Former Leith Agency creative director Gerry Farrell on why independence could save Scottish advertising

In many respects, Scotland is like a lot of other mature advertising markets. Budgets are shrinking, lead times are getting shorter and the creative brief is no longer a sacred cow – creatives are having to learn the hard way that it’s OK for clients to ‘move the goalposts’. The communications landscape is shifting minute by minute and so are our clients’ marketing priorities.

Gerry Farrell

They might want to 'do a John Lewis' and throw money at a big emotional TV campaign – but that’s a tough sell to their procurement people, who want everything to be immediately measurable.

In this climate, it’s harder for long-established agencies like [Edinburgh's] Leith to adapt their processes so that they can swim effortlessly in the same digital waters as companies that have been set up by digital natives.

It’s a good time to be downsizing and flattening out those old-fashioned ‘big agency’ structures. What Scottish clients need now are small, fast, flexible project teams. The trouble is, if your creatives are all digital natives, that’s never going to be enough. You’re going to need a few wise heads to provide robust creative strategies that have intellectual substance as well as visual style.

Leith, for example, has a creative department stacked with top senior creatives. Each and every one of them could start their own little agency and do brilliantly well offering creative and strategic leadership to the digital new-wavers. But people need to be brave to take the plunge off the top board and for a lot of those guys it may feel more comfortable to stay put and hope that new business pitches keep rattling down the pipeline.

Pitches are the lifeblood of this industry; they’re what keeps an agency’s heart beating. Growing by acquisition – as Leith did when it bought Newhaven and took back Tennent's Lager – doesn’t create quite the same energy in the building as going out and landing a huge piece of new business.

The only way Scottish agencies will win business from outside their own market is by producing brilliant work. Work that drops a bomb in the water. One way to do this is to be on the Scottish Government roster. Their marketing teams have high standards. They are prepared to stick their neck out and demand brilliant work. They will argue the case for excellent creative solutions to their own procurement people and because they treat their agencies better, they tend to get braver, more effective campaigns.

The other way is to be less obsessed with London and look to compete with Amsterdam and New York. Winning a couple of Cannes Lions is much more likely to put you on an international marketing director’s radar than it used to be, because so many marketeers head there every year now to see what’s new and to relearn the communications business.

When I’m daydreaming, I like to believe that this shrinkage of the Scottish market is cyclical – that giant utilities like SSE who decide it’s imperative they have a London agency will eventually realise that it’s not always best to go from being a big fish in a small pond to being a middle-sized fish in a lake full of Leviathans. Brands that once headed south looking for a sprinkling of London agency fairy dust (like Irn-Bru and Baxters) traditionally found their way back home complaining of neglect and lack of respect. But when I take off the rose-tinted glasses, I can see that Scotland is crying out for radical change.

The one thing that will shake up the Scottish market is a Yes vote. If Scotland becomes an independent country, a surge of creative energy will pass through our communications industry; that restless Scottish spirit of adventure will see us once again looking to conquer new markets beyond our own shores and help us develop the resources we are already rich in – renewables, tourism, and whisky, to name the most obvious.

Those – and there are plenty – who say otherwise tend to be the functionaries, not the visionaries. The functionaries are doing very nicely, thank you, and they’re scared to rock the boat. But this boat – SS Scotland – needs a damn good rocking. And don’t believe what the polls are telling you – that a No victory is a no-brainer. It’s far too close to call, and with a weekend paper poll suggesting that 14 per cent remain undecided, there’s still plenty to play for.

10 years ago, in a live debate hosted by The Drum, I argued against independence, believing we needed to make waves in London. Now I believe our creative opportunities lie further afield, as players in a global market. We have the creative talent – we just need to demonstrate the new business ambition.

Gerry Farrell spent 27 years at The Leith Agency, many of those as creative director, before leaving in June this year.

The Drum will explore the potential impact of independence on the Scottish creative economy in a report on Scotland's creative future written by Lewis Blackwell, published in the 20 August issue of The Drum as part of the Blackwell's Britain series of regional features.

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