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Edinburgh: A Conservative City Finding its New Groove

Trends and Insight 328 Add to collection

Scotland’s capital built an ad industry on its traditional economy, but now its creative community is finding a new way, writes LBB’s Alex Reeves

Edinburgh: A Conservative City Finding its New Groove
“In 1984 everyone was opening ad agencies in Soho,” says Phil Evans, Creative Director at The Leith Agency. We’ve all heard of that particular ‘Golden Age’. The pioneering BBH had famously settled in the infamous London neighbourhood on ‘the wrong side’ of Regent Street. “So we opened one in Leith. Leith is Edinburgh’s historic port. Built on the crest of a wave in 1884, by 1984 it had hit the rocks. Drug abuse, prostitution, crime, if I tell you Trainspotting was set in Leith…you get the idea. But rather than hold us back, our humble beginnings have made us the agency we are today.” As it did in Soho, so it came to pass in Leith - a vibrant new centre for the advertising industry was born in Edinburgh.

That was 34 years ago. And Leith is still the nexus of Edinburgh’s creative businesses. But, as Phil recognises, the industry has changed a lot. “20 years ago was pre-digital, pre-media proliferation and pre-integration. There were a couple of large ad agencies doing telly ads, press and poster campaigns and some radio ads (one was Leith, the other – Faulds - is no more). Then there were a few start-ups and a handful of large-ish DM agencies.”

Back then, Edinburgh’s advertising industry was nourished by the strong local brands who kept their partners north of the border. “Scotland has plenty big brands with strong marketing experience,” says Rhona Drummond, executive producer and owner at Leith-based production studio, Eyebolls. “At one point Scotland was a close second to London for advertising, but sadly that has changed with lots of brands leaving Scotland and budgets getting ever smaller.”

Scottish brands made the creative community in Edinburgh unique. But, as Phil remembers, they didn’t always stay with Scottish-based agencies. “In the past 30 years, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Macallan, ScottishPower, Famous Grouse, Standard Life, IRN-BRU, Bank of Scotland and Tennent’s have all dabbled with London agencies, with varying degrees of success,” he says of previous clients. “Now, pleasingly, only Bank of Scotland and parts of the Macallan and Tennent’s accounts are run out of London. Not that we have a divine right to service the clients on our doorstep, of course. We’re always telling clients it doesn’t matter where your receptionist sits, it’s the work that matters. Always.”

Government communication has formed a backbone of work for Edinburgh’s ad industry throughout the decades. Most of the bigger agencies have taken at least a slice of this pie over the years. “Devolution has meant standalone public sector advertising on a wide range of issues in Scotland,” says Phil, “from road safety to health. Creatively, it means we get some cracking briefs – drugs, alcohol, cancer, knife crime, organ donation, drink driving, mental health, sexual health, racism and more. Public sector work is the lifeblood of quite a few agencies in Edinburgh.” 

The stuffy but reliable sphere of financial brands is another well from which the Edinburgh industry has drawn a lot of business. with the likes of the RBS Group, Standard Life, Scottish Widows, Sainsbury’s Bank and Tesco Bank all maintaining head offices there. Some of this work has slowly, like much of the rest of the advertising industry, drifted to London over the years, but Phil is optimistic about the sector remaining important to Edinburgh’s advertising economy. One positive sign is the recent launch of the internal RBS Agency by The & Partnership. “In just a couple of months, it’s become one of the largest agencies in Scotland,” he says. “As a lot of this work was previously done in London, it’s another positive for Edinburgh. They’ve also been on a huge recruitment drive, so it’s opened up more opportunities for creatives here. I’d like to think people are pleased the brand is back home after a good few years in London. And back doing ads for a Scottish audience. But they’re one of our clients so I’m obviously biased!”

Another industry that’s inescapable when talking about Scotland’s historic capital is tourism, and all the locals I spoke to for this story waxed lyrical about how perfect the city is for visitors, and not only when it’s hosting the world’s largest arts festival in August. “It’s always thriving with tourists,” says Marie Owen, CEO of LS Productions (whose main office is in Leith). “I love it because it keeps it energetic. You find people from everywhere. The history is rich.”

Lewis Phillips, founder and creative director of creative studio and production company Campfire, extols the virtues of the city as a holiday destination: “A trait of Scottish people in general is a sense of pride and a welcoming nature, and I feel this is true within our industries. Top tip: It takes four hours to get to Edinburgh from London by train. The airport is 20 minutes from the Castle, at the centre of town. I don't know anyone who doesn't love Edinburgh - not an exaggeration.”

Naturally, this strong feature of the local economy has also brought work to advertising, with the Visit Scotland account, being mentioned by most people I interviewed as up there with the public sector. And you can see why that account has kept its work in Edinburgh. As you will find in our piece on the city’s cultural offering, the locals are remarkably proud of their city.

