The UK’s creative industries are at a turning point. Major structural forces are threatening to reshape Britain’s position in the world and the role of its capital city, London, as a creative super-hub, both nationally and internationally.
Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, remote working and recession are a potent combination that are forcing change.
The creative industries, including advertising, which depend on talent and ideas and exporting them are particularly exposed at this time, given their historic, geographical bias towards London.
The decision in 2016 to leave the European Union – on whatever terms might ultimately be concluded – was always going to alter the UK’s trading relationship with the world. Brexit also put domestic strain on the Union and undermined London’s authority. Covid-19, meanwhile, has accelerated some of those trends, partly because of the UK government’s continued struggle to get a grip on the pandemic.
Our habits are changing, as we enjoy some of the benefits of remote working, and London’s appeal as a super-hub suddenly looks less compelling at a time when the regions were already quietly on the rise.
So how did we get here? The past 20 years have been a bumper time for the UK creative industries from the heady days of “Cool Britannia” in the 1990s to the roaring success of the GREAT Britain trade campaign, which launched in 2011 ahead of the London Olympics and exported British creative services to the world.
But the fruits of these success stories were not evenly distributed across the UK. As John Harris wrote in the New Statesman in 2017 about the 20th anniversary: “If Cool Britannia boiled down to anything, it was the birth of a London that by the early Noughties was becoming stupidly expensive and far too full of itself.”
Indeed, it was those based in London who were the big beneficiaries of the global boom in creative and advertising services, especially in the pre-Brexit days.
Creative jobs in London grew by 40% between 2011 and 2016, ahead of the rest of the UK, where those jobs grew by only 28%, according to data from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport before Covid-19 struck.
Since 2016, the creative sector continued to add jobs in the capital but the rate slowed, particularly in advertising, and some other areas, notably the North West, around Manchester, grew faster – albeit the region is far smaller than London in terms of population.
Having a “strong central gravity” in London has set the UK’s advertising market apart, says James Murphy, co-founder of New Commercial Arts, in our feature on the reshaping of creative Britain (page 24). “It’s definitely created a unique energy, buzz and competitive edge. One of the reasons it [UK adland] punched above its weight globally is because we’re all sitting cheek by jowl, fighting each other.”
But the tight-knit village also had significant downsides, not least insulating the industry in a bubble that has become increasingly separate from other parts of the country. About 85% of agency staff are based in London and only 15% in the rest of the country, according to the IPA.
Being too out of touch, too “London”, too metropolitan and too elitist are accusations that have been levelled at many industries. But for a sector that trades on its ability to connect with people, this looks like a failure of investment and of imagination.
As Byron Sharp, author of How Brands Grow, told Campaign in a recent online interview: “We were pretty surprised about the Brexit vote, then Trump’s nomination, then Trump’s election win, then Boris Johnson’s landslide election... At a certain point, you have to stop getting surprised and realise you’ve got something wrong.”
The shockwaves of the Covid-19 pandemic have yet to play out fully but there is no doubt that the mass, abrupt move to remote working has shown workers do not need to be in London all the time.
A modest exodus from the capital was already under way before the pandemic, as media and advertising organisations, such as the BBC, Channel 4, WPP and Dentsu expanded their offices in other UK towns and cities.
That shift looks likely to continue as both companies and employees consider the quality of life and cheaper costs in other parts of the UK.
So, Covid-19 presents an opportunity to redraw the creative landscape and, importantly, to widen and diversify the talent base of UK advertising.
Seven out of 10 adlanders come from affluent AB backgrounds, compared with only three out of 10 in the general population, according to The Aspiration Window, a report by Reach Solutions.
“People in advertising and marketing unconsciously experience and interpret the world differently to the mainstream,” Andrew Tenzer, co-author of the report, says. “This often means that we don’t realise we’re different or that we are part of an elitist environment that is very difficult to transcend.”
None of this means London is doomed. Tough times can be fertile for creativity and, paradoxically, it could make the capital more affordable in the medium term. We are confident that London will remain a key gateway for global clients in a post-Brexit world – a theme of the new “Made global” campaign from the UK Advertising Export Group.
But if the creative map of the UK is a little less dependent on London in the post-Brexit, post-Covid era, that could be good for advertising.