All change for London and the creative map of the UK?

Covid and Brexit threaten to alter London’s status as a super-hub for the creative industries. But how much will these disruptive forces reshape the whole of the UK’s advertising landscape?

All change for London and the creative map of the UK?

Amid the turmoil of 2020, the UK’s creators were presented with an ambitious brief: design a nationwide festival that could unite the public and “showcase the UK’s creativity and innovation to the world”.

Festival UK 2022, the working title for the £120m, government-funded initiative, is due to take place in two years’ time. Following the October entry deadline, the event organisers will select 30 creative teams to develop and pitch their ideas early next year and, from those, commission 10 final projects to form the festival.

Since former prime minister Theresa May announced the plan in 2018 and Boris Johnson gave it the go-ahead last year, critics have dubbed it a “festival of Brexit”, warned it could inflame tensions in Northern Ireland, because the timing clashes with the centenary of Ireland’s partition and civil war, and called it a waste of public funds.

But at such a fragile and divisive time for the country, the festival’s chief creative officer, Martin Green, who was previously head of ceremonies at the London 2012 Olympics, argues: “Work that seeks to bring us together in greater understanding, navigate our way through differences and change the world is required more than ever.”

In the event’s scope and ambition, there are echoes of the 1951 Festival of Britain, which drew more than eight million visitors for a celebration of British innovation, arts and sciences at London’s South Bank in the wake of the Second World War.

Beyond this historic comparison, however, it is hard to imagine what this next festival might be. It lacks a name and brand, which will be decided after the projects are commissioned.

And the creative sector, which the event seeks to buoy and promote, is also in flux. First came the spectre of Brexit, then the economic and cultural upheaval of Covid-19 – two forces that are reshaping UK society. By the time the festival comes around in 2022, the creative landscape it reflects may be permanently altered, too.

Channel 4: has set up a new national headquarters in Leeds

Debates about the UK’s creative future tend to start with London. It has long been the magnet that draws much of the country and the world’s brightest talent, but now some are questioning whether its future as a creative hub will be limited.

There have been growing pressure points in the city, such as high living costs, which may partly explain why London continuously reports some of the lowest average life satisfaction in the Office for National Statistics’ rankings of personal well-being.

Several London boroughs with persistently low well-being scores – Camden, Islington, Lambeth and Hackney – are also among the most expensive in which to rent and buy property.

Soon after the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016, predictions began of London’s decline as a global centre for business and culture. Ongoing uncertainty about Brexit has raised concerns about institutions moving their headquarters outside the UK or a talent drain from the capital.

Indeed, the latest ONS figures show that London’s population is growing at its slowest rate in 15 years, due to an increase in international migration and people moving to other parts of the UK.

All this was before Covid-19 struck, and questions over London’s future grew louder. The rise of remote working, social distancing and job losses have caused many to re-evaluate their living situations, with some seeking less densely populated or expensive areas.

The London Assembly Housing Committee’s August survey revealed that one in seven Londoners (14%) wanted to leave the city as a result of the pandemic. In June, careers advisory service Escape the City found that the number of jobseekers looking outside the capital more than doubled compared with the same period in 2019 – a trend that could accelerate with a second wave of the virus.

So far, London – the country’s largest business, cultural and tourism hub – is suffering “a deeper downturn and slower recovery than all other towns and cities in the UK and capitals in Europe”, The Telegraph reported in July.

Green is adamant that the “death knell of the city is a bit premature… capital cities will always draw in creatives and be hubs, because of their very nature as exciting places to be”. But there is little doubt that London will change, just as it has after other crises.

For instance, after the Second World War, government policies aimed at rebalancing the nation’s development and economy beyond the capital led to London’s population shrinking by more than a fifth – a loss of about two million people – between 1941 and 1992, while the rest of the UK recorded steady population growth, according to a 2020 report by New London Architecture (NLA), The Changing Face of London.

When architect Richard Rogers and Labour MP Mark Fisher published their book A New London in 1992, they wrote of the city: “It no longer has a cohesive sense of identity. Its infrastructure has drastically declined. It is dirty, overcrowded, increasingly polarised between rich and poor, North and South.”

End of the renaissance?

