There is no doubt that the profile and reputation of Scottish agencies is on the rise. A decade ago Scotland was seen as a place to house regional agency outposts; today the picture is quite different.
Not only is the market dominated by home-grown agencies, as opposed to the London outposts (which have practically disappeared), but Scottish agencies are making their presence felt in England, and particularly London.
It could be argued that, had it not been for the fickle nature of some Scottish clients and the fact that several major companies based in Scotland have fallen prey to foreign ownership, this expansion of Scottish agencies might not have happened.
About 18 months ago, Bank of Scotland moved its business to Conquest – part of the WPP Group network – in London. Both Scottish Widows and Scottish Power have moved their main advertising accounts out of Scotland. In addition to this, some Scottish-based clients are now owned by English or international companies and this has led to a shift of marketing departments and decisions away from Scotland.
Stakis Hotels is now owned by Hilton and the marketing department moved to Watford; Kwik-Fit is now owned by Ford and although it is still marketed from Scotland, there is speculation about how long this will last. Other examples include Clydesdale Bank and Alloa Pubs, where changes of ownership have affected where and how marketing decisions are made.
All this has meant that Scottish agencies can no longer rely on the loyalty of Scottish-based clients or their dependability. In order to sustain any kind of growth, Scottish agencies have been forced to compete on a national scale. It would seem that this imperative to cast their nets much wider has been the boost that Scottish agencies needed.
The top Scottish agencies now boast an impressive list of clients from south of the border. The Leith’s client list includes Grolsch, Carling and Honda Civic, Yellow M has the Conservative Party on its list, Faulds has Auto Trader and Weight Watchers, and The Union has Velux.
But despite these successes, most Scottish agencies will admit that they have to work twice as hard to get noticed by a large, England-based account and the big debate at the moment is whether or not to have a London presence. The Leith is the only Scottish agency with a London office, which it opened last September. Yellow M has what it calls a satellite office on Shaftesbury Avenue, initially to provide support for the Conservative Party.
Most of those agencies that do not have a London office admit to seriously considering the move. But many are unwilling to make such a big commitment unless they can guarantee the work to support it. Of course, opening a London office does fly in the face of one of the major benefits of hiring a Scottish agency – lower costs.
Brian Crook is managing director of The Bridge, which handled the national business for Express newspapers until its recent change of ownership. He says: “It would be naive not to see value as one of our strongest assets. Our cost base is much lower, both in terms of property and human resources.
“We can treat a piece of business that is worth &£10,000 to &£20,000 a month very seriously. We took on some business from a client who was paying &£85,000 a month to a London agency and needed to reduce costs. The business came to us for &£25,000 a month.”
Crook does see the danger in only competing on price, but confirms what many people believe about Scottish agencies – that for much less money you can still get a serious and experienced approach.
“Because we are used to working in a smaller market, we are used to thinking laterally in terms of media and production and are forced to make budgets go further. We are used to making a &£1m budget go a long way. In Scotland, a &£500,000 account would be guaranteed very heavyweight thinking. Ten years ago, when I worked in London, a &£500,000 account wasn’t considered worth bothering about,” says Crook.
Another element changing the way in which Scottish agencies work, is the fact that people entering the advertising industry at a younger level no longer consider London as the only place to be. Practically all the principal directors of the Scottish agencies have significant London experience. These directors are able to attract talent from London – people who are interested in a better lifestyle and who no longer consider London as the centre of the advertising world.
The Union managing director Ian McAteer says the culture of Scottish agencies is much more entrepreneurial and aggressive than it used to be. “Scottish agencies used to suffer from a lack of self-belief. But we are attracting more and more people who have worked in London and are experiencing a much more aggressive culture.”
Faulds managing director Stephen Gardiner agrees: “The lifestyle in Scotland is becoming more attractive to young, bright marketing professionals working in London. The fact that we are now able to attract good senior people from London speaks volumes for the health of Scottish advertising and the shift in the power relationship between London and the regions.”
Nevertheless, among clients there still seems to be an instinctive desire to gravitate towards big London-based agencies, and Scottish agencies, despite raising their profiles, have to battle against this.
McAteer says that compared with his experience at Saatchi & Saatchi in London, his agency has to work much harder to establish its credentials and “get people to believe in you”.
In an industry where perception is often far more important than reality, Scottish agencies say that their networking abilities and business-development skills need to be much more aggressive and carefully honed.
Yellow M managing director Ian Wright says: “For clients that are based in London or use London agencies, Scottish agencies have to work really hard to persuade them that they can generate the same buzz and atmosphere. We can hammer London agencies on service and cost issues, but we struggle against the intangible atmosphere of being in and with a London agency.”
“But,” he adds, “I would much rather pitch against a London agency than a Scottish one. We have a much better chance of winning.”
More cynically – but probably not unrealistically – Crook at The Bridge believes clients’ decisions about where an agency is based have to do with their own career progression as much as anything else.
He says: “There are a couple of issues that clients face when choosing a Scottish agency. The first is that it is a high-risk option for them. No one is going to tell them that choosing a London agency is a risky option.
“There are also some clients that would see having a Scottish agency as taking away one of their distribution channels for their next job. If you are part of the London scene, the networking and CV options are much greater.”
Ultimately, it is clients that will provide the key to long-lasting changes in attitudes towards Scottish agencies. The reality is that Scottish agencies probably conduct more multi-lingual and pan-European work than most of their London counterparts and are as well versed in the art of national advertising as anyone.
Agency heads like Wright hope that UK clients will follow the example of those in the US, where they have begun to move to where the best agencies are rather than the other way around.
He says: “The big US agencies all used to be based in Madison Avenue. Now there are good agencies all over the place and clients there are prepared to go where the good agencies are.
“I think that in five years’ time, you will find the same happening here in the UK and clients will be prepared to travel to where the good agencies are.”