Would appointing a creative director solve Birmingham’s image problems?

Would following Manchester’s example and appointing a creative director solve Birmingham’s image problems? asks Angus Montgomery

‘It would have to be an eclectic, embracing, inclusive person for it to be a success. If it was a disciplinarian, it just wouldn’t work.’ Wolff Olins founder Michael Wolff is describing the ideal qualities for a creative director of Birmingham – a theoretical job at present, but one which creative groups in the city hope will soon become a reality.

The obvious follow-up question is, does Wolff – who has joined together with regional representative group Creative Republic to explore the concept of such a role – think he would be the man for the job? ‘I would be very interested if it arose,’ he admits. ‘I would like to work for a city – it’s something I’ve never done before.’

But the idea of having a creative director for Birmingham hasn’t developed simply because Wolff is on the hunt for employment. Stef Lewandowski, board member of Creative Republic and managing director of digital agency 3Form, says he started to think about the role of a creative director in 2006, prior to the city council unveiling its Big City Plan, an urban masterplan for the city centre to be developed over the next 20 years.

Lewandowski says, ‘The Big City Plan is an amazing opportunity, a 20-year plan affecting all the one million people who live in Birmingham. But there is a danger of it simply becoming a planning document.’

‘When Wayne Hemingway spoke at a council event before the launch of the initiative, he said it’s very important to leave breathing space in the plan,’ he adds.

Lewandowski says his idea of a creative director would be someone who could represent the user-experience of the city, while the planners get on with planning it. He also points out that cities that engage with design are more financially successful – they’re able to attract investment and retain graduates. It is clear that a key role of a city creative director would involve promoting the city’s brand offer, whatever that might be.

As Wolff says, ‘For whatever reason, be it football or anything else, Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool have a more charismatic feeling. There’s some great stuff going on in Birmingham that nobody really knows about.’

One man who could advise any new creative director for Birmingham, should he be so minded, would be graphic design legend Peter Saville, whose tenure as creative director for the city of Manchester has helped to give that city the ‘charisma’ Wolff refers to. Asked to define his role, Saville refers to himself as a ‘provocateur of progress’. He was appointed as a consultant to Manchester City Council in 2004, with the city wanting to build its brand image after hosting the Commonwealth Games two years earlier.

Andrew Stokes – chief executive of Marketing Manchester, which was set up in 1997 to promote the city on an international scale – was on the creative steering group that appointed Saville. He says, ‘We were looking at the brand values of the city, and we felt we needed someone to take the work to the next stage.

‘Peter took a different view from us – rather than come up with simply a slogan, he came up with an organising thought,’ he adds.

Saville says, ‘Cities don’t have logos – does London have a logo? Does New York? Where would you put a logo?’ Instead, he came up with the concept of ‘transforming Manchester from the first industrial city into the original modern city’, defining the city by its story and history.

This is an example of both the inspiration a creative director could bring, and the potential for rubbing city officials up the wrong way, by screwing up their ideas and starting again. As Stokes says, ‘I think Peter sees his role as occasionally being challenging. He says things that aren’t always popular.’ Saville himself admits, ‘I know I can polarise opinion.’

This is all well and good with a local authority as open and forward-thinking as Manchester City Council clearly is, but what about cities with elected mayors? Can you imagine London Mayor Boris Johnson butting heads with Saville – or his Southern equivalent – over design issues?

Johnson has gone down the route of recruiting a panel of design advisors, including architect Lord Rogers, to counsel him on urban design decisions, but the final say clearly rests with him. As Lewandowski points out, ‘If a city has an elected mayor, then aren’t they the creative director?’

Creative Republic and Wolff will be exploring the concept of how a creative director might work in Birmingham at an event in the city tomorrow. As Lewandowski concludes, maybe the job is too big for just one person. He says, ‘Perhaps the creative director is actually the creative community – perhaps it should be all of us, manifesting our civic pride.’

Birmingham – ripe for promotion

• Birmingham’s air, road and rail connections provide access onwards to 400 million people in the rest of Europe

• There is a labour force of approximately 1.5 million people in the immediate urban area

• Birmingham has the second-highest retail spend in the UK

• Major city centre projects totalling more than £10bn will create an estimated 40 000 jobs

• Birmingham was the first ‘BT wireless city’ and features the UK’s first-ever openly accessible free information zone

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  • Joe Huddleston November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    An interesting article and it sounds plausible. The city works well currently with a couple of the usual stuffed shirts but Birmingham has a good strong link to its past.

    Some cities seem over promoted for what they actually have to offer with a funny mix of derelict buildings and chic boutiques side by side.

    Birmingham’s’ spread has been slow and steady, with natural re-invention every 20 years or so. Perhaps appointment of someone to crack the whip, with less emphasis on flamboyance and marketing guff. Half the pleasure of a city is self discovery and its natural progression.

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