Leaving the comfort of London
PR agencies are excitedly blogging about leaving their London offices to find out what is happening in the rest of the country
The tooth fairy only comes on a Monday. It seems rather part time work for a fairy that allegedly tends to the dental losses of millions of children, but there’s a solid reasoning behind it: Mondays are when the unemployment cheque arrives.
You might not have known that unless you’d asked someone, but Christian Barnett, founding partner of strategy agency Sword & Stone, discovered this fact years ago when running groups and individual ethnographies on behalf of marketing company Young & Rubicam and its media buying agency.
‘The power of that moment wouldn’t come from a trends report,’ he wrote in a blog post on the Sword & Stone website. The blog post was in response to a new initiative launched by advertising and communications agency Ogilvy and Mather to get its employees’ heads out of trends reports and their feet on the ground.
Get Out There will see Ogilvy’s planners leave London every month to visit places such as Grimsby, Torquay and the Isle of Wight.
Chief strategy officer Kevin Chesters was quoted about the project, saying: ‘They will go out into the streets and talk to people. REAL PEOPLE. Take a hypothesis. Test it. And report back. Not with more Powerpoint slides. With photos, video, words.’
‘We started in Boston, Lincolnshire in November 2016,’ he continued. ‘The town that recorded the highest Brexit vote, and the so-called ‘murder capital’ of England. You’ll be relieved to know we survived.’
Going around the country getting voxpops isn’t going to get an accurate or even warm response. We need to get much better at opening ourselves up if we want to truly understand
Of course, the Get Out There initiative is nothing new. Chesters openly admits that. But neither is it enough. If the communications industry wants to understand the diverse opinions that exist around the country, leaving town once a month isn’t going to do the trick.
‘I think it’s a bit rich to treat it as a PR initiative. It’s hardly a drop in the ocean,’ says Barnett. He advocates taking every opportunity to get out of the city, from telling clients that this is the plan at the start of projects to simply doing it on your own time.
He notes that in this respect British companies are more reticent than their American counterparts in exploring other parts of the country for work. ‘In Britain, we don’t do that,’ he says. ‘Even when we do, it tends to be in Manchester which is almost as guilty of the same thing.’
Alison Puente, partner and board director at Leeds-based Finn Communications, agrees. ‘Going around the country getting voxpops isn’t going to get an accurate or even warm response. We need to get much better at opening ourselves up if we want to truly understand.’
Ogilvy cites the shock outcome of the European Referendum as a catalyst for its new initiative. The majority of Londoners were surprised that Britain voted to leave the European Union last year, underestimating the Euroscepticism of much of the country.
‘By talking to relative strangers, we think that they are representative of all strangers. It’s different to watching [people give their opinions] on television; it’s not like hearing it for yourself. You’ve got to be open-minded and open-hearted – open-minded to listen and open-hearted to feel what’s going on,’ says Barnett.
‘And of course, people have got to share the other way too. They have to overcome their prejudices as well. It’s a symbol of a bigger thing, people understanding each other. Given what’s happening in the world, it’s because we’re not listening to each other.’
The ‘bubble’ therefore is likely not merely a problem in London. Puente suggests that it is symptomatic of the make-up of the communications industry on the whole.
‘Everyone around the country was surprised by Brexit,’ she says. ‘We all live in Facebook bubble – it’s not a London bubble. It’s more of a class issue.’
London has more visible wealth and it can have an homogenous feel sometimes, particularly in communications. The industry tends to attract educated people from middle-class affluent backgrounds. It’s about opening up the idea of PR to people not considering it
As such, the answer to defeating the bubble is not simply travelling the country, but also reflecting the country in the people the industry employs. ‘If agencies really want to understand, then reach out to parts of the country with your employee base,’ says Puente. ‘Regional offices are almost treated like tier-two. I don’t think that helps.’
Charles Tattersall, chief executive of Citypress, agrees. ‘I don’t know if the London bubble is overplayed. London is not a specific part of the country – it’s a melting pot. It’s got people from all over the country living and working in it so London is quite cosmopolitan in that way and does reflect large portions of the regions.
‘There is perhaps a lack of empathy with poorer parts of the UK. London has more visible wealth and it can have an homogenous feel sometimes, particularly in communications. The industry tends to attract educated people from middle-class affluent backgrounds. It’s about opening up the idea of PR to people not considering it.’
