The City Beat: Newcastle's Northern Experience

Charlotte Thornton, Orange Bus and Neil Robbins, Silverbean

The Drum Network now has member agencies based in every major creative city in the UK. We ask some of our members what they think about the creative credentials of their city and how it is leading to future opportunities for them.

Newcastle, the north’s growing creative talent hub, has gone from strength to strength over the last few years. Reports from the BBC of digital starts-ups reaching ‘critical mass’, and the Guardian dubbing the city as ‘tech’s best kept secret’, has contributed to the city’s hard-working reputation and entrepreneurship that descends from the traditional mining trades. From collaboration, education and supportive attitudes, Drum Network members Neil Robbins, managing director of Silverbean and Charlotte Thornton, marketing manager of Orange Bus, explore Newcastle’s creative journey.

Why do you think that Newcastle in particular has attracted so much tech and digital innovation over the past couple of years?

Neil Robbins: Over the past decade, the digital and technology industries in the North-east have flourished substantially. This is partly due to the influx of young, talented people entering the region to complete studies at one of our five local Universities, but for the most part it’s down to the entrepreneurial and inventive spirit of the North East. Some of the world’s greatest inventors came from here, so innovation is nothing new up North!

The old attitude of assuming that everything that’s good in digital is only happening in the South-east isn’t relevant anymore, and with a host of vibrant and exciting businesses, including Silverbean, holding their own and pitching against the ‘big players’ across the country, it’s a great place to be.

I think it’s quite significant that our region’s heritage lies in ship-building and mining. It’s finding, toiling, DOING things – which is very much the attitude behind effective entrepreneurship.

Sure, the core Northern industries from decades ago have evolved into something less practical and hands-on today, but the level of expertise and attention to detail required to do the job well remains the same.

Charlotte Thornton: Firstly; because our city’s businesses, universities and governing council had a mutual vision that Newcastle would become a northern centre for digital and tech production.

This aspiration has fuelled collaboration, excitement, support and investment, while also initiating a community of inventive minds. And the city-wide commitment to this cause, combined with the faith of funding bodies, has made our vision a reality:

Business-wise; the tech start-up scene is thriving. Accelerator programs such as Ignite have supported some of the most exciting new enterprises around, providing educational events, tech meet-ups, and a co-working space to cultivate innovation. Established businesses are also expanding. As an agency, we work on huge transformational projects with businesses across the world, as well as with large organisations who have set up Newcastle bases – including HP and HMRC. National agencies are now opening offices on our doorstep, bringing digital media talent. They appreciate the progressive environment, low production costs and work/life balance that Newcastle has to offer.

In terms of educating bodies; our schools are embedding digital and tech from a young age and reaching out to local businesses to engage their students – helped by Newcastle-based apprenticeship initiatives such as Creative North, Dynamo North East and This is Creative Enterprise. Then there’s our leading universities; who foster the next generation of industry prospects and campaign with our council and employers to keep skills in the North East.

In fact, it’s the collaboration between Newcastle University and Newcastle City Council - termed the Newcastle Science City partnership - that is cementing our position as the go-to hub for scientific, technology and digital innovation. Granted £330m by a Regional Growth Deal, plans are fully underway for a 24 acre development that will house global businesses and university workspaces - creating jobs and providing a foundation for the production of ground-breaking solutions.

Finally, the production industry has defined our city’s heritage for centuries - from coal mining and shipbuilding to engineering and digital media. As this industry continues to evolve, the values needed in people to make innovation possible - the desire to modernise, a strong work ethic, and an unwavering comradery – remain very much at the core of our workforce culture.

What is your opinion on the network of creativity within the city?

NR: The network is diverse and inspiring. We tend to find that we’re not pitching against North-east agencies for the large brands we win contracts with, so overall, the industry is supportive and what little competition there is amongst us, is always healthy and encouraging.

Our core client base is in the South-east and we often receive messages of congratulations from our regional peers when a particularly impressive client win is publicised.

At the end of the day, successful businesses help secure jobs for local people and investment in the region, so there’s no time for anything other than positivity.

CT: The networking scene in Newcastle is thriving due our strong and varied community. Academics, agency folk and public sector workers – to name a few - meet-up with no positional hierarchy; swapping skills and affiliating on projects to achieve regional success.

Events are key to this collaborative culture, from Dynamo NE’s monthly sessions on IT economy growth to Campus North’s suite of service meet-ups; such as NUX (Northern User Experience) Newcastle and Front-end North East. Hack-days have proven especially successful, but we would say that, after winning Best Hack the event held to celebrate BBC6 Music Festival back in February! These events are an opportunity to connect with the community and create new technology; and so we look forward to our next hack for Engie's Newcastle Innovation Week this June (15-19).

In terms of the relationship between local agencies, the Northern Digital Awards was a prime example of respect and neighbourliness. On winning an award, fellow agency Media Works gave an unexpected shout out to Orange Bus in their acceptance speech - which was fantastic! We celebrate our wins together, not in silo, which is incredibly motivating.

Is the market in Newcastle becoming too ‘saturated’ or is competition positive?

NR: There are a lot of start-ups, sure, but there are also a lot of smaller businesses emerging that have no clue where to start in digital, so I think the two marry up well. At Silverbean we’ve reached a point where the majority of our client base stems outside the region, which leaves exciting contracts for smaller agencies looking to expand.

It goes without saying that more business equates to more jobs, I just hope to see a lot of these start-ups have the staying power to progress into bigger businesses, able to offer employment opportunities and internships and thus, support the future of emerging talent in the industry.

CT: We would say not. The market for technology and digital services is global, while business production costs in Newcastle remain low - which makes for a profitable combination. Our agency’s global presence is greatly facilitated by the team we have working in London - the opening of our second office was strategic expansion. We now work on projects for local and national businesses, such as Barbour and the NHS, but also provide digital consultancy to clients in Switzerland and beyond.

Notably, there’s also the opportunity for SMEs to work with UK Government departments. Through the G-Cloud initiative, we partner with councils up and down the country, undertaking workshops with policy makers and modernising systems. In terms of recruitment, alongside local universities, we aim to retain and attract talented prospects. New client wins for our business have created 8 new positions in 2015 - with 2 of our recent hires having relocated from other areas of the UK.

The recognition nationally that Newcastle is becoming a digital and tech innovation drives us to make a big impact with the services we deliver. For us, it’s not just about being renowned as a creative digital agency, we want to be famed for developing cutting-edge solutions that transform organisations, cement new processes and change the way people live globally.

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.