Starting in the 1990s, New Labour’s “urban renaissance” policies helped change London’s fortunes. It also championed the creative industries, which, with the financial and tech sectors, have helped fuel economic growth for the capital and country. The most recent government figures show that the creative industries, including advertising and marketing, contributed more than £111bn to the UK economy in 2018 and were growing more than five times faster than the national economy overall.

The UK ad market is heavily London-centric. Campaign’s research (see chart, above) shows 85% of the employees at all of the big six agency groups work in London – in the case of WPP and Omnicom it is 90% and within Publicis Groupe it is 95%.

Some large media companies, including Google and Facebook, also show a similar geographical bias, although the BBC, ITV and Sky have a large presence in the regions.

But like much of the economy, many advertising and creative businesses have been hard hit by the pandemic. Group M forecast a 12.5% decline in the UK ad market in 2020, while arts and entertainment are among the worst affected sectors, reporting a 44.5% year-on-year drop in monthly gross domestic product (GDP) in the three months to June. With a large proportion of the creative sector based in London, its slump is likely to make an impact on the city, too.

One obvious effect is a diminishing of London’s buzzing, creative atmosphere, as theatres go dark, music venues remain shuttered and many other cultural institutions face an uncertain future. The shift to remote working is also reshaping the urban environment as fewer people travel into the city centre. In a sign of the pain being suffered by London, the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has asked the UK government for a £5.7bn bailout of the public transport network because of plunging passenger numbers.

New Commercial Arts (NCA), the agency launched in May by Adam & Eve founders James Murphy and David Golding, was ready to set up shop in Soho – once home to numerous advertising agencies and production companies – when Covid changed its plans. Since lockdown, Murphy and Golding have held on to their office, with a few employees going in occasionally for meetings, but most of the time they are working remotely, like countless other companies. It is quite a shift from the early days of Adam & Eve, and from what Murphy and Golding envisioned when they decided to leave the creative powerhouse they had built to start again.

“One of the reasons we did a start-up is it’s a very enjoyable experience of a small gang of people in a tight space, working more intensively. It’s a different experience now,” Murphy says. NCA has about 15 employees but “over half of those people we’ve never physically met, and at least half of them are scattered outside London”, he says.

This new way of working will have a “long-term effect” on the industry, Murphy predicts. For a long time, what has set the UK’s advertising market apart is “a strong central gravity”, he explains. In countries such as the US and Germany, there are several large hubs of business and culture, but in the UK, that activity is predominantly concentrated in London.

“What’s really powerful and unique about the UK industry is it’s been very geographically centred in central London. That description of a village industry has been uniquely applicable to the UK,” Murphy says. “Some people would say that’s been a bad thing, but it’s definitely created a unique energy, buzz and competitive edge. One of the reasons it punched above its weight globally is because we’re all sitting cheek by jowl, fighting each other.”

'Capital cities will always draw in creatives because they are exciting places to be'
— Martin Green, Festival UK 2022

Murphy may be nostalgic for the days of running into friends and rivals on the streets of central London, but he senses more frustration among his younger employees, who are “wanting to come to a place of work and feeling like they’re missing out on some learning and growing”.

As NCA is finding, “creative businesses understand better than most the need for team working and the ability to actually get together and talk about ideas”, Peter Murray, curator-in-chief of NLA, says. “You’re still going to require central spaces where people come together to share ideas, operate as teams and do things that are actually difficult to do well in a virtual environment.”

'Geography will become less relevant'

How the creative community solves this problem in the era of Covid could subtly alter the fabric of the city. NCA, for example, wants to transform its hardly used Soho office into “more of a creative space, rather than one where you arrive at 9am and sit there till 5:30 doing admin and day-to-day tasks”, Murphy says.

Such rejigs have led Murray to conclude that the UK is “about to go into a new creative period”, because “we are faced with huge problems, and huge problems need creativity in order to deliver better environments and smarter cities”.

He points to the example of the 1970s recession, when he started his career as an architect. “It was a dire time but you had a lot of architects without much work who spent a lot of time thinking and creating ideas. Out of that came a hugely creative period that is partly responsible for the ascendancy of British architecture, with the likes of Zaha Hadid, who helped drive cultural revival in the UK,” he says. “Periods of economic decline can deliver positive creative growth.”

Murray predicts there will be particularly strong growth among emerging companies, which might be more adaptable or able to take advantage of trends such as falling office rents in central London.

