Blackwell's Britain: Where are the buffalo in Yorkshire's creative industry?

The latest in a series of regional reviews by Lewis Blackwell shines the spotlight on Yorkshire, asking if the region’s marketing sector simply needs to work harder to compete on a national and global level.

When the Tour de France started in Yorkshire in the summer, the region came of age. For all the famous pride of its natives, only by having the world’s biggest spectator event take place across there did it finally arrive in international media terms.

Unlike boasting of being the birthplace of the Brontë sisters or David Hockney, or falling into low-level factionalism around a cricket team or quality of beer, La Grande Boucle conferred a rare honour, one which Yorkshire had been granted only by outsmarting the likes of Edinburgh, capital of a near-nation.

Yorkshire was at last at the centre of a world map, and seemed in its rightful place as a flag bearer for the whole country. It looked stunning in those aerial shots of countryside and cathedrals, and the commentators were never short of an impressive fact.

But now, in the gloomier days of autumn, I’ve been looking for the creative spark and things seem a little less glittery. While there is a decidedly cutting-edge and fast-growing digital and communications industry in Yorkshire, it is at times strangely elusive, even shy.

Where other locations covered in Blackwell’s Britain have been easy to get a grip on – a big city, a zone, famous leaders, recognisable work, and usually a loud projection of local ambition – Yorkshire is harder to pin down. With the creative industry, it almost ceases to be a place and largely falls back into factionalism, infighting, or at best a kow-towing admission to the power of London as the creative hub.

After a few interviews, I think it might be because of the very quality Yorkshire folk pride themselves on: they’re too down-to-earth for their own good, weighed down with northern grit and not inclined to inflate their reputations in quite such self-aggrandising style as other creative centres.

But then I start to wonder: is the lack of chestbeating because there is less to shout about? What is Yorkshire in creative business terms? Is it Leeds with a few outlying bits? It could be, but there are too many smaller, but busy, regional rivals.

Yes, Leeds is one of the nine core cities of the UK, ambitiously pushing for more powers, and the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership can boast: “Business growth in our digital and creative industries has outstripped that of other UK core city regions. Supported by a dynamic cultural scene, employment in digital and creative industries is higher here than Manchester or Bristol.”

And yet it is easier to find the stars and trends of creative excellence and growth in those other centres.

Leeds sits as the most powerful element in a kit of parts that make up Yorkshire’s disparate creative scene – Sheffield to the south, the ‘Airedale Digital Corridor’ around Bradford, and Hull, out on the coast. No doubt claims can be made for Harrogate and York to the north, but really, the economy and population of Leeds should have determined its dominance. Instead it has yet to really celebrate its creative industry. And its creative industry perhaps responds a little in kind – with a focus on getting on with business, taking the train to London, driving over to Manchester, or doing whatever is necessary to compete as a national player.

Jonathan Sands has seen the Leeds creative business evolve for over 30 years. As chairman of Elmwood, a multi-national design consultancy with its headquarters still in the city, Sands says the gradual disappearance of many large corporate headquarters has been key for the service industry, leading to a need to follow the clients if you want to play at the top table. “20 years ago there were perhaps 100 or more companies of significant size managed out of the city or nearby,” he explains.

“They were the big beasts that fed a huge range of smaller businesses, such as designers. But as they became acquired – Asda by Walmart, Halifax Building Society by Bank of Scotland and into Lloyds, and so on – we saw a shrinking of this ‘buffalo herd’.

Winter gardens, Sheffield

It had a natural implication for the businesses who were no longer fed from here. One by one the advertising accounts were pulled into new headquarters, typically in London, and over time the larger agencies and consultancies struggled to exist here.”

But that was then, all over in the 1990s perhaps, with agencies closing or merging. Today, a new generation of business is happening. A few creative shops survived and became something different: Elmwood has offices around the globe with 150 staff worldwide.

Only around 50 of them are based in Leeds, including central office support. There is also New York, Melbourne and Singapore, while the London office is now the largest pure studio.

“Our first big ‘London’ client was in fact out of Scotland, because the whisky brands started looking to the capital to work with companies there,” recalls Sands. “We were London to them.” “Clients tend to be either global, or heading that way, or small and niche. The dynamic of doing business, of running a design consultancy, has changed,” he adds.

For all that ‘you can do business from anywhere’, he believes most clients like to work with an agency on their doorstep, which requires a Yorkshire-bred agency to stay small or grow and spread its base. To service London clients means setting up shop there.

Perhaps Sands’ key insight on how Elmwood rode the waves of change and is still standing comes when he concludes: “It’s not enough to be the best of the

best – you have to be the only one who really does what you do. Increasingly, that is the only way you can defend a premium position and maintain your margin. Being a great design studio alone isn’t scaleable; you need more than a good look and feel to your work and to be able to show really valuable insight and knowledge.”

