Why the creative sector in Scotland and the north of England is heading south

Gordon Young, editor of The Drum, offers his insight and opinion on various matters relating to media and marketing.

Scotland may occupy the Northern half of our realm, but there is a real sense that its creative industry has been heading south for quite some time.

Now before going any further I should point out that there are still some great agencies doing some great work. The likes of Newhaven, The Union and The Leith are still first rate shops.

And there are some great players in the world of digital such as Equator, Dog and Spider to name but three.

However, the fact remains that there are account groups in some London agencies that are bigger than the entire Scottish scene.

Over the years many of its agencies have closed, clients have moved their business south and the talent pool is now more of a puddle.

And it is not only the creative sector that is showing signs of distress. Architecture, finance and law are also suffering. In fact, one former Law Society head told me recently that he believes Scotland is on the brink of becoming a ‘non-viable’ jurisdiction. Basically, what is the point of having a separate legal system, if there are no lawyers prepared to practice North of the Border?

The credit crunch is no doubt a factor in this malaise. But the reality is Scotland's creative industry was in decline even during the boom. Despite the millions that have been invested in the creative sector by Government since the 90s, it is now a shadow of its former self.

It’s almost like the industry has been infected by a form of ash dieback – giant swathes of the sector have silently disappeared. And in my view a whole cultural ecosystem is now infected.

In Scotland, for example, the newspaper business is more Barratt estate than Fourth Estate. Its journalistic front line is so depleted it no longer has the firepower to seriously challenge the country’s authorities.

You don’t need to venture far off the beaten track of diary stories and press releases, to find scandal lying neglected in the long grass – stuff which would have been aggressively pursued just a few years ago.

Perhaps that’s why the news agendas are dominated by independence. The economic story, the fact that Scotland is not only losing its creative sector, but its private sector, is something likely to have a far more significant impact on the people who live here. But it hardly merits a mention, because many news operations don’t have the resources to challenge the official version of events.

But the really alarming thing about the Scottish story, is that it is not unique within the context of the UK. Other regions are also showing signs of infection – Newcastle, Leeds and parts of the Midlands too are in the advanced stages of losing much of their creative businesses.

It is now obvious that the gap between London and the rest of the UK is growing wider. In fact, particularly to those used to the chill economic winds of Northern Britain, balmy London does not even feel as though it is in recession at all.

This is what made a report, published by Michael Heseltine yesterday, all the more interesting. Its general thrust was to suggest how Britain could grow itself out of recession. But many of its 89 recommendations had a common theme – how to pull wealth and power out of the South East and into other regions.

I agree with many of the sentiments. There is no doubt, in my view, that the economy is over-centralised in London, to the detriment of the UK as a whole. Anybody who spends any time in the other great cities such as Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham is left convinced that the talent, energy and passion which made Britain great in the first place is still there. But latent.

In my view, what needs done to unlock this potential is not rocket science. Entrepreneurism is a natural state. Create the right conditions and - all by itself - it will take root, like a barren desert bursting into bloom with the first rainfall of the season.

To help the creative industries for example, the Government's job should be to ensure it is treating the disease as opposed to the symptoms.

And the medicine might taste terrible in the short term, because it would include redeploying all the resource used to directly intervene in the marketing industry elsewhere.

Agencies are not dying because they can’t get access to training, advice or cheese and wine parties. They are going to the wall because there are not enough clients. And this is where any Government resource should be channeled. We need new Kwik-Fits, DFSs and Irn Brus, to ensure business which moves on is constantly being replaced.

One priority should be infrastructure. Planes, trains and automobiles, as well as broadband, are required to green our economic desert.

Another twist on this would be to ensure new transport links start connecting the great regional centres to each other. At the moment, every road leads to London. But you should try driving from Glasgow to Newcastle. It's not easy. Or taking the train from Manchester to Glasgow. Most services require at least one change. At the moment it is difficult for the UK regions to trade between themselves.

But if you do manage to travel around, you will be exposed to a country that still has a massive range of variations – from accents to general attitudes. But one thing that always strikes me is that the most different place is London itself.

It is a dynamic and fantastic place, truly one of the great cities of the world. But if Britain is to become one of the great countries of the world then it has to engage its regions. It if fails, then it is only a matter of time before the ash dieback affecting Scotland spreads to the capital itself.

Of course it is not all doom and gloom North of the Border, and to demonstrate that The Drum will be publishing a special Scotland report in next week's edition.