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No Middle Ground - Midlands Focus

However, with a raft of international blue chip clients on the doorstep, a wealth of creative talent available and a host of hungry agencies, such an oversight could be dangerous.  

With honourable mention to a clutch of outfits from the south west, this year’s Cream Awards, held last week in Birmingham, was largely dominated by agencies from the Midlands. It was a timely reminder of what the region has to offer creatively at a time when, some might suggest, the spotlight on creative talent has drifted increasingly northwards.

In recent years Birmingham, which has traditionally been regarded as Britain’s second city, has faced growing competition for that title from rejuvenated post-industrial cities such as Glasgow and Manchester – the latter in particular thanks to a deluge of investment and celebrated developments, such as the impending arrival of the BBC. As a parallel, northern marketing agencies have, by and large, stolen the headlines from their Midlands peers in 2008. So what gives? Has there been a shift in quality further up the M6, or have Midlands agencies just been keeping their heads down?

Guilty

Chris Date, of Birmingham’s Rave, thinks some agencies in the Midlands are guilty of having an unwarranted downer on the region. “There seems to be an unspoken feeling among some people in the region, even among some senior employees at some of our largest agencies, that the north west is in some way superior, has the better accounts and more of a lion’s share of the talent,” he says. “There’ll always be a rivalry between the two, but I’ve seen enough work in recent years from Midlands agencies to know that we are more than a match for anyone else in the UK.”

The growth of the creative marketing industries in the Midlands has a lot to do with ‘the several thousand businesses with turnover in excess of £10m in the region’, according to Ashley Kirkpatrick, director at Perspektiv Red. How the Midlands ranks as a marketing centre going forward will be informed by where these local clients spend their budgets, he suggests. “Whether the Midlands is up there as number two behind London in terms of marketing and creative services capability largely boils down to whether those businesses have the appetite to allow communications to be developed within the region rather than export the budget to London.”

As important as it may be to keep local clients local, Richard Elwell, partner at Birmingham’s Unsuitable, says Midlands agencies have traditionally ‘served the best brands outside London for many years’; brands of both national and international scale. But as a caveat, what they haven’t done very well, he argues, is shout about it. “Historically, the area hasn’t been telling the masses just how much good stuff it gets up to,” he says. “If I did have a criticism, it’s that as a student, a junior creative and now partner in our own business, agencies in the Midlands have always pretty much kept themselves to themselves, even going as far to treat other agencies with suspicion.”

While Purple Circle’s John Lyle admits fellow Nottingham agencies ‘don’t have much to do with each other’, it’s not the fact that peers are reluctant to involve themselves in a community that is his biggest concern for the region. No, he says ‘the problem’ with the Midlands design and ad scene ‘is that it possibly thinks it’s better than it is’, observing that very few Midlands agencies ‘take a national presence seriously’. “Its all very well being big in Birmingham or massive in Dudley,” he reasons, “but being on a list of people you just have to work with along with some of the great names in the industry is a different game altogether.”

World class

Lyle adds that other cities immediately stand out for their creative agencies: “Look to Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds and you could find brilliant agencies. Sheffield, Glasgow, Edinburgh and even Cheltenham and Bristol, but there are few outside these that are world class.”

John Kearney, of Art Workers Online however, suggests there’s a glaring omission from Lyle’s list. “I think that Birmingham is nearly there in regard to being the second city of creativity. More companies are seeing the benefits of being more central in the UK and Birmingham has an excellent reputation for creative people, not just within the various companies but being produced from the art colleges and universities.”

When thinking of creative talent in the Midlands, it’s perhaps a natural tendency to look to Birmingham – given the size of the city. As a result, Dylan Bogg, creative director of this year’s Cream Grand Prix winners, Big Communications, admits it was a risky move when his agency was first established in Leicester – a city which hadn’t traditionally been recognised as a creative hub. “It was a really brave move not to be in Birmingham for recruitment purposes and we did have initial issues with being able to attract the best talent – both creative and client servicing.” Because of the agency’s growing stature though, he says this is no longer an issue.

While the Leicester Creative Business Depot and the East Midlands Development Agency are helping to nurture future developments, Bogg says that the most important factor in Leicester continuing to attract more creative talent lies in the development of the city itself. “The better the city as a destination, the better people it will attract,” he says.

Regardless of Big’s location, it is now inundated with CVs from eager graduates and senior players alike, according to Bogg. “Knowing that they can work on some great brands combined with the lower cost of living makes it a no-brainer.”

Kudos

Robert Eley, MD of McConnells, says he’s noticed the same trend when it comes to senior appointments in Derby. “We are definitely receiving more and more CVs from senior candidates looking to move out of other cities. They still want to work for an agency but are often looking for a better work-life balance.”

The ‘kudos and de facto positioning’ of London as the primary advertising and design hub is not impossible to challenge, according to Mario Morby, a director at Birmingham’s Wyatt International. He insists, however, that agencies in the region need to be ‘more confident’ about defining their offer and highlighting the Midlands’ benefits. “There is a great diversity of agencies and clients and the Midlands creative community has woken up to the need to invest in developing and keeping talent here in the region. There are many SMEs with strong values where people find a warmth and collegiality that they don’t find in multi-nationals.”

While the immediate concern for most agencies is the economic gloom and how clients will cut their cloth in 2009, Tim Pile, CEO at Meriden-based Cogent Elliot, believes a Midlands postcode could be valuable as things get tough. “I’ve had experience of past recessions, and I know we haven’t seen the worst of it yet,” he warns. “Agencies across the whole country are going to feel the pinch, but perhaps the Midlands will be well-placed to pick up a lot of new business coming out of the capital. It makes a lot of sense for clients who’ve previously used London agencies to just look a little further north and see that they can still get great work but with considerably cheaper overheads. It will be tough, but I think agencies in the Midlands will come out of the other side stronger for it.”

Featured by The Drum

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