Profile: m-four

Manchester City Council’s in-house design group ups the ante for public-sector creativity – with a bit of help from Peter Saville. Scott Billings talks to creative director Ian Smith about creating campaigns that have a real impact on people’s live

Manchester is without doubt a creative heavyweight among UK cities. Musically speaking alone, the ’original modern city’ – as its creative director Peter Saville would have it – has spawned a number of triumphant movements and bands: Northern Soul, Factory Records, The Smiths, the ’Madchester’ era and, more recently, Oasis. Its share of successful design groups includes Love, The Chase, True North, Music and Code Computerlove.

Given its success in the creative and commercial arts, it is fitting that Manchester’s public sector should attempt to match this achievement when communicating with its citizens. This is certainly the belief of Ian Smith, creative director of Manchester City Council’s in-house communications group M-Four. Smith joined the department in 2008, about eight years after it was formed, at a time when its commercial services manager Paul Williams had decided to up the ante creatively.

’My background is in art direction in the private sector and when I arrived at M-Four there wasn’t a great deal going on here to dispel my preconceptions about what a public-sector in-house design department would be like,’ says Smith. Shortly after his arrival, however, the city council appointed Sara Tomkins as its first director of communications and since then the pair have set out to build a top-flight creative services ’agency’ operating from inside the council. Their aim, says Smith, is to turn out work that matches the best of the city’s private-sector design groups.

To raise the bar, M-Four began to recruit externally, bringing in people with experience of working in private consultancies who could foster the atmosphere of an independent studio. It probably does the team’s morale no harm that Saville pops in now and then to offer a guiding hand, in a role that Smith describes as ’executive creative director’.

Of course, unlike private-sector design groups, Manchester City Council provides M-Four with a high volume of constant work, only turning to rostered consultancies when there is overspill. So with 40 departmental clients handing M-Four communications work without a pitch, is it hard to maintain creative standards?

’We’re not spending time, money and effort on pitching for new work, but we still have to manage budgets carefully and prove our effectiveness,’ says Smith.

Everything here is measured really stringently because it has to be justified to the head treasurer that we are good value for money, now more than ever. And the spur to produce great work is really strong, partly because our customers are also us – we all live in the city – and partly as a matter of pride for me and the team.’

As a city council department, the bulk of M-Four’s work centres on services related to health, care and wellbeing – covering foster care, school truancy and crime. ’The stuff we work on makes a real difference to people’s lives – it’s not just selling a new iron or something like that,’ adds Smith. ’We’re working on services that generally improve the health, wealth and happiness of the city.’

One M-Four campaign to boost recruitment of foster carers led to a 52 per cent increase in enquiries, a result that could ease the cost burden of maintaining children in council-run care. Similarly, a vascular health-check campaign led to almost 4000 people requesting risk assessments for heart attack, stroke, diabetes and kidney disease. Almost two-thirds of participants subsequently began to change their diets, while the campaign itself received a nomination at The Drum Marketing Awards 2010 and won a 2010 NHS Manchester Improving Health award.

Smith says that M-Four’s work is also being well received by the creative community in Manchester and beyond, and claims that this is just the start of its journey. ’Longer term, we are trying to be seen as leaders in best practice in creative communications for a city council. It’s public money so our work really has to make a difference, but I also want external design groups to look at our work and be amazed that we are producing it in-house at the council, he says.’

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