Local heroes

London may be the beating heart of all things advertising, but there's a lot more good work going on beyond the M25 than you may think. Lucy Aitken reports.

Packed Tube trains getting you down? Plagued by Congestion Charge extension worries? House prices out of your league? Fear not, help is at hand. Why not forget about the capital, head for the regions where property is still affordable and you can drive to work in minutes? There's also a thriving start-up culture, with some impressive ad campaigns coming out of cities such as Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham.

Last week, TBWA\London's Robert Harwood-Matthews ditched the delights of Fitzrovia to take the chief executiveship of the network's Manchester agency, citing the growth potential of the regional agency as a lure.

What's more, for every agency that conforms to the stereotype of churning out bog-standard work for a less-than-stellar client list, there are others producing show-stoppers that can easily bear comparison with some of London's best-regarded shops.

As well as the stalwarts such as BDH\TBWA and Cheethambell JWT in Manchester, newer agencies such as Love Creative and Different are attracting more attention. And a plethora of digital agencies is scattered around the regions - Swamp in Leeds is one such. To recognise their contribution, the Fresh Awards this year introduced the Fresh Digital Awards to complement its existing creative and media schemes.

But although there are some creative highlights, one Fresh Awards judge remains disappointed with the overall standard of the work. Paul Baker, the executive creative director of McCann Erickson Central, thinks if the creative bar were raised, more big-budget clients would be tempted by the regions where, he says, clients can get more bang for their buck. "Sooner or later, clients are going to realise that they can get equally good work out of the regions for less money and less attitude," he says.

Regional agencies work out cheaper for clients because rents are so much lower outside the M25. Charlie Varley, the MediaVest Manchester planning director (who moved from Walker Media six months ago), says: "Establishment costs are much cheaper. Sixty per cent of our costs go on staff, while our rent and rates are about half to a third."

This means regional agencies can often woo talent with decent salaries to locations where their money will go further. Varley makes the point that: "While Manchester isn't cheap, it's a damn sight cheaper than London."

When it comes to talent, however, Varley does admit that the regions don't boast the "embarrassment of choice" that exists in London. Recruitment is a key consideration if media and creative agencies want to attract more London-based clients. Accordingly, MediaVest has invested in a graduate training programme to attract and retain bright young things.

Love Creative proves that regional doesn't mean provincial: its client base includes Nike, which is headquartered in Amsterdam. Jonathan Rigby, the agency's strategy director, moved to the agency from FCB in 2005 and is enjoying the relative calm. "I have never heard a raised voice or a tantrum since I've been at Love," he says. "The culture in London entails long hours and high stress, but here, we don't work weekends and we lock up at six."

The same is true at MediaVest Manchester, with office hours generally inside 8.30am to 6.30pm, and fewer business lunches, evening events and after-hours drinking - partly because so many people drive to work. There's also more emphasis on meeting contacts over a game of golf.

So if you're looking for a healthier work-life balance, or a one-way ticket out of a lunch culture that isn't doing your waistline any favours, head North. Be warned, though, it's not all short working hours and jollies to the links: traffic and parking can be a nightmare, plus it rains more. Varley's advice? "Negotiate a parking space into your remuneration package and buy one of those handy portable umbrellas." Forewarned is forearmed.


History: Different was founded in 1999 by Ben Quigley, Mark Martin, Chris Rickaby and Ian Millen as a media-neutral creative independent. It offers advertising, design consultancy, DM, interactive and brand development and strategy.

Credentials: Different came on to the radar of Campaign readers in 2003 when its "smoky baby" work for the NHS won the Campaign Direct Awards. Since then, it has picked up trophies including IPA Effectiveness, Campaign Press, Creative Circle and Royal Mail/DMA Direct Marketing Awards. It is on the creative rosters for Procter & Gamble and COI.

Who's who: Quigley, managing director; Rickaby and Martin, creative directors; Millen, interactive director; Catherine McKeag, business development manager.

The client view - "It doesn't follow the rules. It looks for opportunities outside traditional advertising and has other communications solutions." - Peter Buchanan, deputy chief executive, COI

The world according to Different: "We challenge the status quo to seek a better way and/or new ways. We seek to make our clients' brands famous, whatever their budget."


History: MediaCom North opened in 1996, after its founders broke away from CIA Media Solutions Manchester. The company has grown from five to 50 since launch.Earlier this year, MediaCom Group acquired the remaining 81 per cent of the agency from the three managing partners.

Credentials: Clients include Iceland, JD Williams, JD Sports and Picture Financial. It also does brand work for Umbro, Bradford & Bingley, OK!, Taylor's Tea, United Utilities and the Manchester Evening News.It won the 2006 Fresh Awards media agency of the year.