The fledgling NCA has already seen some benefits to its business in this time of upheaval, because remote working enables “small agencies to compete globally, and regional agencies to compete more with London agencies”, Murphy says.

“Small agencies have been able to turn up at pitches in exactly the same way as big agencies. It doesn’t help to have a big office with an impressive reception when you’re all just sitting on a Zoom call. Geography, by definition, will become less relevant.”

London 2012 opening ceremony

While it faces enormous challenges, the UK’s creative scene has a strong foundation because of its talent pool, heritage and reputation, which so far “hasn’t been as damaged as we thought” it would be by Brexit, Murphy says.

Instead of collapsing, what is more likely is that “the places where culture happens spread out”, Lisa Taylor, director of consultancy Coherent Cities, says.

This movement was already evident before the pandemic, as creative founders scattered even within the capital, to mini hubs in areas like East London.

More broadly, though, social media and then lockdown have helped to “democratise” creativity, Taylor says. The closure of venues has meant more art galleries, theatres and comedians are taking their shows online and opening their work up to wider audiences – a trend that observers expect to continue and permanently change the way in which the creative industries operate.

This explains why Green has an open-ended view of Festival UK 2022. He says: “These projects don’t need to be in a single venue, in a single place, on a single day. It could be 10 million tiny things over a number of days.”

Covid, which hit when festival planning was already under way, only intensified the need for creative ideas to work “in a totally distanced world or in a non-socially distant world”, he adds.

While Green and his team have drawn inspiration from the Festival of Britain, he maintains that there is a fundamental difference between the two, because it was “a destination event in our capital city. If you whip forward to 2012, the last time we had this kind of resource to spend on a creative act, we did it in a stadium in London and received it through broadcast. We don’t live like that any more.”

The heyday of 'Cool Britannia' as encapsulated on a cover of Vanity Fair from 1997, featuring then couple Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit

It is also telling that the festival organisers have their headquarters in Birmingham, rather than London. Birmingham will be the site of the 2022 Commonwealth Games, but the location was also chosen because “it was very important to us that the core organisation for this project was not based in London”, Green says.

“We had an opportunity here to commission work that is for everybody and expand the frame of reference,” he adds. “We’ve said [to creative teams] that their ambition should be that each piece of work reaches 66 million people – the symbolic number of the country’s population. Once you start making work that seeks to treat the whole of the UK as a place, you become borderless. You can make work that a lot of people anywhere in the world can connect with.”

The rise of the regions

Green’s ambition mirrors a larger government push, as Boris Johnson’s administration has promised to tackle regional inequality and rebalance the economy beyond London.

In few areas of the economy is this imbalance between the capital and regions more conspicuous than in the creative industries. It is not just the big global advertising groups that are biased towards London. Fifty per cent of the whole advertising industry is based in the capital, the UK Advertising in a Digital Age report found, compared with about 13% of the UK population living in the capital.

Not only is employment in the creative sector disproportionately located in London, but this regional inequality has been increasing, according to the Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre’s analysis of 2019 figures from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. “Employment growth in the rest of the UK would have to increase fivefold over its current trend to catch up [to London’s creative sector] in 20 years,” the report states.

Covid might close that gap faster if the trends of remote working and people wanting to leave London continue. Before the pandemic, there had been a growing awareness within advertising and media of the untapped potential of the regions.

Companies such as Channel 4, WPP and Dentsu International had started moving more jobs from London to the rest of the UK.

Helen Kimber, managing partner at The Longhouse, a headhunting company for the creative industries, has observed the appeal of regional agencies among job seekers looking for opportunities beyond London’s “oversubscribed market”.

Channel 4 set up a new national headquarters in Leeds in 2019 and is set to move in properly next year, following delays caused by Covid. Janine Smith, who joined Channel 4 this year as digital content director, moved from London to Leeds for the role but insists she is an exception. “We haven’t taken loads of people from London and just moved them up to Leeds,” she says.

Crucially, this means C4’s new recruits – many of whom come from the North, and haven’t previously worked at a big broadcaster – have a “diversity of viewpoints”, Smith says: “They don’t have the homogenous background of people who have always worked in media and live in east London.”

