Blackwell's Britain: Putting Newcastle on the map for creativity

Newcastle isn’t very good at marketing. Itself, that is. Flying largely under the radar, it’s about time this creative success story was better recognised, writes Lewis Blackwell.

Mike Ashley, as if we didn’t know it, is to blame for a lot. As is the Guardian.

The Sports Direct mogul’s canny management of Newcastle United as a business rather than a religion not only failed fans of the football club but could also explain our undervaluing of the creative industry of the city, along with feeling unexcited about the general economic performance of the region. And a daft piece in the media’s favourite newspaper last year titled ‘The north-east of England: Britain’s Detroit?’ didn’t help.

I’m not expecting Mike to give a toss about this anytime soon, or indeed the folks in the black box at King’s Place, but in my regional tour of Britain’s creative industries I have never felt so strongly that it’s time a great success story was better recognised.

Newcastle flies under the radar, largely un-championed in the national consciousness, despite being heroic in its achievements. For a start, the city is in the only region that, economically speaking, is creative in that it actually produces more in hard money terms than it consumes. In 2012 it was found that the north-east was the only region that is a net exporter for the country. This less-celebrated industrial hub of Britain is quietly beating the world, or at least the rest of Britain, when viewed through this measure.

Geordieland interactive map by Drummond Central

The creative industries might not be as guilty as Big Mike when it comes to the brand health of the area, but there is some irony that companies who do communication for a business have yet to really forge a collective image that matches their achievements. Perhaps it is because it is they are too modest – not usually a complaint you can make about advertising and design folk.

“It’s true the north-east doesn’t particularly market itself very well,” says Julie Drummond, founder of Drummond Central, an independent agency that has quietly grown to have national and international stature, with game-changing work for Bet365 and others.

“Yes, the creative industry here is a bit of an anomaly,” she admits. “We really don’t shout about what we do much, unlike others. This country has a phenomenal capital in London, then there are good stories with other cities, Manchester, Edinburgh… they have pull. And yet we could beat them hands-down if we marshall ourselves, believe in ourselves.”

Drummond says there may have been an “unhealthy internal competition” in the past, where a few regional agencies fought over regional business and leadership, but “that era is over and the businesses active today are more respective and complementary... we talk together and look to improve what can happen overall.”

Everything Different’s Wimbledon campaign for Cabot Circus

Ben Quigley, chief executive of Everything Different, and the IPA out of London agency chair, says the industry has switched from being traditionally inward-looking some years ago to now being altogether outward-looking. “The creative industry here is not reliant on the regional economy, it has national and international ambition.” Different itself sees 70 per cent of its business coming from in and around the M25, according to Quigley.

“Geography is really not a problem,” he adds. “I’m on the train to London typically three days a week. Companies here can thrive by being seen as independent, agile, fast to move.”

Quigley sees this creative industry economy being a result of three key factors. One is the strong university sector, delivering graduates in areas that can feed the gaming and digital expertise of the region. Another is the benefit of the regional development agency (while it ceased to be funded and ended in 2012, “people are now working together better”). And then there is the fact that good people move to the area – yes, incomers are welcome.

“People come for the quality of life and find opportunities here,” says Quigley. “I came up from the south, for love, as you do, and stayed.”

But creative industry performance doesn’t come without growing pains. The ‘post-PC’ digital agency HedgehogLab recently went public in the Newcastle Journal on how it was having to turn down work as it couldn’t hire the right calibre of staff.

Co-founder Sarat Pediredla says: “We struggle with finding the talent here, there’s a lot of demand and the supply is low of the right kind of digital skills for us. It’s partly why we opened in India last year and why we’re also in Boston in the US.” The agency has built connections with Northumbria University and other colleges, “but that’s not going to fix what we need quickly”.

Drummond Central has been working on Newcastle City Council’s ‘Keep it Clean Newcastle’ campaign

Creative North is an organisation that exists to help with that fix by encouraging young people to see the creative and digital industries as a career choice. Founder Rob Earnshaw says: “It’s partly a problem of young people not being encouraged to see the industry as an option. Colleges need to help but so does the industry itself.” His organisation is celebrating ‘digital champions’ of the region and implementing a ‘badge of excellence’ for good employer companies.

One thing nobody disputes is that the region has a great advantage with its cost base. With much lower house prices, creative workers have a good quality of life while costing less. “It’s a great environment for small creative businesses to grow as the cost benefits mean they can accelerate faster,” says Earnshaw.

Phil Coverdale, managing director of full service agency Cravens, which has grown to have around 40 per cent of its business outside of the UK and an office in Dubai, says part of the secret is that “today you should collaborate to compete”.

Coverdale says the agency works with a powerful network of great suppliers, within and beyond the north-east, and this is how an independent agency can be agile, responsive and capable of great work. “There is a power in small. Not just in the business but in the size of the region. You get to know people. I’d like to think in the area we tend to be straight-talking, genuine, looking to make things happen.” He admits talent recruitment and retention can be an issue, but adds “people also return... the pull of roots brings people back.”

This piece was originally published as part of The Drum's Blackwell's Britain series, exploring the creative sector of some of the UK's largest cities and regions.

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