Digital marketing in the Midlands: have we got what it takes to become a leading part of the sector?
November sees the City hosting “The Big Debate” where various speakers will discuss and debate whether the region’s creative/digital sectors can lead the UK’s economic recovery. When it comes to the digital marketing sector this is a perfectly reasonable ambition. Spend on digital continues to grow with online ad spend outstripping TV for the first time this year. It is likely that this growth will continue in line with consumers’ increasing use of digital channels. So is our regional scene benefitting from this growth?
Our small agency scene in the Midlands is certainly thriving with plenty of digital agencies across the region as well as the high profile concentration of businesses in Birmingham’s Digbeth and Jewellery Quarters. There’s also the stampede into digital from the region’s established advertising, PR and design agencies all looking to tap into the growth of the digital sector.
The result (regionally at least) is a highly competitive sector with clients able to shop around. This seems to be having the unfortunate effect of creating an increasing element of price competition. The competition from traditional agencies who are making clever use of remuneration proposals to secure digital business from the pure-play digital shops is contributing to this.
This price sensitivity is a concern in the context of the region’s digital ambitions. Leading any economic recovery requires (or at least implies) a range of contributory factors – sector leadership, a large pool of highly skilled people and most importantly, solutions that command a premium in the market place attracting the best clients to the region (which in turn attracts the skilled workforce).
I’m not convinced that our digital sector is there yet. New Media Age has just published its annual guide to the Top 100 digital agencies who will generate revenues of almost £1 billion in 2009. As you’d expect, most of these businesses are London based. However, there are a number of regional players with highly successful, growing businesses that are attracting national and international clients. Sadly, the Midlands isn’t one of these regions with only one agency, Leamington’s Freestyle Interactive making the top 100.
Other regions fare considerably better. Manchester (including the wider Cheshire area) has several agencies in the list. The superb Code Computerlove continue their growth with McCann Erickson’s Manchester digital operation making the list. There are also the digital teams at Cheshire’s Amaze and the Manchester arms of several other big digital players, e.g. Reading Room. There are also plenty of other exciting digital businesses outside the list including MagneticNorth.
Bristol has an equally successful scene with E3 making the list along with DMG, owners of Brisol’s InboxDMG and HyperlaunchDMG. Both of these agencies would make the list on their own (the combined revenue of the group puts them at number 5 on the list). Similar success is evident in other cities/regions where there is a mix of businesses of varying sizes.
The first thing we need to realise is that digital is strong everywhere and Birmingham is behind the curve and not ahead of it. Of course, Birmingham has some great agencies led by Clusta and Made Media. If we go further afield we can add the aforementioned Freestyle into the mix, Leicester’s Fuse, Xibis and Effect as well as growing digital teams at ad agencies Cogent and McCann Birmingham. Step into Staffordshire and there are the viral agencies Tamba and Koko.
Perhaps we also need to look outside of the City limits at what works and why in other regions. Manchester’s success in digital shows no signs of abating yet the region isn’t resting on its laurels. A recent NESTA report highlighted the challenges in continuing the economic growth from digital/creative industries. For a City that see’s its competitors as Barcelona or Milan, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Manchester continues to harbour bold ambitions. It certainly shows an appreciation that economic success is an ongoing, moveable feast. Success yesterday is no guarantee of success tomorrow.
We also need to be looking at the best agencies in the market. Our ambitions should be to see Birmingham develop the next AKQA or Glue London (insert the agency you aspire to here). Digital is new and evolving so age is no barrier to success (and many in the top 100 are less than 10 years old). In the short term, the region needs to be attracting people from London and Manchester. That’s a tall order. To attract the talent, we need the clients, brands and work that attracts the workforce.
Shouting more loudly about our commercial successes is a prerequisite, an area the region fails miserably at compared to Manchester and others. This should be coupled with a greater commercial focus and that targets the premium end of the market. The recent Birmingham City Council website fiasco is a case in point. That the website was overpriced, under-developed and poorly executed has been widely debated elsewhere. The BCCDIY response despite scoring some technical points does our digital ambitions no favours either.
The answer to £2.8 million of badly spent digital investment isn’t a freebie knocked up by a group of mates in their spare time. Good intentions aside, it risks devaluing the commercial aspects of digital marketing. And these are absolutely vital if we’re to create a vibrant, successful, employment-generating digital marketing sector.
Of course, the BCCDIY has one positive – collaboration – and this will be critical to our chances of massively growing the region’s digital businesses. However, it needs to be commercially focussed collaboration where businesses partner up to fill gaps in skills or service to secure new contracts. There are plenty of skills and talents across the region’s digital agencies. Winning business from bigger competitors is possible by partnering with the right team. It’s irrelevant whose name is on the bills if it brings in the work. It’s also an approach that offers costs benefits (useful in the current climate) when pitching against these bigger agencies with larger headcounts.
Coupled with this is the need for a more competitive streak especially when pitching against our bigger Manchester, London and Bristol rivals. The recent news that Birmingham International Airport has appointed a Bristol agency absolutely rankles when there is abundant choice locally. Maybe the first step is a regional voice for digital that exists to drive awareness of the region’s capabilities. One reason for the success of Manchester and Bristol is their trade bodies. Bristol Media and Manchester Digital showcase the successes in and out of the region, help businesses find each other and speak as one voice over issues of importance to their respective regions. This is perhaps the area that we’re most lacking and something we should address if we’re serious about our digital future.