Following Britain’s biggest agency group, WPP's plans last month for five of its Manchester-based agencies to move elsewhere, industry insiders question whether one of the world’s great cities, London, is gobbling up talent, money and resources. Is it time for the advertising industry to be less London-centric and expand into the north-west of England? Their contributions assess whether more needs to be done by the creative industries to ensure that other great British metropolitan areas in our nation can thrive and whether London has indeed passed its heyday.
Risham Nadeem, strategist at Start Design
"Our industry claims to understand the world. But if you look at the work coming out of it, you often get the sense that the world exists within the confines of a TFL map. Don’t get me wrong, London is cool, but it’s not the world and it’s not Britain. It’s not even Colchester.
We’re in a cultural moment where brand and advertising are synonymous with noise. When you’re constantly being bombarded with messaging, what cuts through the cacophony is authenticity. And authenticity comes from knowing a place firsthand, not Googling it from a WeWork in Soho. It’s not a shocking thought, so why, shockingly, is it not the norm?
It’s not elitist to say that today, London is the creative capital of the UK. It’s the home of agencies, brands, industry bodies and the media infrastructure that brings them all together. It’s elitist to think it should be going forward. As a young person interested in the creative industries, growing up in Leeds, I felt I had no choice but to move to London. Which is a shame. I like Leeds. Also clean air.
By building a presence in Britain’s other cities, and highlighting their unique characters, we can send a powerful message. Just moving your agency to be near a train station isn’t enough (King’s Cross, we’re looking at you). Giving regional talent the chance to stay regional is going to be critical to the delivery of great creative. Some of the biggest benefits of a redistribution of creative capital is the creation of jobs and stimulation of local economies. And while we’re proud to do our part - my agency has had a dual London-Manchester base for over a decade - we need the support of big brands like Amazon, who last year opened an office in Manchester, creating 600 jobs.
Ultimately, we need to play a part in creating a culture of creativity that is not dependent on London. There’s more to the US than New York City. But is there more to the UK than London? Obviously, but it’s on us and our clients to prove it."
Steve Todd, technical director at Mashbo
"There is no doubt that many agencies and brands are too London-centric. In fact the creative and technology industry as a whole in the UK is still disproportionately focused on the capital. This is even despite hubs of digital excellence growing in Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, and 74% of digital companies in the UK being based outside London.
As a software development company headquartered in Liverpool we see this imbalance in the drain of graduate and senior level tech talent and the distribution of work, with countless big contracts landing on the doorsteps of London agencies.
Yes, our industry needs to be less London-centric, and WPP’s Manchester move is a clear step in the right direction. But the onus isn’t just on London-based brands and agencies to look north for their headquarters or project partners. It works both ways.
We technology and creative agencies in the north need to work harder to let London-based brands and agencies know that we are here and willing to step out of our own bubbles, something that our MD, Gavin Sherratt, has spoken about in The Drum in the past. We need to be networking and sharing our unique knowledge and experience in London, rather than expecting the capital to come to us.
It shouldn’t be a case of the City of London vs The Northern Powerhouse. We should be operating as a vibrant and thriving ecosystem supporting our sector’s growth. Investment needs to travel north and south to make that work, so that businesses in the north can offer local talent the incentive to stay, rather than leave for opportunities in the capital, allowing all parts of the ecosystem to thrive.
It’s bigger than London alone, too. We should be looking internationally to showcase the prowess and potential of our industry. In the last six months alone the team at Mashbo has flown the flag for the UK’s tech and creative sector in London, the Isle of Man, Zurich, San Francisco and even Bratislava. Taking this approach as an industry can only serve to unite and strengthen us all."
Paul Brookes, creative director at Giants & Titans
"Postcodes have never been less relevant to creativity and it’s time that agencies and brands fully understood that.
There’s no escaping the fact that the creative industries have always been London-centric, but with the vast majority of work being digital, the need to be situated in or in close proximity to the capital is no longer there. Despite this, London-only pitch panels continue to be the norm rather than the exception, which is to the detriment of brands.
