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The north-south divide: how regional agencies are coping under toughest tier Covid rules

Amid fears tough new lockdown rules are exacerbating the UK's historic north-south divide, The Drum speaks to agencies in some of the hardest-hit regions outside London to find out how they're rising to the challenge, and whether they believe they're competing on a level playing field.

Standing on the steps of Manchester's Bridgewater Hall last week, the city's Labour mayor Andy Burnham launched a blistering takedown of Boris Johnson's Conservative government after talks over a financial deal to help cushion a local lockdown collapsed.

Burnham's impassioned response has led to him being crowned 'king in the north' by supporters and the media – a reference that won't be lost on Game of Thrones fans and one that highlights the deepening political fractures between the UK's north and south.

Greater Manchester, Liverpool and some parts of South Yorkshire are among the regions that have been placed under the toughest 'Tier 3' Covid-19 regulations imposed by the goverment. This means households cannot mix indoors or outdoors, pubs and bars are closed, unnecessary travel in and out of certain cities is discouraged and workers are advised not to return to the office.

Under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland too has faced more stringent rules than many parts of England. And In Belfast, businesses have been told to stay closed until Friday 13 November.

With staff under personal and professional pressure and growing political tension between London and the rest of the UK, we caught up with agency bosses across the north to find out how they're rising to the challenge of tougher lockdowns and keeping their talent motivated in these testing times.

North west: Liverpool

Stephen Ardern, commercial director of design agency Uniform, admits the agency was disrupted by the introduction of Tier 3 measures just as it was about to return to its studio, next to Liverpool Central. This enforced closure clashed with an upturn in client spend, that could help make up for a few flat months. “It couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” he says.

How have tough new Covid-19 restrictions impacted your agency?

The constant disruption has had a significant impact on confidence and I would imagine many clients will be sitting tight on budgets until the new year, prioritising spending to essential activity. This is by far the greatest challenge currently.

Client activity splits into two camps. Those that need to over-invest to pivot or adapt, and those that are sitting tight. So our focus is working with and finding clients that need to adapt.

How have you adapted the way you work to continue delivering creative for clients?

In many ways, working in isolation has helped many of us focus and create some great work. It’s often challenging in a busy studio to remain focused. But then again, the batteries can drain without the spark of others around us.

Pitching and servicing clients is certainly more difficult to do remotely as it’s much harder to read the people you’re engaging with through a screen. It’s where we need to do the most work—to find those moments that matter and feel special.

Do you think advertising's north-south divide is more pronounced now than ever?

I’m not a big believer in this notion that there is a big divide. Yes, there’s a high percentage of successful agencies in London that succeed because they’re in a strong local economy with lots of client opportunities. But if you’re prepared to travel to service clients and you have the right offer in the market, you can win business anywhere.

We’ve been based in Liverpool for 22 years and over 80% of our clients aren’t even in the region. We work right across the UK, especially in London and have a growing number of international clients. If you deliver great work that adds value to their business and can respond when you’re needed, it’s really not important where you’re based.

Ian Finch, managing director of Mando and chair of Bima North West, is a 20-minute walk up the Mersey. His digital experiences agency reopened its office in September, allowing a Covid-compliant 20 people in (55 pre-lockdown). However, that's been hindered by the Tier 3 lockdown.

How have tough new Covid-19 restrictions impacted your agency?

When we went into Tier 3, we kept the office open on ‘need’. We have a restriction of 10 people but typically there’s between 0 and five on a daily basis.

We had the impact that everyone had in the first weeks but for the most part our particular client base /sector has largely just cracked on - It’s been, generally, business-as-usual, just with no face-to-face meetings.

How have you adapted the way you work to continue delivering creative for clients?

We had the video and collaboration tooling in place anyway so we have just streamlined and redefined their usage. We also bought-in companywide, ongoing, training and training tooling to get really upskilled in our remote, written and verbal communication skills. This has been a massive investment and a massive win.