Who's who: Three managing partners: Paul Wheeler, Declan McKenna and Andy Bartholomew.

The client view: "We use MediaCom North because of the quality of its planning and buying. Over five years, it has done some tremendous work for us, the recent Lambrini/Footballers Wives strategy being a perfect example. The fact that it's on the doorstep is helpful but was in no way decisive." - Geraldine Marks, senior brand manager, Halewood International

The world according to MediaCom North: "We recruit smart people who do really good work."


History: Launched on 1 April in Edinburgh in 2002, Story, a DM and communications agency, has expanded from six to 30 people. The agency has also grown its turnover to £3.7million in four years, with pre-tax profits for this year around £1.4 million.

Credentials: Story set out to be a national, rather than a local, agency, and its roster reflects this ambition, with clients including First Direct and M&S Money. It has won more than 30 awards, and this year won the Precision Marketing Awards Grand Prix for its Glenmorangie campaign.

Who's who: Sue Mullen, managing director; Sheila Gallagher, client services director; Dave Mullen, creative director; Rebecca Wood, head of copy.

The client view: "Story is a highly creative outfit. This creativity is underscored by a clear understanding of the brief, and insight derived from an analysis of consumer perceptions and behaviours. If you are looking for a creative agency with strong thinking skills, take a trip to Edinburgh." Peter Simpson, commercial director, First Direct/HSBC

The world according to Story: "Story is the best-selling agency. Most agencies are in the business of story-telling. We are story-makers."


History: The digital agency Swamp launched in Leeds in 2002. It works on websites, e-commerce, online sales promotion, mobile, search marketing, e-mail marketing, e-couponing, viral marketing, online media planning and buying, online PR and link-building.

Credentials: Clients include Hallmark Cards, GlaxoSmithKline, Umbro, Heinz and Best Western Hotels. It was named digital agency of the year 2005 by The Grocer magazine, and also won a 2005 International Food and Beverage Creative Excellence award for Heinz.

Who's who: Simon Wadsworth, chief executive; Paul Mallett, managing director; Andrew Brown, creative director; Christine Osborne, design director; Lyz Cordon, account director.

The client view: "Swamp's creativity, energy and approach are refreshing. Living in a virtual world, the distance between us and them is never an issue, and the cost advantages far outweigh any perceived negatives." - Angus Peterson, central marketing manager, Heinz UK

The world according to Swamp: "Digital is not a channel. Digital is a world with few signposts and many destinations."


History: Alistair Sim, Phil Skegg, Dave Simpson and Dave Palmer founded Love in 2001. It is a collective of designers, writers, illustrators, animators, programmers and traditional ad agency people.

Credentials: Love's first project was promoting the Commonwealth Games. It subsequently won work for Nike, Umbro, Cancer Research UK and Sony PlayStation. Jonathan Rigby, the former FCB managing director, joined in 2005 with a new-business remit, and recent wins include Yorkshire Tea, The British Council and COI. Love has been voted the best design agency outside of London by Design Week, and other awards include three D&AD yellow Pencils for ITV, and 13 Roses.

Who's who: Sim, managing director; Skegg, Simpson and Palmer, creative directors; Rigby, strategy director.

The client view: "At the risk of sounding like Donna Summer, we love Love. It always comes up trumps. Most importantly it 'gets' the PlayStation brand, and they're really nice people." - Mary Tristram, UK marketing manager, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe

The world according to Love: "Our mantra is: 'ideas that make the world less ordinary'."


History: Big Communications launched in 1996. Today 75 staff work on clients including WKD, Jewson, Alliance & Leicester, Princes Foods, Virgin Cola, British Heart Foundation, Hush Puppies, Fruit of the Loom and King of Shaves. Big also has a digital arm, Fuse, which services core accounts as well as Carlsberg, Lucozade and William Hill.

Credentials: Big has picked up more than 200 creative awards on schemes including the Fresh Awards, Cream Awards, Roses and Grammia. Its most awarded campaign has been WKD.

Who's who: Phil Wright, Mark Firth, Dylan Bogg and Chris Morris are the agency's founders and directors.

The client view: "The results that we have had from our 'Have you got a WKD side?' campaign have been consistently good from the outset. For us, the fact that Big is not based in London just doesn't come into the equation; we ask it for great work and it delivers time and time again." - Karen Salters, marketing director, WKD

The world according to Big: "If you are going to play then play to win. It's not about taking risks, it's about understanding that the best results come from category- killing work, not category camouflage."