Clients need to be looking for an agency that can meet and exceed their creative aspirations, no matter where they are based. For the major brands we work with it’s often the quality of work, responsiveness and cost-effectiveness that sets us apart from more established London agencies.
There’s a huge amount of talent outside of the capital and it’s only likely to increase. Record numbers are leaving London for elsewhere in the UK and major regeneration in towns and cities are seeing more young people choose to stay where they are.
Hiring a ‘big London shop’ is no longer a smart commercial move for many. Why pay for the postcode when comparable talent can now be found in areas that are just as creative, just as ambitious and just as experienced but whose reduced overheads leads to more competitive pricing. Add that to the fact that outside of London the staff churn in agencies is far less and you have a solid argument to look outside the M25.”
At McCann Worldgroup we are lucky enough to have a broad UK footprint that spans well beyond the capital. Integrated offices in Birmingham and Manchester have long been servicing a range of clients in addition to the work of our London agencies. We have just recently opened a new office in Leeds, while our rapidly expanding outfits in Milton Keynes and Bristol have signalled an increased appetite for local offices and quickly brought about success: not only are they seeing exponential business growth, but both of these offices won their first Cannes Lions this summer.
This gives us a unique – and advantageous – perspective when it comes to connecting to the consumer and enabling our clients to play a meaningful role in people’s lives. With this perspective, we have long seen the potential that a regional offering can bring and we continue to benefit from a connected model that can offer the expertise and intelligence of a global network, but with local knowledge and agility at its core.
The BBC’s move to MediaCity in 2011 put a marker in the sand by signalling decentralisation from London in the interests of the general public. We saw considerable creative and tech growth in Manchester following that, particularly with the addition of ITV Studios in 2013. This trend has continued – and we don’t anticipate it slowing at any time soon, as evidenced by Channel 4’s planned move to Leeds.
Our current political climate – unprecedented as it is – has encouraged a further audit of our assets outside London and the creative industries are a significant part of that. The UK does – and will continue to – occupy a privileged position when it comes to creativity due to our geographic, linguistic and cultural advantages, not to mention our rich heritage.
Beyond politics, there is also a practical advantage with clear benefits in nurturing young talent for whom living costs in the capital are untenable. This will only help to bring more diversity into the industry, thereby deepening our understanding of the UK and the rich tapestry of life within it. And that, ultimately, is key in the roles we play."
Robyn Viney, marketing manager at Bomper Studio
"London-centrism still exists, but decentralisations are definitely creating chain-reactions, and the industry is increasingly recognising that not all talent in the advertising world resides in London. Also, infrastructure today means that physical location is less of a factor; if it’s possible for us to work globally with clients in San Francisco to Singapore, we can certainly work to inject capital and creativity more evenly across Britain. This sort of activity doesn’t just create a more balanced economy, but also creates work that resonates with the wider-UK, by giving voice to people outside of the capital.
Outside of London, experimentation and resourcefulness has been the lifeblood of the creative industries. For it to continue to thrive, we need to ensure it remains a hotbed for creativity and ambition. For creative businesses, it’s important to continuously challenge your ambitions and expand your talents through R&D. Not only does this strengthen your infrastructure and talent, but it also helps pull in even more talent and creative opportunities.
Of course, the strength of the industry outside of London is also maintained by attracting, retaining and championing local talent. As a Welsh independent production studio, it’s really important to us that we play an active role in growing the creative industries in Wales. We’re home to world-class talent, and level of work coming out of Wales is insane! To facilitate this on a local level, we try and do as much as we can to ensure this pipeline of talent continues to be nurtured. We maintain close relations with the region’s universities and are a visible part of that ecosystem - through knowledge sharing, skills sharing, hiring graduates and talent development [Currently, 80% of staff received BA’s at Welsh universities]."