Do you think advertising's north-south divide is more pronounced now than ever?

I don’t know. It is arguably more visible in the media currently with tussles between the Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and the government, possibly.

The industry will be less about physical proximity and even less about the physical space of your office and instead, customer service, comms and culture. This should be everyone’s focus anyway but it will expose those who were relying on fame factors like office and location.

North west: Manchester

In the heart of Manchester's Northern Quarter, design agency Love has been a stalwart of the city's agency scene for the last two decades. Trevor Cairns, its chief executive, said the first lockdown meant it had to set up remote studios, and so when the latest restrictions came into force, it was already prepared. After a “steep learning curve” it now has the tools in place to manage restrictions.

How have tough new Covid-19 restrictions impacted your agency?

We have had 65 people working from home since March and continue to do so, so in effect, the new Tier 3 restrictions will have a little additional impact on how we operate. The bigger challenge was really around the first lockdown.

It has been a steep learning curve as working from home previously was individuals by exception, rather than the entire team by order. The team adapted brilliantly, clients have been very understanding and while we may all have Zoom fatigue now, it is worked very well as a platform. There is no doubt that projects are more challenging and time-consuming to coordinate when working from home.

How are you keeping staff motivated and inspired?

Communication, communication, communication. It has been an unsettling time for everyone, so from the outset we decided to send a weekly all-staff update to the entire team, providing a very honest view on how the business was doing. I think that's worked particularly well, ensuring that everyone hears the same story and in turn reassuring on the strength and robustness of the business. Trying to have an all-staff meeting via Zoom is almost impossible, however, we're planning to run sessions in the coming weeks sharing all of the work we've produced in lockdown, to celebrate the success of the agency over the past six months.

Do you think advertising's north-south divide is more pronounced now than ever?

I don't think there is a divide as such. We've proven that we can attract world-class talent and world-class client brands to a northern agency. If your ambition is to do the best work possible, location is irrelevant. Happily, it's been a long time since I heard the words, ‘well we want a London agency’.

We work with global brands from Melbourne to Singapore to Kentucky. Those clients are attracted by the work we've done, nothing else. I do think location is an overplayed concept...our clients don't care if we're in Manchester or Mongolia as long as we deliver.

Scotland: Edinburgh

Ed Brooke is head of Edinbugh-based agency Leith which counts Irn-Bru among its clients. He says the impact of Covid-19 on the business has not been as significant as first feared and that his team has responded "brilliantly". The agency has even made some new hires.

How are you keeping staff motivated and inspired?

Communication, communication, communication. We are updating our people three times a week on the back of all our board calls in a totally open and transparent way, we’re running a programme of regular all agency questionnaires to gauge how everyone is feeling, the pressures they are under and then responding to these.

Regular virtual team get togethers across all departments both social and work-related and ensuring that those who are working late nights and weekends get that time off in lieu helps with morale as did giving each Leither a voucher to spend on whatever they wanted instead of our usual summer party.

Decisions such as returning all the furlough money we received when it became apparent that the agency was performing so strongly and wins such as Agency of the Year at The Drum Roses Awards and last week’s Star Agency of the Year from the Marketing Society also keep pride high and help our Leithers see the results of the immense efforts they have been putting in.

Do you think advertising's north-south divide is more pronounced now than ever?

Quite the opposite in fact. Pre-Covid-19 there seemed to be this belief that geography could be a barrier to opportunities/new business, but our experience is that working remotely has dispelled this, hopefully once and for all.

We’ve been winning work from all over the world and running global campaigns for clients such as WWF that we weren’t doing last year.

This time is actually a great leveler and clients are beginning to question why they should pay more for London agencies that carry heavier overheads when there is such a range of talent at their disposal through their screen across the UK.

Euan Jarvie is Edinburgh-based chief executive officer at Dentsu Aegis. With presence in London, Belfast, Manchester and Scotland, he is well-placed to offer a unique insight into how regional agencies are dealing with the challenges facing them in markets beyond the capital.

