Could the UK pass the Amazon test?

There's a clear danger that the UK will be left behind in the global competition for new industries, Y&R's global president warns.

Arguably the biggest pitch of 2018 is Amazon’s search for its HQ2, a second headquarters away from its Seattle heartland, promising the creation of 50,000 jobs and $5bn (£3.7bn) in extra local revenue to the lucky winner.

Depressingly, perhaps, only US cities are on the long shortlist with the exception of Toronto, just over the Canadian border.

Of the 20 named all have had to demonstrate the talent base, infrastructure and transportation links required for arguably the world’s tech leader – plus a variety of sweeteners. Business is business after all...

All the usual suspects are there: New York, Chicago, Austin, Atlanta, Washington DC, even Nashville. No Detroit alas, which may be a PR opportunity missed. It may be that, after this, there’ll be an Amazon HQ3 on a different continent.

Facebook and Google have big operations in London, of course, despite the latter’s quaint insistence that it does most of its European business in Ireland.

But, what if Amazon had chosen to cast its net wider, outside North America for this particular search?

Would any UK city cut the mustard? I fear not.

It’s pretty clear and concerning that our major cities don’t have the scale to host a massive new Amazon HQ. London is a great city but the traffic is gridlocked; new transport systems like HS2 and Heathrow expansion take decades to even escape the drawing board with the inevitable huge increase in costs (although Crossrail is almost finally here); and the cost of housing is prohibitive, even for well-paid software wizards.

The same is true, in varying degrees, of our other major centres such as Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh.

It’s not all about Amazon of course. But, as a country now grappling with the nitty gritty of Brexit (and it seems to be getting nittier and grittier by the day), there’s a clear danger that the UK will be left behind in the global competition for new industries.

Like it or not, both money and talent follow the opportunity – creating, nurturing and scaling the businesses of the future is looking harder than ever on an over-crowded island that is slow to adapt to the times.

This will be compounded by severing some of the links to continental Europe which, in the form of the EU, at least gives us access to a market as large as North America.

So the Amazon test, even if it’s not currently looking outside America, is an interesting one. British businesses have shown many times over the years that they can, sometimes, triumph over adversity.

But as we move towards the second half of the 21st century and a radically new economic landscape, the UK needs to up its game if it’s going to have a chance to win some of these massive global pitches and attract the diverse talent base we, particularly in the creative industries, depend so much upon.

David Patton is global president of Y&R


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