With 70 per cent of revenues coming from global clients, “only 30 per cent at most from regional”, Elmwood seems to have made that step. Martin Boddy, chief executive of integrated agency Jaywing, heads up a public company that has its roots in Sheffield but has spread across the UK and even to Sydney.

With the £18m acquisition earlier this year of the leading Leeds-based search marketing specialist Epiphany, he is also building a local empire, but with a national and international vision.

“We’re data driven, an insight business. Brand marketing today happens through digital campaigns and we are focused on how to link the content needed across different channels by really understanding data across all those channels.”

Bristol Aerospace Centre branding by Elmwood

His 600-person strong group is a long way from the creative studio model: it houses 50 data scientists, 140 search marketing specialists, 130 or so digital marketing specialists and around 300 people focused on delivering outsourced content management for the many major brands it serves.

This is where digital meets creative, with an output through many voices and media, ranging from an app for Open University to the modelling and testing of a trail of communications for Aviva.

“In digital everything overlaps,” says Boddy. “It demands so much and somebody has to join it all up for the client. Our business is very collaborative. Work ranges from highly specific projects to, increasingly, large-scale partnerships where we are there for problemsolving in heavy strategic engagements.”

Boddy muses that the origins of Yorkshire’s expertise in digital and data goes back to a historic strength in direct marketing. “DM has always been strong in the north… it comes down to a generation of marketeers that cared about accountability, and that’s now in the culture.

"The community still has that concern with understanding the purpose of the work and carefully measuring its impact. Where people would drift off to London 20 years ago, I think today they can make it here. Clients are all over and they’re not so concerned where you are as to what you can do for them.”

The Paul Smith Mini, brought to Leeds by Thompson Brand Partners

That seems to apply to the success of Leeds-based Thompson Brand Partners, with its eclectic roster of clients.

A recent brand project for the Leeds Building Society might indicate strong local relevance, but its portfolio also sports work done for Paul Smith, London’s South Bank and NHS Direct.

The common thread is that founder Ian Thompson has focused the agency “completely on branding” and, even as it moves

increasingly digital, that is where the focus will remain.

“Our move into more digital capacity is in order to give us more control over how projects get implemented,” he explains.

At one point Thompson was open in London, “but it was the wrong timing, we didn’t go ahead, and we haven’t regretted it,” he says. “It’s a big commitment and, while it helps to be physically close to clients, you can’t be everywhere. Our clients are from many places.”

While Leeds sports various creative hub studios, it is arguably not the buzziest Yorkshire city in recent months, and neither does that title go to Sheffield. We have to look to the emerging tiger economy of the east… yes, Hull.

It’s in Yorkshire too, if only just, and recently won the chance to be European City of Culture in 2017. This is expected to give its growing creative and digital scene a great boost in the run-up years.

James Greenwood, digital director at design agency Strawberry, points to the curious quirk of Hull having “the fastest digital network in the country” as a key factor in why it could grow as a leading digital workspace (the ‘fastest’ claim is true: BT didn’t bother to wire up Hull so Kingston Communications stepped in and delivered a super fast broadband across the East Riding that is the envy of everywhere else).

With a high-speed train connection to London and low-cost property, the city is poised for lift-off. “We can’t stop growing,” says Greenwood.

He points out that big industry clients – those disappearing ‘buffalo’ of earlier – are starting to return to Hull. One example of this is Siemens, which is creating thousands of new jobs in order to build wind turbines in a reviving dockland area and float them out to the North Sea. “Investment like that spreads into other niches, supports a broad creative culture,” says Greenwood.

His agency recently spawned an innovative start-up, StrawberryToo. A ‘feeder’ agency, new graduates and apprentices work for lower costs on more local business, and then move across to the main agency, opening the way for further recruitment.

Hull Marina

There’s lots of talk of the ‘green port’ and the ‘digital estuary’ for the Humberside revival.

“I’m a Hull lad and I’ve heard talk of turnaround before,” says Greenwood, “but this time it is working and the timing is right. We’ve started to refer to ourselves as ‘the Monaco of the north’ – we’re making things happen even though there is nothing really around here (it’s 60 miles to Leeds, alone).

Hull is now back on the map. In the past, people buggered off given half a chance to get a job down south, but now they are more likely to stick around.” Hull is going to be worth watching. So too will be the fast-growing digital creative mix of Leeds and Sheffield. Can they move from branding others to perhaps branding themselves a little?

While there are a few national players, and plenty competing on a local level, if the region’s creative and digital industry ever want a Tour de France-like moment for its status, then they are going to have to work harder to pull together.

Or will they leave those ambitions to other core cities of the UK and just settle for doing fine, in a somewhat fragmented manner, happy with being second-tier, farming what’s left after the buffalo disappeared?

This article was originally published in the 15 October edition of The Drum.

From Bristol to Yorkshire, we have been shining a spotlight on the creative industries in various cities and regions over the past months. To see more, visit the Blackwell's Britain hub.

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