A career outside of the capital: has London lost its touch for creative agencies?

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Tunbridge Wells plays host to many successful creative agencies

Since many of the world’s most famous advertising and creative agencies were founded in London during the 1960s and 70s, the city has been famed as a leading media heartland. But with more and more of these agencies thriving outside of the capital, is London losing its shine for agencies, their staff and clients?

With all four of the UK’s top rated independent agencies in The Drum’s latest Independent Agencies Census based outside of London, it’s clear these businesses don’t need to be headquartered in the city to offer the best and most creative outputs for their clients.

One particular hotspot for producing creative talent is the leafy town of Royal Tunbridge Wells. This Kent town may not strike you as an ideal media agency hub, but in recent years a number of hugely successful international businesses have been founded there. They boast an array of blue-chip companies on their books who enjoy working with the cream of the advertising industry. In turn, agency staff enjoy all the benefits of a London agency but without a painful commute.

There are now creative companies here to rival the best of New York and London agencies. Alongside my own award winning tech PR firm you’ll find the likes of iFour, a branding and web design agency with Microsoft, the NHS and Knauf on its client list, Southpaw, a creative agency that boasts clients from Adidas and Honda to Charles Worthington, Page and Page, a creative communications agency working with leading health and lifestyle brands, and Yoyo Design, a digital agency working with the likes of JP Morgan, the RNLI and Freesat.

So why are businesses shunning traditional London addresses to set up headquarters outside the city?

Clients gain significant benefits from working with an out-of-London business. There is now a far greater understanding of the advantages of a positive work-life balance, with almost three in five (58%) employees experiencing the ill effects of long working hours. Employees with better flexibility and an improved balance between work and home life tend to be happier and as a consequence, clients enjoy a consistent, loyal and dedicated account team with a deep understanding of their business, rather than a new team every 18 months due to high staff churn.

When it comes to talent, high calibre individuals can be found wherever businesses establish their base – and that is not necessarily the capital. Towns or smaller cities such as Tunbridge Wells and Brighton are home to a higher than average proportion of that all-important experienced senior agency individual who moved out of the city to secure a larger property for their family or to enjoy the benefits of life outside London. Millennials, a well-documented group that companies struggle to attract and retain, also claim work-life balance as a key priority and demand greater flexibility in return for their loyalty – which out of town companies are able to offer. Tom Poynter, group managing director at Southpaw, echoes this sentiment: “The raft of world-leading brands and businesses now choosing to work with non-London based agencies is increasing along with the recognition that talent is not restricted to the capital. And staff benefit from working on dynamic and exciting campaigns that challenge and push their learning, but with the benefit of a superior work-life balance.”

From a business perspective, technology is a significant enabler in out of town working. Thanks to great leaps in connectivity and cloud computing, staff can maintain contact with clients from literally anywhere in the world, attending weekly Skype calls and answering email queries in any time zone. Platforms such as Dropbox empower my team to work seamlessly across multiple national and international locations, working remotely from home or while travelling. We are witnessing a similar pattern with our technology clients, many of whom maintain a satellite office in London for monthly face-to-face client meetings (as do we) while basing operations in locations as diverse as Eastern Europe or Atlanta.

Lower salaries are also a common misconception of a town-based career. What is often overlooked is that employees working outside the city don’t find a significant chunk of their salaries absorbed in travel costs or eye-wateringly expensive rounds at the pub. They are just as well rewarded as their London-based counterparts – but with the benefit of three more hours in their day.

Graeme Hall at iFour thinks that towns are a secret hotbed of loyal creative and technical talent: "In fact, many of our designers have returned from working in leading London agencies, so we are consistently pushing the boundaries in terms of providing innovative design for our clients. Being a smaller agency also offers many benefits to our clients: we are more flexible, and often quicker and focus on developing deep relationships. This is crucial for really understanding clients' needs, which is sometimes overlooked by our larger and better-known counterparts.”

Jenny Kitchen of Yoyo believes employees working outside of the capital can enjoy the same challenges a London agency brings, with no need to compromise career choices. “There is no doubt that there are the same opportunities for career progression in a non-London agency as in the capital. We seek ambitious individuals with the drive to constantly learn and improve, and our staff enjoy the buzz of working in a sociable, fast-paced agency environment without the trek to London.”

The trend of agencies setting up shop out-of-town shows no sign of slowing. Remove the pressure of city living and working, and the benefits to agencies and their clients are clear: talent knows no geography, and we’re all millennials when it comes to wanting a better work-life balance. If you’ve only considered working with London agencies based on the kudos of working with a big name – and big budget – city agency, I urge you to consider their award-winning regional counterparts. You won’t be disappointed.

Victoria Usher is founder and managing director of GingerMay PR.

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