Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production

Mad for It: Manchester’s Creative Spirit Reinvented

London, UK
LBB’s Alex Reeves talks to Music, The Mob, dock10, gyro, Cheetham Bell JWT, LS Productions and McCann Manchester

Mancunians are a remarkably proud bunch and will enthusiastically argue their city’s importance within British culture and economy at any given opportunity. Despite its official population figures placing it at around number five, most people there will tell you that it’s Britain’s ‘second city’.

Most would agree it’s one of the UK’s wettest cities. Adam Rix, Creative Director at Music - a 10-year-old creative agency in the city - concedes that people don’t tend to move there for the glorious sunshine. But he champions it for its quality of life. “Manchester is a city where I believe that if you’re driven, you can achieve all of your career ambitions but have a fantastic quality of life,” he says. “You can actually buy a house here, for example, and its affordable to live a stone's throw from your favourite bars and restaurants in the centre. If you’re a family and you want to live in the suburbs, or even somewhere pretty rural you can commute to City in anything from ten minutes to half an hour.”

“Manchester  has got to be one of the most exciting cities to live in the UK right now - outside of the capital,” says Director of Production at The Mob Film Company, Mark Collins. “It’s a beating heart of culture, music and media with a Mancunian spirit. It’s not London and doesn’t compare with the capital as often people try to do so. There’s an incredible amount of investment and regeneration going on alongside amazing historic buildings and cutting edge bars, eateries, museums, art centres, festivals and the best shopping north of W1.”

Practically everyone you speak to in Manchester is an advocate for the city, waxing lyrical about how it has all the quality of life you could want without the anonymity or sprawl of London. “...and you won't hear many people moaning about the city,” adds Chris Baker, Head of VFX at television facility dock10. “I grew up with a lot people who didn’t have a good word to say about my hometown. Mancunians think of the place as Mecca and are quick to tell you why it’s so amazing, usually starting with stating whether they’re City or United.”

Mark describes the spirit of the place: “It’s a can-do city, film-friendly and I think being a proud city it likes to see itself reflected on the big and small screen. London is a sprawling metropolis where as Manchester very much has a unique identity that shone through loudly to the world in response to the terror attack [at the Manchester Arena] last year - it’s about a sense of place and its people.”

Manchester is sadly no stranger to terror. In fact, it is a part of the city’s story that’s hard to ignore. In June 1996 an IRA bomb was detonated in the city centre, thankfully without any casualties but destroying a large section of the city. A new vision for the city was drafted and the devastation from the bomb became a catalyst for big change. Architects, ad agencies and designers became critical in helping realise the ambitious proposals and helped transform Manchester into one of the most exciting cities in Europe. Matthew Casey, Creative Director at gyro Manchester remembers the fortitude with which the city reacted to this. “Manchester responded in the courageous and positive manner in which it is famous for,” he says.


Bangin’ Bands and Business Brains

Creativity has always long been one of the city’s defining characteristics, as evidenced by the countless musical legends from Manchester and the surrounding area - The Smiths, Joy Division, Oasis, The Stone Roses (this list could go on for quite a while) and the infamous clubbing scene that grew out of Tony Wilson, Factory Records and the legendary Haçienda night club.

Manchester’s cultural heritage goes hand in hand with its entrepreneurial spirit - which Adam stresses: “Think Tony Wilson, or just building our own canal, because Liverpool put its prices up.” Businesses in Manchester respond to challenges, take them in their stride and adapt, he suggests, and this is as prominent in the local advertising community as anywhere. “What I love about our industry up here is that we don’t tend to allow ourselves to be labelled (although that also comes with its own challenges). In London it often feels like you need to work in branding, or corporate reporting, or interiors or advertising (obviously there are exceptions to this rule) – but we tend to have a go at anything.” He notes that at Music they end up being commissioned to create a campaign, and then might be asked to come for a chat about designing a new office interior, and so on. “This feels pretty unique, and as a creative, having the opportunity to get well out of your comfort zone is a brilliant thing.”

