Close-up: Live Issue - Government boost for a brighter creative future

The Government's Creative Britain initiative kicked off last week in the heart of adland, Golden Square. John Tylee reports.

The sight of Andy Burnham, the culture secretary, submerged in a sea of flag-waving inner London schoolchildren at last week's launch of the Creative Britain initiative may be significant. But not for the most obvious reasons.

None of the razzmatazz disguises the fact that the crisis currently engulfing the world's financial markets is bound to have an impact on the creative industries in general, and advertising in particular.

And that's bound to provoke some intense questioning of the Government's plans to offer 5,000 creative apprenticeships a year by 2013, when the jobs market looks so uncertain.

However, industry leaders see last week's event as symbolic of a growing rapprochement between adland and a Government clocking the fact that the industry is part of a sector growing at twice the rate of the economy to which it contributes £160 billion.

Indeed, Burnham's presence at the Creative Britain celebration marked the first time that a serving government minister has ever attended an IPA organised event.

Baroness Peta Buscombe, the Advertising Association chief executive, talks of much better ease of access to government departments and a generally warmer reception by ministers.

This, she suggests, has had as much to do with the industry's greater proactivity - particularly in making the case for advertising's role in addressing important social issues - as it has with changing attitudes within Whitehall.

But she also acknowledges the part played by Burnham in the nine months since he has held his portfolio. "He's very popular with the industry," she says. "He's such a refreshing departure from the 'we know best' attitude we've had from cabinet ministers in the past."

Moray MacLennan, the IPA president, agrees. "The last two years have seen an enormous sea change," he declares. "It's happened because somebody has done their sums and realised that creative services now rival the financial sector in importance. The penny has dropped throughout the Government."

IPA executives regard what's been happening as testament to MacLennan's agenda of getting advertising higher up the value chain both in company boardrooms and with the Government.

On its own admission, the industry didn't used to go out of its way to foster relationships with ministers. It was thought to take up too much time and resource, particularly when advertising, unlike other creative services such as music, fashion and design, had no dependence on government money.

Burnham, though, wants the industry onside. "Some of the most creative people in the country work in advertising," he told Campaign. And he would like to see an end to a time when students wishing to go into advertising are "gently persuaded out of it" by their schools.

Adland is much heartened by Burnham's support, not least because of the way he has gone to bat on its behalf against an often hostile Department of Health, which would like more ad bans and watershed restrictions.

"It's important he continues feeling good about us," an IPA source says. "We intend giving as much support to his department as we possibly can."

The Government's strategy document, Creative Britain, published earlier this year, has proved an important milestone in a warming relationship between the industry and Whitehall.

Last week's event, which gave the opportunity for more than 200 schoolchildren to take a look inside M&C Saatchi and other creative companies around Golden Square, was simply intended to bring that strategy to life. "It was branding at its most basic," MacLennan says.

The challenge now is to keep the momentum going and to reassure would-be creative apprentices that they will not be wasting their time chasing non-existent jobs.

For his part, Burnham is urging the creative industries to think beyond the short term and to focus on the opportunities that the 2012 London Olympics will provide.

"We're not in the business of falsely raising people's hopes," he insists. "Creative skills are transferable. They'll be part of all our lives in the future and people will have to be au fait with them."

The creativity bandwagon is due for an extra push next month with an event at Bafta. It will feature a keynote speech by Will Hutton, the Work Foundation chief, whose Staying Ahead report inspired the Creative Britain initiative.

This will be followed by a debate, chaired by the social commentator Peter York, on: "Is the sun rising or setting on Creative Britain?"

With the Government determined to establish the UK as the world's "creative hub", the answer seems like a no-brainer. But not everybody is so sure. "People may think we're in better shape creatively than we actually are," a senior official of an industry trade body says. "There are other markets emerging that are growing fast and offering great creativity."

"Ten years ago, things were looking rosy," MacLennan recalls. "Competition from other sectors has dried it up. To keep going, we need the best talent and to stop parents discouraging their children joining the creative industries."

MacLennan contends that, while the industry's record on sexual equality is quite good, its workforce isn't diverse enough.

The IPA Diagonal Thinking initiative is intended to improve this imbalance. It's being closely watched by government officials who see it having wider potential.

The culmination of a five-year research project, the Diagonal Thinking website allows people to test their linear and creative skills in a 75-minute test.

Certificates are awarded to those who are successful and the hope is that these will carry weight with potential employers. "We see this as a real bottom-up way of getting true ethnic diversity within the industry," Hamish Pringle, the IPA director-general, says.

But what happens when Burnham goes and, perhaps, Labour with him? The Tories have long been supporters of the industry but, under David Cameron, such support is no longer guaranteed.

That's why earlier this month Buscombe met Oliver Letwin, who will be drawing up the Conservative election manifesto. Next month, an AA delegation, including MacLennan and Andy Duncan, Channel 4's chief executive, will have talks with Burnham's Tory shadow, Alan Duncan.

"Burnham really understands the business and what we can deliver," Buscombe says. "But the industry would be foolish to believe that, because it's enjoying good relations with the Government now, it can afford to sit back."

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