Advertising, more than most industries, is shockingly London-centric – a trend that has intensified in the past 25 years because of globalisation. Nearly 32,000 work for the big six global agency groups in the UK (even after Covid-19 job cuts) and about 27,000, or around 85%, work in London, according to research by Campaign.
Geographical bias is greater among the three largest groups: 90% of WPP’s 10,000 staff and Omnicom’s 6,500 people and 95% of Publicis Groupe’s 5,000 employees work in London. Some of the top media owners are similar: 90% of Google’s 4,500 UK staff, 100% of Facebook’s 3,000 people and 75% of Channel 4’s 800 employees are in London.
The figures are stark given that the wider London area represents less than 20% of the UK population and this industry is meant to understand consumers across the country, although the city also plays an important role in serving international clients.
However, London’s status as the super-capital of the creative industries has been coming under pressure, even before Covid-19.
The Brexit vote in 2016 was a turning point for the Remain-supporting ad industry. The referendum undermined business confidence, exposed regional and national differences and made it harder to recruit international talent.
Coronavirus threatens to undermine London further. Seven months of working from home have shown the ad industry can function for an extended period without many needing to come into the office five days a week.
The capital has thrived as a creative hub partly because it has an unrivalled, critical mass of talent. Its appeal looks less certain as companies and individuals weigh up high living costs and long commuting times versus remote working and less need for global travel.
That raises the possibility that UK advertising, like other service sectors, could become a more distributed industry – with talent spread out more widely, as it is in countries such as Germany and the US.
Dentsu International, the big six agency group with the lowest proportion of employees in London (63% of its 3,175 staff), is an interesting example. It has a significant presence outside the capital, with offices in nine UK cities and towns, and it signalled in December 2019 that it is looking at more “near-shoring” – moving jobs from London to cheaper parts of the country.
Reshaping the creative map of the UK could bring benefits. When Solly Solomou, co-founder of LadBible Group, spoke at a Campaign breakfast in Manchester last year, he explained how it had been easier to build his digital publishing business away from the capital.
“If we were London-based, we would never have been a profitable business from day one,” he said. It was not just that “costs are lower” in Manchester. Being away from London’s media bubble meant “we weren’t pushed about” and told to operate in a certain way. LadBible quietly expanded and then “we were able to come to the table with a little bit more clout” in London, according to Solomou.
Covid-19 could also be a catalyst for creative jobs to be redistributed beyond these shores. Some of the new wave of disruptive agencies such as Oliver and Croud built a network of offshore talent before the pandemic. Dentsu also has a sizeable, pre-existing offshore workforce that it counts as part of its wider UK & Ireland team.
In addition to Dentsu’s 3,175 staff in the UK (2,000 in London and 1,175 in the rest of the UK) and 200 in Dublin, it employs another 490 people offshore: 200 in Barcelona, 190 in Bulgaria, 20 in India and another 80 “remote workers” whose location is undisclosed. Dentsu says that increases the headcount of the UK & Ireland group to 3,865 people, of which one in eight is based offshore.
There are countless reasons why creative businesses and talent will want to be based locally and stay close to culture. London remains a fabulous city and offshoring has many pitfalls. But we should prepare for the fact that Covid-19 could reshape not only the creative landscape of the UK but also the wider global marketplace.
Gideon Spanier is UK editor-in-chief of Campaign