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‘Leeds is a creative melting pot’ – How Leeds is growing as a marketing hub

Gary Butterfield via Unsplash

From the likes of ASDA, Cloud Nine, BJSS, Sky digital to Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate, Leeds is now home to a thriving network of agencies, start-ups and established brands to one-man bands.

There’s a real Yorkshire determination flowing throughout the city too. And that can be seen most recently after Leeds galvanised support with the help of ‘digital avengers’ to host a year of culture in 2023, despite the city’s bid to become the European capital of culture in 2017 being thwarted by Brexit. And that pride is evident from many of the people who live and work there.

“For me, Manchester is Gotham City, whereas Leeds is a cosy cup of Yorkshire Tea. I love them both, but they provide different feelings. This, combined with the mixture of rural living and city life, makes Leeds a creative melting pot,” Abigail Baldwin, co-founder of creative studio Brand Guardian, tells Prolific North.

While the location and cost of living may be seen as ideal for some, and an hour or so train ride away from the likes of Harrogate, York, Sheffield or Manchester, it’s the brands and thriving tech and digital sectors that have helped to accelerate the region’s marketing ecosystem.

“The rise of digital specialist comms agencies in Leeds in the early 2010s generated a major boom. Then major national brands including Sky and Channel 4 based themselves in the city centre towards the end of the last decade, adding to the pull of Leeds as a talent hub for digital,” explains Emma Streets, associate director – head of North at tigerbond.

Emma Streets, tigerbond

“Leeds has been through several iterations that I’ve seen firsthand during my 20-year career, as it’s where I’ve predominantly been based. Both GHD and Cloud Nine launched in the city – which I was proud to support – and retail brands such as ASDA formed a key client for multiple agencies in Leeds for many years. There has always been a dynamic business buzz for a city that’s relatively small.

“Today, the healthcare tech sector in Leeds has become an incubator for driving that innovation.”

With the likes of Channel 4 relocating its London HQ to the city, Leeds is “quickly becoming” a favoured base for many businesses thanks to its evolving creative offering.

“There’s a vibrant marketing agency scene in Leeds, with some of the best agencies in the North and nationwide calling the city home,” explains Nev Ridley, managing director at ilk Agency, who founded his agency 25 years ago in Leeds.

“When we moved to our HQ on Leeds Dock, we were the first agency here but we’ve since been joined by other marketing agencies and Sky and Yorkshire Water have headquarters here.

Channel 4 Leeds HQ
Channel 4 Leeds HQ

“Headlines like Channel 4 moving to Leeds do wonders for the city’s profile, showing it as one businesses should invest in. We’ve seen an influx of companies setting up shop in the city in recent years and Channel 4 has certainly been a catalyst for this.”

Nestled between manufacturers, retailers, FMCG businesses, professional services and even the Bank of England choosing Leeds as its Northern hub, it’s clear why the marketing sector has “boomed” in the region, agrees Sharon Palmer, director of group accounts and client success at idhl.

“Having close proximity to a breadth of high quality marketing, communications and digital businesses in Yorkshire has carved out a synergy between agencies and industry which I believe is here to stay.”

Although Richard Michie, CEO and founder of The Marketing Optimist, agrees, he says the marketing sector in Leeds is still playing “catch-up” with other Northern cities.

“We are overlooked in headlines. Now, we’ve got an opportunity to catch up because if we can join forces and get that infrastructure around getting Leeds and Manchester and whole of the M1 corridor to knit together, working more collaboratively in the city and with other cities, we can make the North a better creative area.”

For Abigail Baldwin, there is a “shift” but all eyes still appear to be on London when it comes to digital and creative pathways.

“When I work outside of the region, many people can’t point to Leeds on a map. For as long as we can remember, the emphasis has been on London for creative and digital careers. This means talent moves South to seize more opportunities. However, we are starting to see a shift with the introduction of Channel 4 to Leeds and Tileyard North in Wakefield. We want Leeds to be firmly on the map as a forward-thinking destination for marketers and creatives alike.”

“There isn’t enough support”

Aside from the major established businesses, there’s an entrepreneurial spirit with smaller marketing agencies and consultancies setting up in the region too. Abigail Baldwin moved to the city in 2013 with her twin sister to study at the University of Leeds, before co-founding Brand Guardian.

“The last ten years have seen considerable growth and it continues to accelerate. It’s great news for our sector because there are new businesses and opportunities. A cosmopolitan city breathes creativity!” she says.

Abigail Baldwin, Brand Guardian

When it comes to setting up a business in Leeds, she says the city’s “open arms” were key.

“There’s so much accessible support. Our first port of call was The University of Leeds — they have a ‘Spark’ programme which helps students interested in enterprise. Then, we made friends with the library who hosted a Business and IP Centre. The West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) and the council have provided us with a growth manager and mentors as well. This free business support has been invaluable for a small studio like ours.”

Initially setting up ilk Agency as a one man band, Nev Ridley reflects on his own business journey and support regionally.

“Back then there was a ‘new business grant’ which paid around £500 per month for six months I believe, so that was a start! Like most start-ups, it relies on an awful lot of hard work, low expectations on short-term financial gain and of course, a decent dose of luck. We were fortunate to win some decent clients early and then invested from there. After three months, I was joined by a business partner and then we took on our first employee about six months later. The rest is history!”

Setting up his Leeds-based digital marketing consultancy eight years ago, Richard Michie at The Marketing Optimist believes there was a lot more support available for setting up a business in the city pre-pandemic than there is out there today.

“There isn’t enough support in my experience but it’s getting a little bit better. When I first started the agency, we were part of the NatWest business accelerator. That seems to have drifted away a little bit with a lot of the accelerators where people could collaborate disappeared after the pandemic and I don’t feel like they’ve been replaced.”

