West life

For whatever reason – a strong local economy, incomer graduates whocan’t bear to leave, or freedom from the stresses of life in the capital – the creative sector isthriving in Bristol. Clare Dowdy talks to some of the major players

I like working with Reach is that they are just like a London consultancy, but without the sting of London prices.’ So says Ryvita Company marketing director Rob Murray, on the home page of graphics consultancy Reach Design’s website. As pleased as he is with Reach’s work, Murray’s comment seems to hint at one downside of being based in the regions.

While lower overheads can translate into lower fees, they can also attract a sort of semi-retirement approach to work. Especially in a city like Bristol, which has such a good quality of life.

But much effort is being made here to shed this image, not least through the newly formed creative industry network Bristol Media.

‘This is a perception-changing exercise,’ says Bristol Media chief executive Mike Bennett. ‘It’s not about moving here when you’re ready to semi-retire. You can’t build a dynamic create sector on lifestyle businesses.’ He does acknowledge, however, that both business models can happily co-exist.

Because the fact is that most people working in the creative industries in Bristol are ‘incomers’. Many of them studied here, either at Bristol University – which is said to have the highest number of students who stay after graduating of any UK university – or at the University of the West of England, which pioneered digital design, and partly explains the high number of digital consultancies in town, like Bennett’s own digital group E3.

Animation is also well represented, with Oscar winner Aardman Animations based in town, and a new School of Animation which opened at the UWE last month. Graphic designers are out in force too, with consultancies including Reach, Taxi Studio and Dirty Design. Interior design gets less of a look-in here, and 45-strong Kinneir Dufort is something of an anomaly. Not only is it a product design group, but it has been around for three decades.

‘In our own way, we’ve flourished,’ says Kinneir Dufort’s managing director Jim Orkney, who arrived in the city himself 22 years ago. ‘If you’re doing the right kind of work, maybe the place doesn’t matter.’ Hence, perhaps, the new stadium seating designs the consultancy has done for the London 2012 Olympics.

As he points out, 35 per cent of his consultancy’s work was overseas last year, and many of his clients are based in the South West anyway. According to Bristol City Council, the region is home to more than 17 000 businesses, including the national headquarters of more than 160 companies.

For young consultancies, these local businesses can be a rich vein to tap. Ten-strong Dirty Design was set up five years ago by Charlotte Hockey and Josie Harold. It has a number of arts clients, including Bristol’s biggest live music venue, Colston Hall, and Arnolfini, a waterside contemporary arts centre. These venues, along with the Watershed, boost the creative life of many Bristolians.

And the designers themselves are often located in pretty inspiring working environments. Around 30 incubator design businesses are part of the creative mix at Spike Island, a converted 1960s Brooke Bond tea factory.

Meanwhile, over in Brislington by the River Avon, the Paintworks is a revamped light industrial estate housing a host of established consultancies, including E3 (which was ranked fifth UK digital consultancy in Design Week’s 2007 Top 100), along with a shabby-chic restaurant, Bocabar. The plan is to have the whole site completed in four years’ time, when 4000 people will be based there. At the moment, it’s over-subscribed, and phase two, an Art Deco building, is due to open in August.

With all this activity, it’s no wonder, perhaps, that the creative sector in Bristol and the South West accounts for 12 per cent of all local businesses and 5 per cent of all local employment, according to Bristol Media. These creative businesses are helping fuel the healthy economic state of Bristol – the country’s eighth biggest city. The city council says that Bristol’s GDP per head is higher than that of all other UK cities, bar London, and higher than continental conurbations including Berlin, Madrid and Rome.

If creative personnel didn’t study here, then they may well have been lured down from a London consultancy. That’s all well and good, until work slows down. Then there’s a risk that if redundancies have to be made, all those recruitment agency fees and relocation costs will have gone to waste.

Bennett – clearly an ideas man with plenty of energy – believes Bristol Media has come up with a solution to this. He put together a brainstorming session with a handful of the organisation’s 3000 members, which resulted in a ‘people sharing’ concept. When a consultancy has down time, rather than letting staff go, it can offer them out to another – busier – consultancy. That group would pay the staffer’s salary, which would be cheaper than hiring freelances. ‘If it works for Bristol, we can roll it out for a licence fee,’ says Bennett.

Bennett is convinced of the creative sector’s potential here. ‘I can address the barriers to growth here through Bristol Media,’ he says. ‘If you have more companies that grow big in Bristol, it will attract others.’ For all the perceived lifestyle businesses in Bristol, there are clearly some ambitious people.

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