Citypress partners with the Social Mobility Foundation, a charity that provides opportunities and networks of support for 16 to 17-year-olds from low-income families, to offer work experience placements to young adults who wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity to get into communications, whilst its staff also work as mentors.
‘There are not very many opportunities for people without a degree but this is not just a London thing; it’s across the whole industry. The talent pool isn’t good enough. It’s got good people in it but there is not enough diversity. We need to start at the grassroots, encouraging people from different backgrounds. Start at schools and colleges. We’re committed to helping people into the industry who wouldn’t necessarily consider it.’
‘It comes out with the types of people we attract in the industry,’ adds Puente. ‘We’re good at attracting London but we need to make sure we still have roles for older people. We need to make sure we’re not intimidating, that we reach out to a broader range of institutions, reaching out when people are younger – make them see PR as a viable career when younger, see what drives them.
‘Many are priced out of London. Now it’s difficult to do internships, to be employed as a junior in London. Paid internships are still an issue, London agencies should make the effort. Otherwise people will choose other professions over PR because they are better paid.’
Chris Lawrance, managing director of JBP Associates, which has offices in Bristol, Warwick and Cardiff, as well as Manchester and London, believes that local knowledge is no less valuable now than it has always been. ‘You can’t pretend to know local stakeholders if you’re just based in London. People do value that local knowledge,’ he asserts.
‘I don’t think there’s a huge difference between those working in London and those working in the regions,’ says Tattersall.
‘What I will say is that being closer [to clients] gives us a deeper understanding of what makes them tick, particularly when it comes to media.’
It might seem obvious to say that different areas of the country have different needs but a lack of local knowledge coupled with London-centrism means that Londoners often tend to lump other areas of the country together.
‘The Northern Powerhouse, Bristol … these are big cities,’ says Lawrance. ‘They are big markets in their own right. They present opportunities beyond London.’
You can’t pretend to know local stakeholders if you’re just based in London. People do value that local knowledge
‘London tends to see London as the entire country,’ says Puente. ‘The challenges are very different in Manchester to what they are in Yorkshire. The North isn’t this big mass of cities. They are very different regions with very different needs and challenges.’ A diverse workforce from around the country would be much better at understanding business and political dynamics, she points out.
‘All regions and cities have their own bespoke opportunities and challenges,’ says Bron Eames, chair of CIPR Midlands and PR director at One Black Bear. ‘The Midlands media often quote examples where people in London don’t understand how Birmingham wants relevance when it comes to the news.’
Tattersall believes that there are already signs of de-centralisation with the BBC moving its Media City to Salford and Westminster making serious investment in the North. ‘The Government is championing the Northern Powerhouse, they are seriously putting cash and weight behind it,’ he says. ‘It’s encouraging that the Government is recognising that London is constrained in terms of growth; its infrastructure is already bursting at the seams.’
‘The London bubble was more of a thing ten years ago,’ he continues. ‘It’s shrinking as regions like Manchester are growing with investment. [The bubble is] more of a sector issue. It doesn’t necessarily have diversity, which is more of an issue for reaching out to clients than London versus the rest of the world.’
It seems London is soon going to have to get used to not being the centre of attention. Eames says that the 800 plus membership of CIPR Midlands is ‘buoyant’ and confidence in areas such as Leicester and Birmingham is at an all-time high.
Having worked in London, you do have a London-centric view of the world. London clients are quite surprised by what goes on in the rest of the world and the reality of life outside the city
‘Now is an exciting time to be in Birmingham. It’s enjoying a lot of investment,’ she explains. ‘We all need to do the region justice, showing what we’ve got in the locker. The main challenge is that we need to be consistent and confident. And maybe a little bullish. Put the bull in the Bullring.’
‘Having worked in London, you do have a London-centric view of the world. London clients are quite surprised by what goes on in the rest of the world and the reality of life outside the city,’ says Puente. ‘The rest of the country does function pretty well. People live outside of London because we choose to. It’s not education, it’s a choice.
‘Our client work is national. Consistently feedback tells us that our quality of work is higher than London agencies. We feel a real need to prove that we’re the same calibre. We work hard to prove ourselves. We don’t have the room to under-deliver in the way that some London agencies perhaps have.’
Perhaps it is time London got out more then. But it’s got to be more than often than the odd voxpop.
And it’s probably best not to mention to Bostonians that they live in the murder capital of the UK either. The bubble may just get thicker.
This article first appeared in issue 113