'Periods of economic decline can deliver positive creative growth'
— Peter Murray, NLA

Smith is hinting at an issue in the creative industries that goes much deeper than location. Advertising is the sixth-most-elitist industry in the UK, sociologists Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison revealed in their 2019 book The Class Ceiling.

This is borne out by the fact that seven in 10 of the ad industry’s employees grew up in an AB household – meaning those with professional or managerial jobs – compared with just three in 10 of the mainstream, according to a 2020 study from Reach Solutions, The Aspiration Window.

And the gap is widening, Wavemaker North planning director Lisa Thompson wrote in a recent Campaign article: the percentage of employees from privileged backgrounds increased from 52% in 2014 to 55% in 2019, while the percentage of those from working-class backgrounds decreased from 19% to 15%.

A central base in London is one important factor contributing to the industry’s lack of social diversity – “location is intrinsically linked to social class”, Thompson says – but it is not the only one.

“It’s easy for people to let themselves off the hook and say this [problem] is purely London-based,” Andrew Tenzer, director of group insight at Reach Solutions and author of The Aspiration Window report, says. “I’m not convinced that a better geographical spread is going to prevent us falling into traps that we naturally fall into anyway: we recruit people who are similar to ourselves.”

Tenzer points out that creative businesses attempting to improve social diversity by simply moving jobs outside of London could overlook their own recruitment biases and the fact that many people lack the proper conditions to work remotely, as well as the knowledge, contacts and skills that have traditionally been vital to get a foot in the door.

This problem is not unique to the ad industry, but “other industries are not aiming to connect with a huge percentage of the population. This is hard to do if you’re completely under-representative of the population,” Tenzer says.

Notably, as Festival UK 2022 solicits submissions, its eligibility requirements specify that creative teams must “show a clear and demonstrable focus on platforming underrepresented, new and emerging organisations, artists, practitioners and thinkers”.

To Green, a greater diversity of creatives is important because “I don’t think you can make work about the world we live in if the team making that work doesn’t look like the world we live in.”

If his mission is successful, the festival could display a UK creative sector that has finally reckoned with how it represents the world. Green is full of optimism, but such a hopeful promise should be treated with caution – the public has heard such proclamations before.

Two decades ago, under the New Labour regime, headlines declared the era of “Cool Britannia”. The Blair administration’s championing of the creative industries, and the image it burnished of the UK as a flourishing powerhouse of culture and creativity, is a legacy that lasts to this day. But as author Zadie Smith noted earlier this year in an episode of The Adam Buxton Podcast: “The question was, whose Cool Britannia? There was also another ‘cool Britannia’ going on… in all these little pockets that were nothing to do with mainstream life.”

As Smith observes, the overarching vision of UK creativity has long been rife with blindspots, and it has left many behind. “The industry has a white, middle-class, male face,” Thompson says. Today, its other legacy is one of gaping geographic, socio-economic, gender and racial inequalities.

Now, 2020 has pushed the UK’s creative sector to a turning point, and those inequalities have become too glaring to ignore. As it considers its future, whose cool Britannia is it going to create next?

Adland looks very different when you're not based in London

Simon Gwynn on the view from north of the border

Since the start of lockdown, I’ve been living in Glasgow – in a neighbourhood with a large Pakistani community. My sense is that people from this group are about as underrepresented in UK marketing as it gets and that points to a more fundamental issue.

The London-centricity of the ad industry means that some perspectives are rarely brought to the table and, as a result, businesses can end up relying on mistaken assumptions about the consumers they’re trying to reach.

A company that wants to appeal to all of the UK should consider that its people are likely to be more effective if they are located on the ground in different types of places. Every time I visit my home city, Sheffield, I become aware of how little I know about the issues on people’s minds there and their conversations.

The pace, cost and nature of human interactions in London have a big impact on people’s expectations of life, regardless of their background, lifestyle or income. These factors make it quite unlike anywhere else in the UK, including the next tier of cities. At least, that’s how it was before March this year.

The lockdown has forced companies to throw away assumptions about where their staff need to be to do their jobs; the rebuilding should prompt new thinking about the best geographical structure
for understanding the market you’re trying to serve.

You don’t need to have an office in Sunderland, Swansea or Southampton. There are people in those places, though, who would make invaluable additions to your team, but have never considered a career in marketing, don’t believe it’s possible or just don’t want to move away from home. So the question is: what do you plan to do to access that talent?