It would be, frankly, offensive to write about Scottish advertising without mentioning the nation’s soft drink of choice. IRN-BRU has been dosing Scots with minerally carbonated sugar for over 100 years and casts a long shadow in the ad industry there too. Some of the funniest ads to come out of the country were made for it.

Lewis notes what an institution it is. “Everybody I know has worked for either Visit Scotland or IRN-BRU,” he says. “We've been lucky to do both.”

“IRN-BRU is probably Scotland’s most famous and talked-about brand from a creative advertising point of view,” acknowledges Phil from Leith - an agency that has handled the account for around 20 odd years. “We’re immensely proud of our work on it. Again, I’m biased, but I’d like to think IRN-BRU acts as a beacon for creativity in Scotland, showcasing the talent here and making waves far beyond this wee corner of the UK.”

The zany (and often gleefully crude) humour of IRN-BRU aside, the nature of the city’s traditional clients - government, finance, tourism - explains a trait that many of Edinburgh’s creative professionals are keen to break with. “I think the industry in Edinburgh sometimes suffers from not being 'out there'. It can be quite conservative,” Ian Greenhill, creative director at another Leith-based creative agency, Studio Something. But that’s an opportunity, as he sees it. “It’s easy to do things that get you noticed here.”

That’s exactly what people are doing. “As a city, I’d say Edinburgh has shaken off some of its sleepy conservatism,” recognises Phil. “It’s cooler than it was 20 years ago.”

Lewis can see this change accelerating and points out SkyScanner as the vanguard - a tech startup that’s expanded to become a huge, mainstream brand. “Scotland is an entrepreneurial nation,” he says. “It's truly in our blood, and organisations like FutureX and The Hunter Foundation offer incredible support and resources. Thanks to them, I believe our startup ecosystem is becoming one of the strongest in the world.”

Skyscanner sold in 2016 to the Chinese tourism group Ctrip.com for £1.4bn and, according to Ian at Studio Something, “gave their employees fairly sizable bonuses - which is likely to spawn a lot of interesting startups. Which I think is great for Edinburgh and totally something that they didn't need to do. The next Skyscanner has already been born - maybe it's our first venture Welbot, a wellness at work application. That would be nice…”

Iain Valentine, managing partner at digital agency Whitespace, recognises the importance of the city’s traditional creative output. “The Scottish Government and Visit Scotland have had a huge impact on the industry, responsible for some of the best marketing campaigns and content,” he says. But on the other hand recognises that Edinburgh’s startup scene is “thriving,” due to strong ties with the education sector and a vibrant mix of talent, culture and ideas. “Incubators, accelerators and advice aplenty, there is a feeling that Scotland might be ready to be a little less self-deprecating and celebrate and applaud the ingenuity we have.”

Marie at LS Productions takes the well-entrenched Edinburgh drinks industry as an example. “In brewing, there’s a whole movement in small craft beers. And in gin there’s tons. People are collaborating who usually do whisky - their facilities could allow gin production - so that’s taking something historic and thinking more contemporary. There must be about 40 Scottish gins now.”

Many of the most exciting new businesses in the city are creative agencies and production companies that Marie is rooting for. “They’re Scotland born-and-bred but they’re thinking globally,” she says. “There’s an underground of smaller businesses doing good stuff.”

“The city has definitely shifted from being full of traditional advertising agencies to being more tech focussed,” says Ian. “I see this as a good thing as creativity is a big melting pot and the more people solving problems in any industry is good.” 

This encouraging kind of neighbourliness seems to be abundant in this new scene. “I would say we are all supportive of each other,” says Rhona at Eyebolls, “as we know how hard it is to get good work made and retain good clients.”

“It's such a small industry but really every agency is quite different. Most people know each other,” says Ian. “You have a handful of bigger [agencies] that tend to do slightly safer work, which is fine. But I think there's a good trend of smaller, more agile agencies appearing which is exciting. With a lot of resource going in-house it's a wise model to adopt as you can almost act like a de-facto in-house agency. Being able to team up with like-minded companies to offer a new proposition to clients is really great.”

The business models are much looser than in the old, conservative days of traditional ad agencies working for traditional clients, to the point where Iain at Whitespace notes: “I don't think its an advertising community. I would say its wider than that. We have a thriving creative and marketing community from lots of disciplines as the lines continue to be blurred between services.”

“It’s not about holding it close,” says Marie. “And I think that’s what some Edinburgh agencies have done in the past. It’s become very insular. At some point it was good because it was healthy - there weren’t many people and there was a lot of work. And now that work’s dried up I think there’s a lot change. But the fresh stuff’s coming through.”
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LBB Editorial, Mon, 30 Apr 2018 14:35:35 GMT