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Newcastle must learn to collaborate to compete better

Last Tuesday saw the launch of Creative Newcastle. An event which, co-hosted by the IPA, Creative England and The Drum, saw the coming together of the North East creative community in all its advertising, digital, design, educational and public sector forms to debate what’s hot and not about creative life in the region.

Phil Coverdale, MD of Cravens and IPA Newcastle City Head

So, one week on, what are my reflections?

Before I give these I must declare my inverted bias about the North East’s creative community. Despite being born and bred here, I’ve always been slightly sniffy, perhaps even snobbish about the real significance of the sector in the region.

Returning home after spending a decade or so surrounded by the best and brightest London had to offer, my view could be summed up as: a great place for business (low overheads, work life balance), but not a great place to do business (few clients of any note and a limited talent pool). Of course there were pockets of genuine quality but a sector of significance….not so sure.

Last week’s event, attended by well over 100 businesses and individuals, demonstrated a confidence, coherence and clarity of spirit that proved my bias is as out of date as referring to our Cheryl as Miss Tweedy.

The recession has been transformative to our industry and it ran deeper and longer in our region than most. Last week’s debate evidenced that creative businesses have moved from the ‘we’ve survived’ phase, through the ‘we’ve re-shaped’ phase, to the ‘we’re ready’ phase.

Ready to win work, employ people, grow and be recognised as a region of creative import up there with the more recognised communities of Manchester, Edinburgh….and dare we whisper it, London.

There was constructive debate on how we achieve this. The regular themes of collaboration, coordinated promotion, graduate recruitment and retention were all touched upon. All good, valid points but, a week on, what rousing proposals can I offer up to support this region making a real dent in the creative universe?

We need real light bulb moments

Historically, the North East was the home of great creative leaps and inventions. The light bulb, Stephenson’s Rocket and Lucozade all came from the brains of the Tyne, Wear and Tees. Ideas over 100 years old, but we still love telling people about them.

However, thinking of our creative industries now, where are our region’s campaigns and ideas with international wow-factor? The Cannes Lions, D&AD Pencils, Effies, The Webby Awards, the IPA Effectiveness Awards?

The challenge to ourselves must be to produce tangible, visible, desirable and world-class work. As the old agency adage goes, ‘it’s got to be all about the work’. Clients buy people who produce brilliant work first, not brilliant cities. Let’s do some and then shout about it.

We need to offer people Champions League football

If you are ever stuck for an explanation in these parts, resort to a football analogy, it usually works….so here goes.

To do world-class work you need world-class talent. Our regional universities are superb and the flow of talent from them into our agencies is strong and steady. We also have a knack for attracting back the expats, people who have forged successful careers elsewhere but feel the pull of their roots and return in their mid 30s or later.

The real difficulty lies in retaining the ‘ambitious middle’. Those people in their mid 20s onwards, hungry for success, who believe they need to go elsewhere for real fame, fortune and silverware.

In simple terms, this is about offering people access to the projects, briefs and clients that match anything they could find elsewhere. Yes, some of this relates to the first point about quality of work attracting clients in the first place. However, without the comfort blanket of big, pre-recession public sector budgets to keep our FDs warm, the region is becoming much more active on national pitch lists. In fact, so much so that our agencies rarely seem to compete against each other…which helps with my final point.

We need to have 1,000 cups of coffee

There is a mantra much-used in Silicon Valley, which is ‘collaborate to compete’. It’s a great, modern, open source, sharing-economy notion. In our home region, where we compete against ourselves so infrequently, it’s a notion we can really adopt and act upon.

There is also power in small. Geographically and in population, the North East is relatively compact. It’s easy to get around and get to know people. We really do not have any excuses not to.

While many of the established players and faces were present last week, there was also an inspiring mix of new names, skill sets and aspirations. UX designers, illustrators, animators, sound designers, all allies in ambition, have the potential to produce brilliant work together.

So here’s a simple idea. If each of the 100 people present reached out to 10 new people and had 10 conversations over coffee, that would be 1,000 coffees and 1,000 brains coming together to spark the North East’s next creative light bulb.

I’m up to four coffees, so still a way to go. It’s Cannes Lions Festival this week, who fancies going next year?

By Phil Coverdale, Managing Director of Cravens and IPA Newcastle City Head.

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