5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes With...Helen Burrows

Hear from Helen Burrows, Policy advisor to Culture, Creative Industries and Comms Minister Ed Vaizey MP from 2008-11

Interviewed by LBB editor, Gabrielle Lott 


LBB: Apologies for asking, but many of our readers will not know who you are and the work that you do. Please could you explain your background and touch briefly on ‘Risky Business’?
HB: Yes, I've spent most of my career working in the creative industries; in fashion, music, as a photographer and writer and then for a couple of years in policy. I worked for the then Shadow Culture Minister Ed Vaizey (Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries in the UK) before the 2010 general election.
The Risky Business project came from a combination of my career and policy experience. A lot of policy discussions were predicated on creative industries businesses being somehow 'different' and 'riskier' to other businesses. With my experience in the sector I doubted that this was the case.

LBB: Risky Business is a huge project that exposes many myths related to the creative industries. One being that survival rates for companies within this sector is weak. Figures show otherwise; where does this risk prejudice come from?
HB: I think a big problem is lack of data and analysis on the sector. The sector isn't visible in official economic statistics generated by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Many private sector analysts use ONS data as the source data for their work. So there is both a lack of Government and private sector data driven understanding of the sector. In a knowledge vacuum, it is easy for myths to grow up and be accepted as truths and be recycled by the media. I also think the sector itself tends to champion its creative successes and play down business successes. This needs to change.

LBB: You discussed in your presentation at this week’s ‘Internet Week Europe’ that the UK government’s definition of the creative industries is inconsistent. What, is the general belief and what actions can be made to change this opinion?
HB: I think the UK Government did some ground breaking work in the late 1990s by attempting to define the sector and track it since. All the same, it is time to revisit the approach used. Some sub-sectors include manufacturing and retail earnings (e.g. in TV) while in others (such as fashion) these areas are excluded. This creates confusion - in official statistics on the creative industries, fashion appears to be a small sector, and yet if retail and manufacturing activities are included, it is the largest private sector employer in the UK.
In terms of the ONS approach to economic data more widely, we are still using a framework dating from the 1930s. It maps the economy of that time and some of the most dynamic and fast growing parts of the 21st century economy, like the creative industries are more or less invisible within this framework. So the Government is trying to enable a 21st century economy using a 19th century map. This urgently needs to be addressed.

LBB: It was mentioned during Monday’s presentation that the UK’s ‘lazy assumption that the creative industries are risky is harming Britain’s path to growth’. What is your opinion on this?
HB: I think this is true in terms of small and viable businesses in the sector struggling to get the credit or investment financing that they need; they are all grouped under the 'very risky' heading. The archetypal creative industries business is a small tech or app business - and their survival outcomes are really good compared to other sectors of the economy. Creative industries businesses and projects that are involved in making new creative work - producing new films or music do have a higher risk profile, although they also hold the promise of high returns for investors. Sector experts need to be clearer about these distinctions and large institutions like banks need to improve their understanding of the sector to make better, informed decisions about loan applications.

LBB: One area that has been discussed is for the UK government to create more networking opportunities for small businesses and investors. Is this plausible and have there been any actions to make this happen?
HB: Yes, I think this is very plausible. I think there is much that the sector and the sector trade bodies can do off their own bat here. Investors want to get to know these sectors and understand the business models. Trade bodies are ideally placed to organise events that enable that and to start building networks and relationships. Why wait for the Government to tell you what to do? At the same time, I know that HMRC have offered to run workshops to enable CI businesses to better understand how to use the Enterprise Investment Scheme and that is very welcome.

LBB: One member of the audience asked why the government doesn’t act as a fund angel, especially as we, the public, own two of the UK’s leading banks. Do you have any thoughts on this?
HB: Historically the Government has a poor track record as an investor. I think it is better placed to incentivise private sector investment (and things like the EIS are great for this) and to champion the sector to encourage a change in attitudes in the financial community. As I said earlier, better data collection and reporting on the sector is vital, and that is within the Government's gift.

LBB: Many people who read this interview will have dreams of setting up their own businesses. Do you have any advice for them?
HB: That business skills and networks are as important as creative talent, so make sure you are working on both. There is a lot of opportunity in this sector - I really think the UK is one of the best places in the world to set up or to invest in a creative industries business.

LBB: You studied photography at Central St Martins and won the ‘Association of Photographers 2008 Award’… How does your own creative work influence your political practice?
HB: I don't see much separation really. Politics is about understanding what makes people tick and how things work… and so is art.

LBB: You left Ed Vaizey’s office this year…. How has it been branching out on your own?
HB: Great fun. The research project was a side project, I'm working in the private sector most of the week, and there is a great freedom in getting out there and winning business, which I am enjoying.

LBB: 2011 has been a busy year for you… what have you enjoyed the most?
HB: The combination of commercial and research work has been great, so I hope I can continue to balance the two - they compliment each other in unexpected ways.

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