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North East: A creative territory

In this feature article, The Drum speaks to a cross-section of agencies in the North East to establish the face of the creative sector there and find out why the creative industries in the area are flourishing.

Newcastle-Gateshead was named the UK’s most creative city in a recent poll under taken by The Drum. If you look at the North east region, you will find a collaborate creative sector, with strong support pushing it onward to even bigger and better things.

At the end of 2009, The Drum asked its readers from across the UK to debate, argue and ultimately vote for the most creative cities in the UK out with the capital. The debate was ferocious and the voting was prolific, with over 3000 votes cast.

The result was perhaps a surprise. Newcastle Gateshead beat Manchester and Glasgow to take the title, with 22 percent of the final vote (it’s closest rivals Manchester and Glasgow on 18 and 13 percent respectively). But should it really be a surprise? The North East has been working hard to change both its industry base and perceptions. As such the creative industries in the region have been flourishing.

Michael Owen, MD at Onebestway, thinks that “great design is about well managed bravery and adventure. Finding ways to be cleverer, better, more stand-out and individual. Maybe there’s an inherent sense of all these things in the North East?

“I’ve been here for 25 years and I think Newcastle is a slightly more serious and confident place for design and designers these days.

“In the 90’s I felt that Newcastle was seen to be ‘trying hard’ and that apparently more established centres of design would say, ‘Well done Newcastle. Do keep it up. One day you’ll be as good as us’. Nowadays we just seem to get on with it.

“There’s more design confidence amongst the agencies in Newcastle. We don’t really care as much what other people say. We know we’re good, we just get on with it.”
However, Dom Aldred, director, Gardiner Richardson contests that the North East has always had a long and proud history of creativity and innovation that has been well documented... So this vote is perhaps not that surprising to those living and working in the region.

“It’s hard to define what makes a person or a place ‘creative’ but, having lived in the South, the Midlands, the North West and having spent time living abroad I can say that there is a unique sense of community and an attitude that genuinely characterises the North East. Creativity perhaps comes from a freedom from convention and an opportunity to explore the unknown.

“Maybe it’s the location of the region, maybe it’s the history and probably it’s a bit of both, but the North East has been less bound by and restricted by convention. Which, in turn, has created the opportunity to be a little more pioneering in thought and action.

“For years the region has suffered a brain drain, with many people leaving the North East in the belief (quite often correct) that the more exciting opportunities lie elsewhere. That is shifting and in the past decade or so the region has built a growing reputation for design and innovation which has, in turn, created more opportunities to bring back and retain talent. So there is perhaps a growing concentration of creative talent, which can only be a positive and which will hopefully continue to generate additional momentum.”

Creativity also comes from collaboration, Aldred continues: “The North East has a very strong and close knit business community, individuals and organisations can build strong, long-term relationships that create the context for greater creativity.

“North East agencies are competing on a national and even international level and the success of one agency is the success of all agencies because it continues to reinforce the strength of talent that exists and justify the confidence and self-belief of the sector.

“While supportive initiatives, such as a:design, are in place and are welcomed, ultimately the true measure of creativity is the performance and success of the businesses themselves.”

Location seems to be a reoccurring theme in the reasons for the North East’s creative rising. “Outsiders are always more creative and don’t follow ‘the rules’,” says Ben Quigley, MD at Different.

“Newcastle is just far enough geographically to be out on the boundaries, creating its own rules and cultural reference points, distinctive from other parts of the country. Small but perfectly formed.

“Newcastle and North East England generally celebrate success and creativity wherever it originates. As I travel all over the country, that’s clearly a rare commodity.”

Julian Leighton, founder of Orange Bus, agrees: “The region is geographically isolated and I feel this has a bearing on the way people interact. The digital and creative scene, whilst significant in size for the area, is still compact enough for a huge amount of interaction to take place between companies, not something I’ve seen a lot of evidence of in areas with more blurred boundaries.

“It may well have reinvented itself in the eyes of the rest of the country, but I’d say that has as much to do with the decline of more traditional industry stereotype we have always had associated with the region.”

However, the support network plays a part in the growth of the creative industries, adds Leighton: “Codeworks certainly supports the digital sector very well whilst Northern Film & Media are now far more active across the creative sector as a whole than they used to be.”

Just one sector amongst the creative industries in the North East that seems to be showing a strong growth (mirroring growth across the UK) is digital. The sector is getting real traction now, claims Iain Gibbons of Mobious. And this is being driven out of continued growth in client demand for digital solutions as part of the overall communications mix.
“Digital moves so quickly and right now and Social Media is top of the list,” points out Gibbons. “The biggest issue is that the rush to digital has resulted in lots of disjointed activities that brands now need to pull back together. We are doing more and more work aligning tactical digital activity in a strategic digital framework.

But you can’t rest on your laurels, he adds: “We need to develop how digital channels can be used more creatively and we need to start working more and more on the digital strategies.”

