Blackwell's Britain: Why Newcastle is the next stop for everyone from Marvel to JK Rowling

From Jony Ive to JK Rowling, Marvel to Mortal Kombat, Newcastle’s understated creativity has been bringing big names to the north-east, writes Lewis Blackwell.

When we judge creativity, size doesn’t really matter. And that over-used word ‘innovative’ doesn’t really carry so much weight either.

What really matters is that difficult to define thing called quality. You know it when you see it. But you might not see it because great genius, talent and true achievement is often not so big or self-promoting.

Newcastle should be seen as pretty damn cool when it comes to creative credibility, but it isn’t because the achievement is so big it’s almost hidden in plain sight. For example, Sir Jonathan Ive. Yes, Newcastle has a claim to the design guru of Apple, probably the most valuable player in the world creative industry. Where did he get an education? Newcastle Poly, now Northumbria University.

Atomhawk worked with Marvel on Guardians of the Galaxy

And what about the recent blockbuster movies Guardians Of The Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron? Well, a fair bit of the look of those Marvel superhero movies came out of an astounding studio of 20 people in Gateshead. I tip my hat to Atomhawk, an astounding success story that I hadn’t heard of until researching this article. Now I can’t stop telling people about what the company does. At the heart of the story is Ron Ashtiani, a former head of art in the games company Midway who, with Midway’s collapse and once again finding himself out of work in that volatile industry, invented a new kind of creative services company in 2009.

He recruited a team of great concept artists who then helped a range of major computer game companies outsource the design concept work for their new products; while those businesses moved to a lower core cost base and greater flexibility, Atomhawk built a world-leading expertise in the design concepts that have driven the look and feel of many bestselling games of recent years (Mortal Kombat X, anyone?).

Those skills drew others: when Th_nk, the leading Newcastle-based digital agency, won the work to develop Pottermore, the JK Rowling website, it turned to Atomhawk for help with the sophisticated look and feel. More than five years of effort has now gone into crafting the visual experience. Huffington Post said ‘the illustrations are better than what you saw in the movies.’

Th_nk's design work for Pottermore

Having also worked with the agency Adam&EveDDB on aspects of promoting Pottermore, Ashtiani is keen to further extend beyond games, movies and websites. “We are looking to work more with agencies and are targeting growth there,” he says. “We may open a London office but our core will remain here in Gateshead.”

Ashtiani’s team is small in agency terms at around 20 but he points out that this is one of the largest teams in the design concept art space. He has an expertise and strength that stands out on a world level in quality and capacity. A recent creative twist saw Atomhawk expand into product design: the virtual barista experience of the new Costa coffee machine (currently in Terminal 5 but probably one day soon at a service station near you) has Atomhawk graphics for the interface on-screen experience while Pininfarina styled the overall casing.

The games industry has beaten a path to the north-east for some time, recognising the expertise of games developers and artists in the region. Ubisoft has a major base with its 30-year-old Reflections business based in the area, while Icelandic company CCP set up a new base in Newcastle to tap into the talent that fell out of the Midway collapse in 2009. They worked so well on the project DUST 514 that CCP then moved development of its acclaimed multi-player game Eve:VR to the team, which now has this as its sole focus under the renamed title Eve:Valkyrie.

Eve: Valkyrie work by CCP

Andy Robinson, who heads the team, says the company doesn’t only draw on the local pool but draws new talent in. “With a cutting edge project like Valkyrie that is pushing the boundaries of virtual reality, we have had no trouble attracting talent from outside the local area. Their expertise filters through and grows the experience of the team. Whenever we have people travel over, Newcastle plays a huge part in making them feel at home. The culture and community make it an easy choice to stick around!”

Creativity comes in many guises, though. The recent expansion of the branding and digital agency Blumilk is an interesting example of the diversity of the area’s output. With offices in Glasgow and now London, as well as its core in Newcastle, Blumilk stands out particularly for the strength of its work in healthcare (with no less than 10 NHS clients, including the recent win of Bart’s Health, the country’s largest hospital trust) and education branding.

Creative director Colin Robertson says the agency has moved into working extremely closely with its clients to understand business needs and advise on overall strategy and development, often as much as giving a simple graphic solution. “We expect our creative to be good, but it is how you combine that with really understanding the business objectives and then delivering on time and on budget.”

Blumilk seems to be in the forefront of mining the new seam of work that results from healthcare and education changes, where the consultant needs to combine an effective delivery of creative output with understanding a very different kind of business proposition and communication need.

In business all creativity is judged on whether it works in the market. In this regard, perhaps the shining light in Newcastle’s creative scene is a business that is not, strictly speaking, in the creative industry at all. Ignite is at the heart of understanding how many new creative businesses may come about – it is Britain’s leading pre-seed funding accelerator programme for startups and has now put three ‘cohorts’ of small businesses through its programme and helped them pick up £10m in funding.

With VC backing from Northstar Ventures and others, Paul Smith, managing director of Ignite, also has an incubator workspace in the form of Campus North, where he fosters tech startups. For him, the region is a natural place to create a new creative business. “You have relatively low overheads, which is vital for a startup. You also have a city that has a heritage in this area: Newcastle was one of the first to get independent TV and radio, and has always had a strong regional press. Then the games industry came here. It’s huge in digital. There is a prejudice that all digital startup stuff happens in London, but actually 70 per cent is outside of the capital and Newcastle has immense advantages in being a place to start and grow a creative business fast.”

Silicon Roundabout had better watch out.

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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