Over at idhl, which has its biggest presence in Yorkshire, Sharon Palmer explains it’s a “very competitive landscape” for those working across the marketing, creative and digital sectors but it also offers lots of opportunities to scale.

“Scaling up requires being able to access talent in the region. There is a wealth of talent and skills in Yorkshire and we’re keen to make sure we’re an employer of choice, offering career development and progression opportunities, flexible working and great office environments. 

“There is a huge amount of support regionally too, with plenty of workshops and events for industry professionals to learn and thrive as a collective; this buzz really does make a positive difference and shapes the industry in the region bursting with opportunity to grow.”

“Leeds stands out as an incubator for digital talent”

When it comes to talent, there are a number of leading universities and colleges to tap into.

“Leeds stands out as an incubator for digital talent, with great universities and colleges on the doorstep and a wealth of opportunities for people to progress in their careers whether that’s in a boutique, start-up or network agency. A few years ago, the industry operated in a period of scarcity with people applying for roles but this has shifted in the last six months or so, opening up the talent pipeline. At idhl we continue to recruit across our Yorkshire offices,” says Sharon Palmer.

Sharon Palmer
Sharon Palmer

Over at tigerbond, Emma Streets believes Leeds “punches above its weight” with creative talent especially with junior talent emerging from local universities.

“The opportunity to work in agencies and brands that are well connected with other cities, including London and Manchester, offers the best of all worlds: the pace and buzz of working in big cities that are thriving, with a more balanced cost of living.”

For Nev Ridley at ilk Agency, the agency has previously hired ex-flight attendants and hospitality workers with many junior staff at the agency emerging from regional universities or colleges.

“Our director of social and paid media, Shauna Madden, has a close relationship with her alma mater, the University of Huddersfield, where she regularly returns to talk to marketing undergrads about our industry.

“We regularly host work experience placements and make sure to get these students involved in the full breadth of agency activity. We value their ideas in brainstorms, their insight in media monitoring, and their creative inspiration, offering them the same consideration as regular team members during their time here. When we see talented people, our door is always open for them in the future.”

Nev Ridley
Nev Ridley, ilk Agency

And there’s “no surprise” Leeds was named as the top Northern city in The Sunday Times Best Places to Live 2024, thanks to it being a “friendly and welcoming city that’s a great place to live and work which has always been key for attracting talent”.

But for Abigail Baldwin, although there’s no talent shortage, competition is fierce and there are some skill gaps.

“We recently advertised for an executive assistant role – it has been super competitive.

“That said, some graduates lack networking skills. I worry this is a consequence of the Covid years where we all hid away. Within the digital and creative sectors, reputation is essential. Many recruitment opportunities are heard on the grapevine – they’re not all formally advertised. So, you have to break into the crowd and meet the right people.”

“There’s definitely an element of competition with bigger agencies”

Whilst there might be deep collaboration with marketers and agencies across other Northern cities such as in Newcastle, there’s still work to do in Leeds.

“The marketing agencies are a lot more fractured in lots of ways because I feel like there are only a few larger agencies, who are the bigger players, then there are a lot more smaller agencies like ours,” says Richard Michie, who says the tech sector in Leeds is far more established than the marketing ecosystem.

“It feels like there’s more of a grassroots feeling around the Leeds scene, in my opinion. They’re trying to drive collaboration but a lot of the marketing events end up being driven over the other side of Pennines and Manchester,” he explains. “It would definitely help with more collaboration.”

Richard Michie, The Marketing Optimist

Infrastructure, inevitably, is another woe that’s hindering not just Leeds but the rest of the North too, says Nev Ridley.

“I am so frustrated by the lack of investment in transport, and especially rail, in the North. HS3 linking all of the major cities in the North would be an absolute game-changer! There is so much talk about the ‘Northern powerhouse’ but that feels like all it is – talk. When I go to London and see Crossrail, the Elizabeth Line and the huge contrast in transport infrastructure, it does make me feel that the North is being neglected and this needs to change.”

And the North vs South divide can be a battle when it comes to talent or briefs too.

“There’s definitely an element of competition with bigger agencies on some briefs and occasionally we meet clients whose definition of success is an expensive office in Canary Wharf. But we know that the right clients will value our case studies and our insight. It’s never stopped us from winning work with the likes of Logistics UK, the NHS, Sport England, Brewdog or Aardman Animations.

“The biggest challenge perhaps comes in the way of new ways of working and remote working in general. With London offering its ‘capital’ salaries while working fully remotely, local talent may choose to receive the big-city benefits without the commute. We haven’t seen this with our employees at ilk, but it may be a challenge for other companies in the North.

“Who knows, maybe a change in government will see them take the Northern powerhouse concept seriously.”

Despite his frustrations, he emphasises Leeds is a “prime location” with Leeds train station undergoing a £46m refurbishment to improve accessibility and sustainability: “This will only bolster Leeds’ attractiveness as a business destination.”

For Richard Michie, a big piece of the puzzle is missing in the region: more events.

“There’s definitely something missing in the marketing scene when it comes to that. There are smaller events where it’s individuals meeting up in the marketing scene or big events with big agencies telling other agencies about their growth but there isn’t that stepping stone for those in the middle of their journey.

“I think we need more joined up thinking.”

If you hadn’t heard already Prolific North’s Leeds event at Northern Marketing Festival is happening on 25 June featuring an unmissable keynote session with Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate and many more leaders sharing marketing insights and trends across Yorkshire. Secure your tickets here before they go!

Photo credit: Gary Butterfield via Unsplash

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