Stephen McCarron, Managing Director at Cheetham Bell JWT notes how this practical business sense extends to Mancunian advertising’s style. Having started his career at London’s BMP DDB (now adam&eveDDB), he observes that creative departments are less all-powerful in Manchester. “I remember that creatives ruled the roost at DDB,” he says. “Account managers were fearful of creatives and did the utmost to push their creativity. In Manchester the account teams hold more of the power. Creatives bow down to business imperatives. Broadly I would say that Manchester agencies are slightly more business focussed, whereas the traditional agency was more creatively focussed.”


MediaCity Moves

One of the most recent chapters in the cultural history of Manchester and the area’s cultural history is the arrival of the BBC and the influx of other media companies into MediaCityUK - the development intended to house a new northern hub of media and creative industries. Located on the seafront at Salford Quays the development is home to a number of BBC divisions and 2,300 BBC staff. Dock10 is a huge production and post production facility that has opened in MediaCity. The studios host huge TV productions like The Voice UK, Countdown and more – and they also provide post and media services too.

Mark and The Mob have worked in Manchester for coming up to 10 years now. He remembers speaking at a public event when the prospect of the BBC moving northwards was a hypothetical. “My answer then was yes but they’d have to bring London senior staff with them as there wasn’t the local talent or experience available to take those positions,” he says. “That didn’t go down well but it’s exactly what happened and 10 years on I’m pleased to say the local talent and experience is very much here and the senior staff at the BBC and other big employers need to recognise that more.”

Abi Atkinson, Senior Producer at LS Productions, which has just opened a Manchester office and is already producing a plethora of projects, is pleased with the progress the city has made in this regard. Local talent and infrastructure has developed significantly since the pre-MediaCity days. “Film, TV and advertising industries have always been prevalent and strong in Manchester but particularly in the last five to ten years we’ve seen a growth in the amount of content shot and produced in the region, from film and TV to advertising and branded content. This is a continually growing industry. We have excellent crew, talent, studios, locations and regional suppliers,” she says.

“The arrival of the BBC at Salford some years ago has acted as a powerful catalyst for the local production economy,” agrees Sue Little, CEO of McCann Manchester. (As a side note, McCann Manchester are in fact based mostly outside of the city, in a Grade Two listed manor house in the Cheshire countryside, Bonis Hall, housing around 300 staff.)

Although the shift has stimulated the production infrastructure in the area, locals often complain that too many productions employ talent and kit in London before shipping it up north. “There is a terrible London-centric attitude about local crew or kit not being good enough or sticking to same old crew or teams has to change,” says Mark. “I used to think like that too, but living and working here I know that is certainly not the case anymore and it’s up to those in senior roles to stop this happening.”

Generally, those in the local creative industry welcome the change MediaCityUK has brought. Matthew at gyro has worked with the BBC and is glad of the changes it brings, however slow progress may be. “This process was always going to take time to bed in,” he reasons. “MediaCityUK is now a thriving area and attracts some the best talent from far afield. The organisation needed time to adjust to how the BBC works and, slowly but surely, more programming and content will be created from here.”


Manchester’s New Industrial Revolution

MediaCityUK and the BBC’s relocation to the city can be seen alongside a wider narrative in the area - the growth of new-economy businesses and the digital focus this brings. In Sue’s 32-year career at McCann she’s seen the industry change “out of all recognition”.

“It has spawned myriad new disciplines and specialisms borne out of technology. That self same technology has given birth to a huge number of startups, many of which have turned into hugely successful businesses,” says Sue. While the city boasts some well-recognised brands with heritage such as Kellogg’s and the Co-op, Mancunians are keen to draw attention to the businesses that have sprung up with the rise of e-commerce -, and are emblematic of this shift.

