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‘We need to bang the creative drum more loudly’ – What’s driving Manchester’s growing digital and creative cluster

Hala AlGhanim via Unsplash

With a £5bn digital ecosystem, it’s no surprise that Manchester was recognised as the ‘most creative’ city in the UK following a study by Adobe Express earlier this year and is one of Europe’s largest creative, digital and technology clusters.

“Manchester is gaining more global recognition as a leading, diverse, and vibrant centre for creativity,” Beccy Gibson, managing director at Manchester marketing agency Tempt, tells Prolific North.

Home to a mix of global and challenger brands, you’ll find the likes of Kellogg’s, Castore to PrettyLittleThing and a thriving network of digital, creative and tech businesses with, Cloud Imperium Games and Spyrosoft investing in the city in recent years too.

“This growing international profile enhances the city’s appeal, attracting more businesses, talent, and investment to the region,” adds Gibson. “The influx of investment: construction, new openings and the demand for large-scale events happening here feed into this. Manchester, to me, is a really positive place where agencies like Tempt can truly flourish.”

Beccy Gibson

A solid support network, opportunities to network and collaborate and access to entrepreneurial programmes or growth support in the city have all been “crucial” for Tempt’s success, after the agency launched six years ago.

“The vibrant community and extensive network in Manchester have been instrumental to Tempt’s achievements,” she explains.

“In terms of nurturing businesses and helping them scale, there’s lots of support. In the early years of Tempt, I took up many opportunities which all had a great impact on Tempt such as the NatWest Entrepreneur Accelerator Programme, Tech Manchester Mentor Programme and Enterprising You Programme.

“I’m grateful now to have continual support from an advisor with Business Growth Hub, and I regularly attend events and conferences to support further growth.”

But that transformation has been gradual for some. “When I moved back to Manchester in 2013, it felt like a different place to where I grew up. In the last decade it has reinvented itself again and this relentless pursuit of progress through creative innovation is part of the city’s history and I hope will define its future,” says Julie Chadwick, managing Director at Dentsu Creative.

“We’re seeing so many new opportunities in the region. It feels like we have some real momentum, which is exciting for everyone.”

Chris Oatway, marketing coordinator at manufacturing and processing machinery firm Mattresstek, said the city region has attracted “big businesses” even before he started his career 13 years ago before the creation of the combined authority.

“When Sir Howard Bernstein was the CEO and Sir Richard Leese was the council’s leader, there had been a lot of investment in creative and tech industries, supported by the work of the Lord Mayor and international relations. At one point there were 57 PR firms in and around Greater Manchester as I made the decision to apply to many of them!

“Recruitment in tech, marketing, design, cyber and digital fields has also grown in that time, as have the recruiters and agencies looking to fill those roles.”

The wider marketing ecosystem now has a mix of small and medium marketing businesses nestled between major holding companies that have opted to invest in the city – with WPP’s campus opening last year at Enterprise City and Dentsu relocating its Manchester hub to Bonded Warehouse after 25 years at Portland Street.

As Dentsu Creative, the global creative agency within the Dentsu International Network, celebrates its two-year anniversary this week, Julie Chadwick reflects on the agency’s journey.

“The business was built to build brands for what’s next by removing all the silos that get in the way of making great integrated work. Today, our connecting capabilities, hubbed out of Manchester, act as the engine that drives our creativity across the UK,” she explains.

Julie Chadwick
Julie Chadwick

“Accessing the wider creative community via partners such as the MPA and IPA is a must and I’ve always blown away by volume of inspiring panels, events and training you can access in Manchester at every stage of your career.” 

Chris Woodward, CEO at Manchester “born and bred” CTI Digital agrees, especially with a £25m cash boost last year to fuel further growth for the web development and digital marketing agency that already has six acquisitions under its belt.

“The city is investing a lot in the creative industries and tech in particular. There is a vibrant and growing agency scene with start-ups, mergers and acquisitions and a lot of PE investment going into the sector,” he says.

“There is a good and vibrant creative agency scene in Manchester so that naturally fuels and enables innovation and growth for creative businesses.”

On what’s the key driver behind this, he questioned whether government policy and levelling up has faciliated this growth but believes a lot of the investment has been “driven” by a major media and production hub over at MediaCity with the likes of ITV and dock10, plus the BBC continuing to expand its operations in the region and more ‘London-centric’ businesses moving up North. 

Whilst in London there may be a “much more cut-throat, you either make it or you don’t” culture, in Manchester he says there is a “real concentration of successful small-to-medium sized businesses” that are thriving. 