It’s reminiscent of how direct marketing and CRM impacted the sector back in the early 90’s, he suggests, “But it is the real converts that truly embrace digital channels and the marketing opportunities they offer that will thrive. The North East is at the forefront but we need to push on. We have support bodies like Codeworks and Digital City. As an industry we need to work with them to make sure we become synonymous as a region for digital.”

It is not just the supporting bodies that local team are working with to forge this thriving creative scene. “Agencies are teaming up and becoming friends to win pitches and to deliver more,” says Andy Brown, head of web development, Shout.

“The North East in general has some great benefits for agencies and clients alike, we can be competitive on price and there is a lot of talent bred out of the local Universities which are really trying to invest in the sector.

“The sector is becoming more professional and looking beyond the web,” continues Brown. “We’re beating off the image of heavy industry and replacing it with a one of technology, creativity and passion.

“We are a new agency but we’ve been around the block a few times in our previous lives. The North East is pulling its socks up and putting on a more professional front. This can only be a good thing.
“In recent years the digital sector in the North East has become heavily focused on delivering to the web. There have not been many agencies thinking about how to deliver client strategies to a broader spectrum of digital media. In 2010 we’ll see a shift. Both clients and agencies are beginning to see value in targeting mobile devices, and this will become a gold rush for the agencies that have the skills to deliver in this space.

“The North East needs to try and encourage creative risks if it wants to be taken seriously. It is full of passionate, inventive people who need to feel that they can do great things locally and not need to move elsewhere.”

However, counters Gary Glozier, creative director, TH_NK, to say that the sector is impervious to the wider economic conditions would be wrong: “Yes, it seems that agencies are having to be more inventive, invest more and fight harder for the work. Yet, if this reflective period does not collectively awaken our creative thinking and prompt us to take a hard look at what real value we have on offer, then what will?

“Of course, there is room for improvement,” he continues. “That’s what makes the industry so exciting. We’re always looking at new and improved ways of doing things and better ways to use digital space more creatively and innovatively. It would be pretty boring if we took everything as a given or didn’t explore new ideas every day.

“We’re working with a much more astute and demanding audience than ever before.

“The North East needs to continue building its creative reputation, though. Staying on top of training, investing in people, and developing the most engaging and interactive ideas – that’s the challenge. The region is producing some fantastic work, but it would be boring if we didn’t constantly push ourselves to achieve more.”

“There’s always room for improvement,” Geoff Foots, creative director at Guerilla agrees. “It’s been a tough year, but a lot of agencies seem to be flourishing, harsh economic conditions will always separate the men from the boys. Everyone wants more for less (though this is not necessarily a new trend) and agencies are having to broaden the scope of their offer to compete effectively.
“There are still lots of new business opportunities out there, but competition has become noticeably tougher and for less reward, with more and more agencies invited to pitch and asked to do more work speculatively, private sector clients are also a lot less willing to take what they perceive to be risks at the moment... though, thankfully, there are still exceptions to the rule.

“We also need a discussion about free pitching to establish what is and what isn’t acceptable, as an industry we are increasingly being taken advantage of – and we are all complicit in that.”

Yet Peter McGlynn of Solution Group, disagrees saying that he believes a nice trend seems to be appearing of not having to tender for free as companies are “realising the amount of work involved in the tender process”.

He continues: “We have also noticed a trend of larger organisations wanting to keep the work in the North East. The challenge that faces the region now is for design agencies to compete more outside the region and think nationally as opposed regionally both in terms of work and people employed. The quality is definitely here we just need to change the regions profile as that of a well kept secret to that of a recognised centre of excellence.”

PR is another sector in the North East that is growing, with a number of award-winning teams operating in this arena. “We have seen a strong year for PR, when budgets remain tight,” says Kari Owers of O Communications. “The regional media has been hit badly by redundancies and restructures, so good PR agencies that can provide video news, good editorial and timely news and pictures are seeing good local coverage for their clients. Hyper local news sites are growing in the region, and provide opportunities for PRs. As does social media.

“Recruitment of good PR people in the NE is still a challenge,” adds Owers, “as many experienced people took the freelance route in 2009 and there is still work to be done on our graduate talent. However more people are returning to the region from London if our CV bank is anything to go by.”

KEY REGION FACTS

  • The number of designers is increasing - According to the Labour Force Survey* there were 3, 288 designers in the North East region in 2008. (It should be noted that these figures exclude those designers working in a managerial capacity so the number of designers may in fact be slightly higher.) This represents a 30% increase on 2003.
  • The following snapshot statistics are from the Design Council Business of Design Research which was first carried out in 2005. The figures were updated during the winter of 2009.
  • There are just under 1500 design businesses in the North East (includes design consultancies, freelance designers and in house design teams) representing around 2% of the design businesses in the UK.
  • Businesses in the North East work across a range of disciplines. 52% work in communications design, 35% work in digital and multimedia design, 24% work in interior and exhibition design and 25% work in product and industrial design. The proportion of design businesses working in product and industrial design and interior and exhibition design in the North East is higher than the UK average.

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