Missguided is a brand that dock10 has worked with ever since they started producing TV commercials. “In general they’ve been great for the industry,” says Chris, “combining Manchester’s long relationship with the fashion industry and the retail commercial TV adverts the city has been making for decades. The major change being that they want a campaign for every season as well as constant social media content. This brings more projects but also means you have to constantly be thinking how the make the budget stretch as far as possible.”

Creative industries in the city don’t always see the immediate benefit of having such strong local brands. As Abi notes, “most if not all of these brands use London ad agencies and shoot their advertising content in London.”

But that’s OK, reckons gyro’s Matthew, because Manchester’s agencies aren’t content to stay on their own doorstep when it comes to seeking out new clients and partners. “I think part of Manchester’s recent success has been its ability to move from a more ‘regional’ mindset, where agencies would stick to local brands, to one where they compete with those in London and around the world,” says Matthew.

Cheetham Bell JWT’s Stephen highlights the value these local businesses do bring to the city, though - as important incubators of talent. “If even if your agency doesn’t work with one of these brands, you may end up working with their alumni down the line,” he says. And with a relatively small agency scene, the pool is much smalle . “However, if you look at the broader world of media, tech, and creative services the talent pool is huge. You need to take a bit of a risk, but if you do, it pays off.”


Cloak and Dagger Competition

The size of the community does have a tangible impact on how people perceive the Manchester ad scene. Stephen feels there’s not as much community as there should be. “It’s a pretty small industry so i think this fosters more competitiveness than community.  We’re probably missing a trick here somewhere,” he says.

Mark reflects that, having worked in London before, there aren’t anywhere near as many events or gatherings. “The industry is a bit more cloak and dagger,” he says, “which for me is the biggest single difference with London. I wouldn’t think anything of bumping into multiple producers/directors in London, all openly chatting about what we’re up too and often realising who you’re pitching against. However in Manchester it’s quite the opposite and I guess there’s less work to go around a smaller pool of companies so it’s a bit more cutthroat.” Chris agrees: “Although Manchester is growing there still seems to be more companies willing to do the work than there are projects. Sometimes leading to a race to the bottom on price.”


….United or City?

Of course there’s one subject that the word ‘Manchester’ brings to mind wherever you go in the world - football. Not many cities can boast two of the world’s most famous sports teams, supported by fans from every continent. As Sue puts it, Manchester United and Manchester City “act as a calling card for the city. If you travel the world, the moment you mention you’re from Manchester, there’s an instant recognition through its football teams, regardless of where you are in the world.”

More practically, the football teams bring work to Manchester’s creative industries. “Everybody seems to have worked for them and there seems to be no end to the amount of content they need. Man Utd is one of the biggest brands in the world and Man City are quickly catching up with them.” The last footballer shoot Abi worked on was for a Chinese mattress company called Mlily, and Music owes much of its success to its relationship with Man City, which goes back to the agency’s founding. “Our relationship with City has allowed us to do everything from hospitality suite interiors through to social media campaigns,” says Adam. “We’ve also learnt a lot about how to handle a footballer on a photo shoot…”


On the Sixth Day God Created MANchester

Mancunians have never been shy when it comes to celebrating their city – as evinced by the above slogan, which was coined by Leo B Stanley for a line of t-shirts in the ‘80s. Since then, the line has come to epitomise the brash swagger of Manchester – just as the busy worker bee was adopted as a symbol of its industriousness in the 19th century.

That spirit of confidence, creativity, and hard graft is being re-born in 21st century Manchester. Sue has been at McCann Manchester for 32 years, and in that time she’s seen city rediscover itself  as a home of world class creativity. “As for the city itself, the change has been similarly transformational. It’s gone from a slightly down at heel post industrial conurbation living on past glories to a vibrant international centre of commerce, culture, creativity and education that can stand alongside the best that Europe has to offer.






Image Credits

By plentyofants (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Parrot of Doom (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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