How have you adapted the way you work to continue delivering for clients?

We have well-established agile working practices that have been in place for more than four years now. Having these fundamentals in place has allowed us to remain connected as an entire organisation and I think that’s really reflected itself in the work that our people have been producing, as they continue to find imaginative ways to connect and collaborate with one another and their clients.

We’ve supported this ingenuity with a communications approach that designed to provide best practice examples and inspiration in how to deal with the ‘new normal’.

Through this, we’ve really seen the amazing sense of camaraderie that has developed between our people and clients, to the extent that we have continued to expand and win both local and international assignments in Edinburgh and elsewhere. We’ve always believe that amazing creativity can come from anywhere and you only ultimately unlock that through deeper collaboration.

Do you think advertising's north-south divide is more pronounced now than ever?

In truth, I believe that as an industry we need to focus less on splitting the country into two distinct halves and instead recognise its amazing diversity and how it continues to evolve with the digitsation of society.

Cities or areas across the UK are developing different specialisms and pockets of real innovation whether that’s robotics /AI in Oxford, aviation in the South West or renewables in West Scotland. We really see our role as supporting these emerging areas and sectors and making a tangible contribution to their growth.

North east: Newcastle

Newcastle is currently under the second-highest Covid restrictions, with political leaders in the north east promising to "resist any attempt" by the government to impose Tier 3 measures. James Allen is managing director of Guerilla Communications. He believes the true impact of the virus on Britain’s north-south split has largely been cultural, and says this is an opportune moment for agencies outside of London to showcase what they’re made of.

How have you adapted the way you work to continue delivering creative for clients?

Our creative approach internally has become more collaborative and we have also decided to go paperless. We now have hybrid roles where a creative, for example, will communicate directly with the client rather than the project manager. This approach has allowed the agency to become much more agile and our clients seem to appreciate the close contact with the designers.

Do you think advertising's north-south divide is more pronounced now than ever?

I am not sure that advertising's north-south divide is more pronounced now than it has been historically. However, I do think that we have a more pronounced social and cultural north-south divide than at any other time in recent history. The Covid-19 restrictions have catalysed that divide, particularly in the north west and the Midlands regions, where Tier 3 restrictions have been employed.

In this new virtual, borderless world, what opportunities are there for agencies beyond London?

There are big opportunities to help clients transition from using more traditional communications to utilising online digital strategies. Clients have realised that they can work with agencies virtually anywhere in the world, and not just big agencies located in shiny London offices. It's important that we optimise the opportunities presented by delivering good quality work consistently and cost-effectively.

Similarly, Sarah Tempest, co-founder & strategy director at Altogether Creative, emphasises that studios outside London have a unique offering that they can lean into during these troubled times. She also explains how she has been keeping staff in high spirits while working remotely.

How have tough new Covid-19 restrictions impacted your agency?

To be honest it’s nowhere near as bad as April and May when lockdown was first introduced. We’ve been working in the studio since August where we can, having made the studio safe with plastic screens, separated desks and hand sanitiser. Four of us can safely and comfortably work, but we are working shorter days and travelling at less busy times.

We would normally collaborate with copywriters and developers, and pre-Covid we would have met in our studio but all this has stopped, of course. So, like most of the world, we are meeting on Zoom, although virtual meetings have their pros and cons. On the plus side, we can meet more often with clients and it encourages more collaboration, it’s also cost effective and far more instant. On the downside, you can never replace the atmosphere and energy of a real-life, in-person meeting.

How are you keeping staff motivated and inspired?

Working from home we would share projects, attend online events as well as encourage people to get outside or take time out if they needed it. It is definitely a struggle mentally to stay creative and inspired.

We’ve found that running, walking and escaping the screen has been the best form of inspiration. Having said that, online events and conferences have been easier to attend as well as creative courses, so it feels like the world has opened up a lot more online.

