Britain's got talent, for now: Post-Brexit, can British advertising flourish on the global stage?

Britains Got Talent

The UK’s place on the world creative stage is thanks in part to a pool of talent from around the globe. In a post-Brexit era however, could that pool become a puddle? Or might Brexit offer an opportunity for employers to turn their attentions to homegrown creative stars?

The UK’s thriving commercial creative economy generates £80bn a year and the talent pool from which it draws undeniably plays a huge part in this. One of the European Union’s fundamental principles, the freedom of movement, has allowed the ad industries in particular to flourish, attracting creatives and digital talent from around Europe and further afield. But following the UK’s vote to leave the EU that ease of movement, which has been central to the cross-fertilisation of ideas, could be about to change.

With agreement between Westminster and Brussels not expected to be reached for some time, the industry faces the possibility of restrictions being placed on individuals, making it harder to work here. Recruiting from overseas could become more difficult as staff and talent migrate towards other countries still in the EU. So, could this stifle the UK’s creativity on an international stage?

When the Creative Industries Federation polled its members in the run up to the referendum, the majority (96 per cent) wanted to remain in Europe, with freedom of movement of talent one of the reasons cited. “Clearly, one of the factors that has contributed to the UK being such a vibrant and exciting global centre for the arts and creative industries is that people have wanted to live and work here and Europeans could do so with ease,” says the organisation’s chief exec John Kampfner.

Forrester predicts that uncertainty over future immigration laws will cause digital talent to migrate out of the UK and dissuade others from settling here, leading to talent shortfalls. “There are already skills shortages in certain sectors and the danger is that these will be exacerbated by the UK’s withdrawal from Europe. This comes at a time when creative subjects in schools are also being marginalised in a way that is a clear threat to the skills pipeline in this country. All these matters will need to be considered by the government as we create a new way of doing business with the world,” adds Kampfner.

The UK’s global position as a centre of advertising excellence could be weakened by a reduced talent pool from Europe, says Paul Bainsfair, director general of the IPA. “If it’s the case that we don’t have the opportunity to employ staff and talent from other European markets like we currently do, that could obviously impact on our ability to command the kind of position we currently hold as the go-to centre for international and European campaign coordination and management.

“If it were to be an outcome of this referendum that we find it harder to employ people that are from Italy or France or Spain, that might make it difficult for us to hold on to that position. I’m not saying we wouldn’t, it’s just one more factor that weakens our position.”

Capital gains or losses?

Could this raise the possibility of other European capitals, such as Paris or Berlin, edging ahead of London as an advertising hub? Bainsfair doesn’t think so, but admits the move could result in a “more level playing field” across the region when it comes to ability to manage big campaigns.

The UK’s success story as a centre of creative excellence is singularly down to its talent, argues Richard Robinson, managing partner at Oystercatchers. He believes that, in order to stay ahead of the competition, London will need to create ways of safeguarding its pool of talent from around the world. “Clients buy UK-created ideas and invest in our economy because we have the agency talent and infrastructure of directors, production and post-production houses that mean London will always compete with the very best.

“More often than not London’s talent is a heady mix of diverse nationalities and cultures sparking off one another to drive ideas further and faster to deliver the results clients crave. Moving forward the best clients will still pay for the best ideas, but if London wants to remain at the head of the top table it must quickly create ways to safeguard and secure the best of non-British talent to compliment and challenge the new guard of talent coming through.”

Robinson recently lectured at the International Advertising School in Berlin: a week-long course for 100 final year students at top European universities and agency staffers in their first and second years of employment. He found that talent still see London as a viable destination and Brexit as a personal challenge that they need to address for themselves.

“The good news is that London will prevail and win, but it will do so because European talent sees Brexit as just another hurdle thrown down by the elders that’s to be overcome if they’re to fulfil their dreams and potential.”

While there was a sense that Britain’s exit from the EU could lead to other European cities stepping out of London’s shadow to become global creative powerhouses, in Robinson’s view “there will be no shortage of talent still coming to London, and this talent is preparing to be more resourceful than ever before to achieve their dreams.”

Representing the country

While Brexit has left cloudy implications for creative talent migrating to the UK, it does pose an opportunity for employers to think more creatively about nurturing diverse talent within the country.

Dentsu Aegis Network chief executive Tracy de Groose, who recently conceived and oversaw the launch of Fortysix, an agency staffed by young diverse talent who would not necessarily otherwise get the chance to work in this industry, says leaving the EU places even more pressure on agencies to address the issue of diversity.

“I think we can all agree that diverse talent is good for the creative industries to keep them vibrant and dynamic, so splitting from the EU could have an impact on this. We are in uncharted territory and don’t yet know what the full impact of Brexit might be. But if restrictions are there, it puts even greater emphasis on us to drive diversity within our own country.

“At the moment, our industry doesn’t represent the UK as we should – in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age etc. We should seize this moment and see it as an opportunity to get our own house in order and be more representative of the country we live in, and the people we are trying to reach.”

De Groose also hopes the model of recruiting untapped talent from a wide range of backgrounds can be a “driver for change” in the industry, while Bejay Mulenga, co-founder of Supa Academy, a venture that gives young people the skills to thrive by collaborating with brands, is of the opinion that Brexit will force companies to build infrastructures that will allow UK nationals to thrive more than they are currently.

“If you look at places like China, Japan and even America to some extent, most of their staff and best talent who work in higher paid jobs are their own nationals. We don’t really have that here.”

He adds: “Being multicultural is a massive part of diversity but a lot of young people don’t get a job because they’re competing with another EU national. That’s going to change a bit because companies are going to be forced to want to hire someone in-house in the country. That can only be a good thing long-term.”

The true impact of Brexit is yet to be truly felt across the UK’s creative industries, but by establishing frameworks to attract and retain the best and most diverse talent possible, agencies will be setting themselves up for a more secure future, whatever this period of uncertainty brings.

This article was first published in the 17 August issue of The Drum.

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