Close-Up: Live issue - Can Creative Britain get over playing catch-up?

Many people don't appear to understand what the IPA is saying. But is communication the only problem, John Tylee asks.

There was just one small problem for those invited by the IPA last week to debate whether the sun was rising or setting on Creative Britain. Nobody is quite sure what Creative Britain actually is.

Given that the audience at Bafta comprised a good selection of the agency world's finest, the collective conclusion that creative services are indisputably a "sunrise" industry was never going to be in doubt.

However, what wasn't so clear was why the IPA, champion of the Creative Britain initiative, is so eager to guide advertising on to the sunlit uplands - and just how it will do so.

"I don't understand what the industry is saying," a one-time creative boss remarked. "And I don't understand who it is saying it to."

Why his bafflement? Perhaps it had something to do with the keynote speaker, Will Hutton, the executive vice-chairman of the Work Foundation and TV economics pundit.

Hutton had just hot-footed it from the BBC, where news of the Government's multibillion-pound action to avert a banking collapse had left him visibly shaken. Having to change gear so dramatically to talk about UK creativity's sunny future clearly wasn't easy.

Indeed, Moray MacLennan, the IPA president, acknowledged that the debate paled into insignificance compared with the momen-tous decisions being taken across town. "People may think this is interesting but a bit of a sideshow," he admitted.

Or perhaps it was the backgrounds of the other participants in the debate that was leading to confusion. One was Feargal Sharkey, the rock star turned head of UK Music, who talked of how the music industry had pulled itself back from the abyss and embraced the downloading technology that threatened to destroy it. "In terms of music, the sun is rising," he declared.

The other was Christine Losecaat, the design industries consultant, who argued that multinational corporations coming to the UK for input from one creative sector might return to give business to another.

That, one former agency chief in the audience declared, was nonsense. "Let's suppose I'm a global marketing director. I might enjoy Britpop on my car stereo, but that won't make a jot of difference when it comes to how I allocate my ad budgets," he said.

Perhaps it has to do with industry scepticism about whether Government backing for the industry will be here today and gone tomorrow.

"You'd never believe the battle we had with the Treasury to stop it laughing and get serious about the creative industries," a senior civil servant at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, said. "And that support could still slip away."

And perhaps it has something to do with what some perceive as a lack of concerted action by the creative industries as a whole.

At present, such united action as there is runs through the Government-backed UK Trade & Investment, which promotes UK companies in international markets. "We're developing marketing resources in partnership with the sector," Catherine McLeod, the head of the UKTI's creative industries team, told a less-than-euphoric audience. For many of them, Creative Britain remains something of a puzzle. Unlike other parts of the creative sector - notably music, design and fashion - the ad industry has never had to go cap in hand to the Government.

What's more, a lot of agency people see no obvious connection between advertising and other creative disciplines with different challenges and agendas.

Leigh Gibson is the content and programme director at the British Council, which helps bring industries such as creative services together to boost the UK's image abroad. She says: "It's not exactly like herding cats. But you do need time and patience."

Certainly, the notion of how Creative Britain will work in practice is hard for anybody to get their head around.

Hutton, whose Staying Ahead report sparked the Creative Britain initiative, believes advertising's future is assured because of its links to a burgeoning "knowledge economy" led by companies such as Nokia, Yahoo! and Microsoft.

For its part, the IPA acknowledges that it has a lot of evangelising to do. Executives cite the lack of sparkle during the debate's question- and-answer session as a measure of what needs to be done.

"A lot of our members just don't get it," an IPA source says. "But that's partly down to us. We've been too assumptive about what they know about Creative Britain.

"If people don't understand what we're saying and who we're saying it to, then it's clear we have to do better at communication."

The problem has a lot to do with the fact that Creative Britain is not tangible. It's more a piece of branding inspired by the IPA and created by M&C Saatchi that has resulted from the Government's pledge to focus more strongly on the creative industries and enhance their status on the international stage.

With business under pressure at home, the IPA is keen to take advantage of better ministerial support to grow the UK's share of "hub" assignments for European and global clients.

"We're playing catch-up in many respects," an IPA source admits. "We want to use our leadership of the Creative Britain initiative, but that's difficult because others have been farming this patch for decades and we have to elbow our way in."

This helps explain why the IPA has been trying to draw closer to the creative sectors most closely related to it, particularly design and music.

The trade body wants to draw on their knowledge of overseas markets - "You guys are like the music industry was five years ago," Sharkey told the Bafta audience. It also believes more intimate relationships could lead to mutually profitable future alliances.

Not least as music becomes a more widely available part of mobile phone content. "As convergence takes place, the idea that we can cross-sell becomes a really interesting thought," a senior executive says.

Meanwhile, there's a growing belief that if UK agencies want to pull in more business from abroad, they must be more proactive in telling people how good they are at what they do.

This will start to happen next spring when the IPA joins forces with the Advertising Producers Association to stage a UK advertising festival in Beijing.

The idea was born out of an initiative in November last year, when leading figures from the UK commercials production industry held a similar event in Shanghai. The APA calculates that UK production houses won £4 million worth of business as a direct result.

Nicki Masterson, the APA's PR and events director, says UKTI provided some modest financial support for the event. More valuable, though, was its practical help in putting the APA in touch with the right people in Shanghai, suggesting possible venues and ensuring UK delegates had the right visas.

However, the IPA is approaching the Beijing event cautiously. Its position is different from that of the APA, whose members are going after business from rival production houses from places such as Hong Kong and Australia.

"It's much trickier for us because so many of our members are part of networks," an IPA source explains. "If we tip up in Beijing and start talking about getting work for JWT London, there's a good chance we're going to piss off JWT Beijing."

Certainly, the industry's structure does make it behave in seemingly contradictory ways. "We'll even compete within our own networks for revenue," MacLennan admits. "But we also enjoy working together to gang up on the rest of the world."

- Leader, page 18.


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