For Beccy Gibson at Tempt, Manchester’s ‘community’ feeling and collaborative ecosystem is what makes it unique as a creative hub for marketers. 

“Through events, business growth programmes, collaborative projects, co-working spaces, networking groups, and online media, there’s a great ethos that we support each other to be better and keep innovating.”

Beyond the bustle of the city centre, you’ll find McCann Manchester at Bonis Hall where a 400-strong team are the brains behind Kevin the Carrot and major creative campaigns for the likes of Aldi UK & Ireland.

With a deep history in the city dating back to 1968, McCann Manchester is “proud” to be an agency rooted in Manchester.

“Manchester and the wider North West region is a growing and vibrant creative hub with a significant local, national and international brand presence all set in a metropolis with a great deal to offer from a creative, economic and cultural perspective,” says Simon Buchanan, CEO at McCann Manchester.

Simon Buchanan
Simon Buchanan

“I am pleased we now have an agency ecosystem which worries much less about talent migration to London and instead sees itself as competing on an equal footing. The region can now match career opportunities and a comparable lifestyle. Being part of a global network allows us to blend local talent with global brands to further cement Manchester’s position as a creative hub.”

Manchester is “increasingly being seen as a talent hub”

With five universities in the city and a mix of creative and digital courses across colleges, industry-led apprenticeships and training programmes, Manchester is “increasingly being seen as a talent hub” for the digital and creative industries, says Simon Buchanan at McCann Manchester.

“Our partnership with UA92 provides a brilliant window into our world for future talent. Creative apprenticeships are also a great opportunity to build long-standing creative careers within the industry. We have run an apprentice scheme for over 10 years now and it’s a great launch pad for emerging young talent, with nearly 50 apprentices completing the scheme and moving into permanent roles within the agency.”

Not-for-profit training provider The Juice Academy, brainchild of Tangerine Communications, launched over 10 years ago in Manchester and has since created more than 600 roles in the creative industries across the UK too.

“I’m a big advocate for The Juice Academy, which was set up to bridge a digital /social media skills gap for businesses,” explains Beccy Gibson at Tempt.

“It’s delivered just that for us and many other marketing agencies and brands. It’s allowed us to invest in enthusiastic and ambitious talent while apprentices get the chance to kick-start their careers in this exciting sector.”

There are “so many opportunities in the region” for those working in marketing out or starting out as a creative, agrees Julie Chadwick at Dentsu Creative.

Although “talent breeds talent” thanks to a vibrant creative agency scene in Manchester, Chris Woodward at CTI Digital says London “still attracts the lion’s share of agency talent”.

Chris Woodward
Chris Woodward

“But again that has been one of the benefits of Covid in the sense that the UK is less London-centric these days.”

“We need to bang the creative drum of the UK more loudly”

In comparison with London, scale is a “challenge” in Manchester, especially when it comes to diverse talent.

“London naturally attracts talent from within the UK but also internationally. If you walk into a London agency the composition of the workforce will normally be more multinational then is typical in Manchester. So one area of focus for the city’s continued growth is to attract more overseas talent to this part of the UK,” says Chris Woodward at CTI Digital.

Over at McCann Manchester, it’s the same challenge Simon Buchanan is seeing across the creative industry.

“Attracting diverse talent is a well reported industry challenge and a big focus of our business. To quote my colleague, Imogen Tazzyman, last time we checked ‘Talent doesn’t adhere to a postcode’. There is a wealth of untapped talent in Manchester and the wider region, we just need to connect with them.”

To tackle this, Chris Woodward at CTI Digital said accelerating the regeneration of the city and its infrastructure is “key”.

“We need a broader and more diverse pool of talent to come to the city as that is what the creative industries thrive off.”

For Beccy Gibson at Tempt, the city’s reputation as a creative hub also becomes its biggest challenge: “The biggest challenge for us is competition. Competition for clients is fierce, and the same for talent too, but that’s the game we play!”

Quizzed on the challenges in the region, aside from being unable to change the temperamental weather in Manchester, Julie Chadwick at Dentsu Creative says the creative sector needs to work better together.

“I believe we need to bang the creative drum of the UK more loudly. We have such a rich tapestry of creativity across the UK I’d love to find more ways to celebrate the diversity of thought and experiences that exist in each city. Together, we are greater than the sum of our parts,” says Julie Chadwick at Dentsu Creative.

Prolific North is hosting the first-ever Northern Marketing Festival across 24 – 27 June next week, with Wednesday 26 June landing in Manchester where we’ll be banging the drum about what Manchester has to offer.

With insights from the likes of FIFA, National Football Museum and many more – make sure you get your tickets here before they go!

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