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London? It’s so 2020 - how Adland is levelling up

Agencies are increasingly looking beyond the Capital to nurture fresh talent and service big brands

By Jennifer Small

If there’s a condescending whiff of sanctimony about the government’s “Levelling Up” agenda, it could be because its origins are in Downing Street, a location not famous for its diversity or regionality. Sceptics say the mission to reduce the nation’s regional disparities – a message particularly targeted at constituencies that turned Conservative in the last election – is nothing more than catnip for voters.

On the contrary, says the government. It’s all part of a plan to “transform the UK by spreading opportunity and prosperity to all parts of it”. The White Paper, issued earlier this year, sets out 12 goals to improve life across the nation by 2030, one of which is to increase pay, employment, and opportunity in every area.

Yet many regions seem to be doing just fine on their own, expanding as places for brands, ad agencies and talent. Take MediaCom North for example. It already employs more than 400 people in Manchester, 50 in Leeds, 45 in Edinburgh, and 25 in Birmingham, servicing online-only and direct-to-consumer brands such as We Buy Any Car, Top Cashback, and Cinch. Last week, thanks partly to the strength of its Manchester operation, MediaCom won an expanded remit from Sky across Europe, extending its media-planning and buying relationship with the Comcast-owned TV and broadband giant for another three years and winning digital media duties in the UK.

Paul Cooper, chief operating officer at MediaCom North Group, says the expansion of Sky’s digital business is directly related to the agency’s first-of-its-kind UK Google Practice, launched out of its Manchester office in 2021. The specialist service for advertisers across the Google ecosystem offers services from paid and organic search, web analytics, through user experience and conversion, to first-party data and advanced analytics. It was a key driver in MediaCom North’s growth in 2021, when the agency hired 120 new faces; a figure it expects to be at similar levels in 2022 as the agency taps into the wealth of digital talent the region has to offer.

“Coming into the advertising industry 15 years ago, particularly on the media and digital side, if you wanted to fulfil your career, you needed to go to London; I spent five years in London in my early 20s at Carlton Television. Whereas because of the industry that's now being created, whether that be in dot coms, whether that be in media and acquisition, or digital agencies, there's so much more opportunity for graduates now. Ultimately whatever career path they choose, they can probably choose it and stay in Manchester,” Cooper says.

The majority of staff in the Manchester office, explains Cooper, can walk to work. What’s more, salary and living costs are balanced more equally than in London, which means that employees still have cash left over to enjoy the city’s culture and nightlife once work is done.

London no longer a passport to career success

Enabling people to access the standard of living they want is a huge factor in attracting talent, says James Murphy, founder and CEO at New Commercial Arts (NCA). Born in May 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the agency is used to working with people in a variety of locations. Murphy points out that the cost of existing in London is becoming “prohibitively high”, and many have woken up to the fact that life in the capital is no longer a necessary passport to career success.

“Add to that the broader cost-of-living crisis, and there's a lot of talent that either won't be able to come down to the southeast – or won't want to. There are clear benefits for people in other parts of the country in terms of their commute or access to services and facilities that they might find challenging in London, particularly at the beginning of their careers,” Murphy says.

In July 2021 NCA launched a partnership with Glasgow Art School to create opportunities outside of narrow geographies and socio-demographic groups. Its Glasgow office opened last year to scoop up talent from the school and local area, and has already hired graduates of the school’s product design degree. It’s been a move that’s afforded the agency close day-to-day collaboration with “interesting, fresh, lively, creative thinkers” that it may not otherwise have had.

“We're all in a battle for talent, it's in very finite supply – probably more finite than ever. We can't be complacent in thinking that the gravitational pull of the capital will do the job for us. We need to go and winkle it out in other parts of the country,” Murphy says.

A “broader reality check”

It’s not an altruistic plan, he explains, rather that different perspectives give the agency a “broader reality check”. It proves useful when dealing with clients like Halifax or MoneySupermarket or Vodafone, when the agency is creating work that needs to reach across geographical and socio-demographic boundaries.

“What we're doing isn't out of a sense of levelling up and the need to enable people to have good jobs in the provinces and so on. It's because we have to be relevant to many consumers in the whole of the UK, and actually having people working in other parts of the UK means we offer a more powerful service to our clients,” Murphy says.

It's a point echoed by MediaCom’s Cooper, who talks about the importance of representation: “80 per cent of people in the UK don't live in London. If all your media planning and buying and creative and strategy is done by people in London, can you really, truly be reflective of the UK?”

With offices in Birmingham, Bristol, Milton Keynes, Leeds, Manchester and London, McCann employs almost 1,000 people outside London. And it’s not just graduates and apprentices that are interested in migrating outside the capital, says Dean Lovett, CEO of McCann Central. The agency’s regional approach has helped it attract some top talent and it has found that where talented people go, others follow – regardless of location. For example, the agency’s executive creative director in Birmingham, Adam Bodfish, joined from JWT in London, while strategy director James Bagan joined from VCCP in London.

Lovett says the agency’s offices across the UK enable it to better understand the various regional economies, and helps to ensure that the workforce is representative of the regions it’s operating in, which benefits clients across multiple sectors.

New business consultancy Ingenuity opened an office in Leeds at the beginning of 2022, having worked with the likes of McCann Manchester for many years.

Chris Kemp, Ingenuity’s founder and CEO, points out that while the majority of agencies have always been based in London, brands and media have long been based “everywhere”, like Gym Shark in Solihull, The Hut Group in Manchester, the BBC in Salford, and now Channel 4 in Leeds.

“You’ve got the talent up there, the media and the brands – big agencies’ entry is long overdue,” Kemp says, and it seems the north is having a moment. In summer 2021, Leeds agencies Home and Intermarketing merged to form IMA Home, creating one of the biggest regional agencies.

“These kinds of shifts are a must if levelling up is going to be a success,” Kemp says. “I’m sure lots of the big agencies are talking about this at the moment, so I expect we’ll see lots more regional office launches in the future,” he predicts.

Under the skin of working-class cities

It’s all very well for agencies to wave the regional flag from high-profile locations like Leeds and Manchester; trickier to get under the skin of working-class cities like Stoke-on-Trent, where 57 per cent of families receive Universal Credit or working tax credits compared to the 39 per cent national average, according to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

VCCP’s Stoke Academy and Apprenticeship scheme is the agency’s bid to find talent outside London and from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, says Jim Thornton, executive creative director at VCCP. He explains that post-pandemic, the establishment of initiatives like VCCP Stoke is designed to give the best talent from across the UK not just the opportunity to work in the ad industry, but to work in top agencies, without having to uproot themselves and move to London, Manchester or Birmingham.

“It’s all about the talent, whereas before, it was all about the clients. The government’s levelling-up agenda is, or damn well should be, about creating high-wage, high-value jobs within an area, like Stoke, that is predominantly dependent on the public sector for jobs.”

Thornton believes that businesses are a vital part of that agenda, and that people should have the chance to work “without having to uproot themselves from their home, family, and friends.”

As Kemp points out: “These days people know they don’t need to move to London in order to start their careers, and they don’t need to stay there in order to progress them. The best creative talent isn’t concentrated in London and the sector is starting to respond to that fact. In some ways it’s surprising this hasn’t happened sooner.”

Just as the government’s manifesto said: "we need to get away from the idea that Whitehall knows best", it’s clear that adland needs to get away from the idea that London knows best.


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