented people are attracted by global clients and a high standard of creative work, regardless of geography,” he says, but that’s something of a chicken-and-egg situation, as you can’t do the great work without great talent, but

the talent won’t be attracted without the good work…

For Palmer, being outside London can be a virtue when dealing with clients. “I’ve had major clients say it is a benefit we are in Manchester. They see, and experience us, as occupying different emotional territory. They believe our heads are in a somewhat different space than being in the London fray. We’re in a different box and the clients can sense it.”

Love recently collaborated with a Singapore interiors agency on one of its experiential projects for Johnnie Walker and Palmer sees such international cross-cultural and cross-discipline links as both exciting and necessary developments, internationally and nationally. He remains concerned that more of the Manchester creative scene needs to open up to the opportunity or lose out to faster movers from elsewhere.

However, nobody is saying they want to swim in the slow lane. To judge by the frequent visits to the awards table or other recognition by studios such as True North, Music, Mark, Creative Spark, Code Computerlove and others, there are many competing voices.

McCann Manchester's spot for Aldi's own-brand champagne

There is not only a range of output across the media that is beyond any stylistic description, but underpinning them are different views on what work to do, what to sell, what claims to make – Manchester beats its breast and it sounds like there are several Tarzans in the jungle. For all Palmer’s provocative remarks, the leading ad agencies (McCann, Havas Lynx, CheethamBell JWT, TBWA, BJL, Refinery, et al) challenge any notion that they are sitting back and being conservative. The range of clients and the weight of the work is its own defence.

But we have to wonder if something is lost, if something is dying, if not dead, about an old sense of the Manchester creative scene. The message now is that the best work could be from anywhere. It’s not just a Manchester issue, it is a question for the character of creative industry everywhere as it services increasingly large brands, or clients who aspire to compete with such large brands, where real locality has little or no place; where evidence of origin may be a disadvantage.

The arrival of the BBC and ITV, with their big regional centres in MediaCityUK and their influence on commissioning only adds to this conundrum: they are not there to support localism, but to harness a workforce and its creative talent to create national and global products.

In Manchester, it is hard – no, impossible – to tell the city’s output apart from anywhere else, including London.

This says both that the city’s creative companies are highly competitive and also, perhaps, that they could be from anywhere. That may be a good thing for jobs and for the bottom line… but perhaps not for spirit of place

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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