It was our studio birthday in May and where we would normally have a studio away day, and visit a gallery, grab food and celebrate the birthday milestone together, this year we had to be more creative. We delivered the team cocktails from a local bar as a surprise, and you guessed it, met on Zoom to celebrate our fourth year. Not ideal, but it’s important to recognise celebratory occasions and reward the team where we can, albeit in more unusual ways.

Do you think advertising's north-south divide is more pronounced now than ever?

As a small studio we have weathered the storm so far, and this is largely down to working with organisations across the UK and believing in the work we do.

North or south, if you are the best studio for the project then that’s the important thing and I think clients do recognise that. With more virtual possibilities and less travel involved there should be no divide.

Yorkshire: Leeds

Leeds is reportedly on the brink of following its Yorkshire neighbours Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield into Tier 3. Yet despite the outlook, Fox Agency director Al Fox believes the current situation of hybrid and remote working is actually helping to ease advertising's north-south divide.

How have tough new Covid-19 restrictions impacted your agency?

March was certainly a worry with project postponements and cancellations, but our focus on tech clients certainly paid off. Most of our clients were far less affected by the pandemic, so we managed to keep many contracts at full or almost full capacity. Obviously, the sudden and working from home situation was a strange experience, but like everyone else, we made it work. We also noticed a shift in client requirements with increased demand for digital transformation services, not to mention many requests for help with webinars, virtual events and podcasts.

Do you think advertising’s north-south divide is more pronounced than ever? Why?

I think the current situation of hybrid and remote working is actually helping to ease a marketing North-South divide. Most clients are now working remotely, so having online meetings is the norm. If our head office is in a different city or country to theirs, it no longer feels like a disconnect. With future hybrid working becoming the norm, geography of client/agency will matter far less. We can also recruit from anywhere, so it’s seriously opened up the talent pool, especially for more specialist positions.

In this new virtual, borderless world, what opportunities are there for agencies beyond London?

It was always said that the internet would eliminate the importance of location, but pre-Covid, this wasn’t always the case. For example, a Parisian company may still prefer a Paris based agency for short-notice meetings, peace of mind or even perceived prestige. However, what we’re seeing now is that clients care far more about how great the agency is, with the location being much less important. When talking to prospects, the topic of where we are based is often not even mentioned.

We no longer feel that we are ruled by geography and a current example of this is that our largest client is based in Switzerland.

Client services director at Elementary Digital, Tom Still, says the Leeds agency has benefited from a total focus on digital and has actually experienced growth. He says his client base has never been so diverse and far-reaching, with the pandemic breaking down geographical constraints.

How have tough new Covid-19 restrictions impacted your agency?

As with all businesses, there have been obvious practical limitations and changes to how we work (access to the studio, visiting clients). The immediate and total focus on digital has seen our agency not just sustain our client base but it has helped us actually find growth during the pandemic months and into 2021. Whilst we remain humble and are fortunate to be in this position, it’s certainly validated our strategic direction and belief in where we see the market going. Albeit at a much-accelerated pace that we perhaps didn’t predict back in January.

How have you adapted the way you work to continue delivering creative for clients?

Being a remote-first agency the transition to working fully remote has been largely smooth. We’ve got a flexible set of tools and processes that we’re as happy and confident to use remotely as we are in person. Sure, there are challenges in retaining the raw creativity compared to in-person ideation workshops (for example), but we’ve adapted. Conversely, it's inspired a laser-like focus on outputs and where value exists. The process and constraints may have changed but as a result, I’d say we’re delivering our best work.

In this new virtual, borderless world, what opportunities are there for agencies beyond London?

We’re a remote-first agency group with studios in both Leeds and London. Whilst (for us) the virtual, borderless world was there pre-pandemic we’re certainly in an ‘all-in’ scenario at the moment. We’ve seized the opportunity to acquire talent from around the country based on our mission and purpose, ahead of any geographical constraints. Our client base has never been so diverse and far-reaching.

Reporting by Rebecca Stewart, Ellen Ormesher, John McCarthy and Imogen Watson.