London's creative exodus: has the capital lost its edge?

The cost of living in London has risen almost 40% since 2008
The cost of living in London has risen almost 40% since 2008

The rising cost of living, combined with the digital revolution, is challenging London's position as a creative capital, writes Nicola Kemp

London is now the world’s most expensive city in which to live and work, with the cost having risen almost 40% since 2008

As clichés go, Samuel Johnson’s assertion that "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life" is well-worn. Yet the legion of creative men and women, struggling to exist in the city they love, may well argue that they tired of London exactly when they wanted to start a life. A life involving quality time, space, family and property ownership, a goal that appears nigh-on impossible to achieve for those trying to exist on the unpaid internships and abysmal starting salaries that litter the creative industries.

London is now the world’s most expensive city in which to live and work, according to estate agent Savills, with the cost having risen almost 40% since 2008. The number of young adults in the UK who live with their parents has risen by a quarter since 1996. A total of 3.3m 20- to 34-year-olds did so in 2013, according to the Office for National Statistics, the highest number since 1996 (the earliest year for which comparable statistics are available). Unable to get on the property ladder, and putting marriage and children on the back burner, millennials are in danger of living a life permanently on pause.

These stark facts were presented on London’s billboards as part of a research project by the University of the Arts London into how the city is changing. Responses included one from a freelance film-maker, who is moving from West London to the Netherlands and asked: "What creativity can there be when only money can buy you your next opportunity?" A digital marketer planning to relocate to Australia warned: "London will be a ghost town without culture in the near future."

Millennial meltdown

With the cost of living topping the media agenda, many businesses feel they need to take a more proactive role in addressing the pressures facing millennials. Last September, accountancy firm KPMG joined forces with the Clydesdale Bank and Yorkshire Bank to introduce preferential mortgage rates negotiated by the firm. It believes the cost of buying property in London is putting young people off living and working there, which hurts companies’ ability to attract and retain talent.

However, Bill Scott, managing director and talent manager at creative agency Grey London, reports no such decline in interest from graduates, who, fuelled by their desire for a creative life, continue to eschew the better-paid sectors such as banking.

Indeed, while many Londoners love nothing more than discussing the prospect of fleeing the capital, the vibrancy of city life continues to be a significant draw for young people. Julia Errens, assistant editor of media and marketing at trend forecaster Stylus.com, contends that while there is a huge focus on the creative industries’ dismal record on diversity, in reality, the economic and social challenges have not diminished the emotional pull.

Family values

Nonetheless, agency chief executives report that this lure doesn’t always last long. In fact, the creative exodus is more of an issue for young couples, who want family-sized homes near good schools and are finding it impossible to afford to buy somewhere to live. While the focus has remained on how best to attract millennials, a vital pool of talent is flooding out of London’s creative industries as people abandon the capital in their mid- to late-30s.

I love London – my career was massively fast-tracked by being there. I just think my life is better now that I don’t live there.

It comes as little surprise, then, that the industry is awash with tales of executives who have cashed in their London life and properties for residences in the countryside or provincial towns. It is a shift summed up by Mark Oakley, a former Zipcar marketer and now the COO of Bristol-based mobile and social company Daredevilproject.com. "I love London, my career was massively fast-tracked by being there," he says. "I just think my life is better now that I don’t live there."

According to Errens, while the appeal of urban living is relatively undiminished by ever-increasing property prices, the shift toward different lifestyles demands a corresponding change from the creative industries. "When you look at some of the great ads of recent times, from Tiffany featuring a gay couple to Sport England’s ‘This girl can’, they focus more on what consumers’ lives are actually like, not what they want them to be," she explains.

Businesses must embrace flexibility and integrate more choice and freedom for employees, rather than rely on outdated models and hierarchy to attract and retain the best talent.

Thomas Brown, director of strategy and marketing at the Chartered Institute of Marketing, says that while the cost of living in and commuting to the capital is rising, young marketers’ priorities are changing. "Money isn’t everything; there is a greater emphasis on organisational purpose and corporate social responsibility. Smart organisations, from Sky to Diageo, have recognised this," he adds.

Finance directors’ hearts may sing with the assertion that CSR is as important as salaries but, if the industry truly wants to embrace the diversity it has waxed lyrical about for so long, assessing salaries in the context of the capital’s increasing cost of living must be a priority.

Cheryl Giovannoni, CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, says employers have to ensure that the talent they hire is representative of a broad spectrum of the population and that new recruits are not just the children of wealthy parents, who are able to subsidise their salaries and pay their rent.

In fact, diversity is a key strand of new IPA president Tom Knox’s agenda for the next two years. He has pledged to create a league table of agencies’ diversity demographics to track exactly whether agency staff reflect the diversity of Britain today.

Creative capitals and digital futures

With space at such a premium and living costs so high, there is also a question over whether the next generation of creative talent needs to be based in London at all. In the digital age, it would be too easy to surmise that the idea of ‘creative capitals’ is imperialistic and out of date. Yet many in the industry believe that they remain vitally important for driving innovation. "There is always the pull of a creative centre of gravity, whether that is Shanghai, São Paulo, Singapore, London or New York," says Scott.

London also benefits from its eclectic population. Jacques de Cock, faculty member at the London School of Marketing, says that the UK capital is one of the most diverse cities in the world. "Not only is the city becoming less British but it is also less English," he argues. "This change is making London agencies more competent and credible on the international stage."

We need to break down the old-school boundaries in favour of structures that empower the individual to be as entrepreneurial as possible.

There is no doubt that the pressures faced by businesses and employees are stronger in the capital. Jeannette Pritchard, CEO of consultancy JPC and co-founder of creative campus Ugli, says that a common theme in start-ups is the stress involved in achieving growth. "From finding talent to finding affordable space, there are economic pressures in London that need to be addressed," she points out.

Pritchard believes that one of the ways the creative industries can address the pressures faced by both business and individuals is to embrace a more nurturing approach. She explains: "We need to break down the old-school boundaries in favour of structures that empower the individual to be as entrepreneurial as possible."

This more nurturing approach to business is not just about CSR, it is also becoming a business necessity. When Roisin Donnelly, brand director of Northern Europe at Procter & Gamble, publicly hit out at the lack of female creatives – especially those who are mothers – it became clear that businesses need to attract and retain a diverse talent pool.

Cultural change

In fact, there appears to be a risk of a ‘culture clash’ between marketers and an agency landscape that remains wedded to a London-centric and unforgiving culture of long hours and packed diaries. With executives buckling under the strain, some forward-thinking agencies are already trying to redress the balance.

Grey London’s Scott says the industry must stop equating hours spent in the office with commitment. "What I respect is that when you absolutely have to leave the office at 5pm to collect your child from nursery, 5pm is an unmovable deadline and the self-policing required to meet it is refreshing," he explains. In essence, rather than being a burden, the focus on the hard deadlines of childcare can have a positive effect on a company’s culture.

Indeed, Errens says that while the focus is always placed on millennials, the demand for greater flexibility is just as relevant to baby boomers and Generation X. The fact that space is now at such a premium in the capital means this is the time for companies to develop more creative, flexible and agile ways of working.

The concept of a creative exodus from London may well be overblown but there is little doubt that pressures, whether on time or finances, are exacerbated by living in the city. Yet these pressures also offer brands the opportunity for a creative reset, one that many believe is overdue.

 


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