Britannia rules, but the rest of the world is catching up fast

The UK’s creative industries are thriving, but with international competition increasingly fierce, proper training can keep us world class, says Chris Ingram

There is increasing interest in the UK’s so-called creative industries.The reason for this interest is that the sector is growing at three times the national average and is a much bigger employer than many realise.

The generally agreed definition of “creative industries” covers nine sectors including advertising, media, fashion, design, music, arts, entertainment and architecture.Two million people are employed in these sectors, accounting for eight per cent of the UK’s gross domestic product. You should be feeling good: you’re in the right club. One final stat: we contribute &£21bn to London’s output alone – only the City leads us with &£35bn.

The sheer scale and growth rate of the sector has attracted the attention of government and quangos – Gordon Brown and Tony Blair have praised us in speeches; Ken Livingstone rushed out a brochure; the London Development Agency provides funding; and the Department of Media, Culture and Sport has a Minister for Creative Industries, James Purnell.

Why are so many climbing onto this bandwagon, if that’s what it is? Faced with the alternative, maybe it’s not so surprising. Manufacturing employment is in continuous decline; the shift to employment in retail and catering tends to be unskilled and low-paid and even this government realises not everyone can be employed in the public sector.

The vital point about our sector is that we capture a huge amount of added value – the price charged for a computer game has little to do with manufacturing costs, for instance. Yet,when manufacturing moves to China, or say Bangladesh, the reaction is often for the West to wail despairingly. However, if a pair of trainers is manufactured for &£2 but sold at &£40, who really has the problem? The brand owner and distribution channels have captured &£38 out of the &£40, and the creative industries will have played a major part in that.

We truly are world class – and don’t take my word for it. When Philip Dodd was director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) he hosted high-powered visits from politicians and businessmen from overseas, who wanted to discover London’s “magic ingredients” and bottle them to ship back home. They are worried about how to compete against low-cost foreign manufacturers with a seemingly endless supply of cheap labour, particularly as this labour is increasingly skilled and the quality of goods is fast improving

How have the UK’s creatives become the envy of the world, and how do we maintain that enviable position when the competition is going to be huge? There’s been no strategic plan, but history, geography and culture have played their part.

Notes from a small island Our colonising across the centuries has resulted in English being the lingua franca, something from which our businesses benefit without our noticing. And forget the political guff, many Americans really do like the Brits and it’s usually a comfortable relationship that enables a swathe of ideas to move between them and us.

The combination of a dense population and those amazing Victorians, with their feats in rail engineering, made the distribution of print media rapid and efficient. This, together with entrepreneurial drive led, uniquely, to big, influential national newspapers. This in turn attracted – and developed – the talent that led to our having the best national newspapers in the world. We have long moved on from print domination of course, but these were vital early roots for London as a media centre.

But more important than history and geography, is culture. Our island hasn’t been conquered for over 900 years and we are a very independently minded. Being independent means you can be different – often very different – without seeking permission.

In the UK, you can dress, you can act and – vitally – you can think differently and still be accepted. We don’t just tolerate eccentrics, we actually like them.

These are decisive ingredients for creativity and we don’t appreciate how unusual this is. The pressure in other societies to conform is often huge, particularly in North Asia, and this restricts the flow of “creative juices”. Of course, the new is often met with resistance here, but with persistence (and the British do obstinacy particularly well), you can zig when others zag.

Such ingredients got us off to a great start, but now the next vital ingredient is in place – the clustering of talent in concentrated areas. Big companies, from which come a constant flow of work and spin-offs; suppliers of all shapes and sizes; talent moving backwards and forwards and intense competition, particularly among skills and not just on price. Add educated new talent and a ready and sophisticated supply of finance and off you go. Examples of these creative clusters would be Soho and Covent Garden in adland. In television, the BBC is such a huge influence that it can create clusters by itself – when the BBC put resources into Cardiff, a new creative eco-system started to build around it.

The sincerest form of flattery However, this is where government is directly and indirectly helping: there are growing funds for training and development – and increasingly it’s being directed at our sector. It’s true that many in our business feel they’re too busy to learn, and that entrepreneurialism can’t be taught, but the idea is to stimulate, to share experiences, to learn from others’ successes and failures, to get some basic financial skills and learn how to protect intellectual property.

No, you can’t teach entrepreneurialism, but you can teach ambitious managers and owners to meet their objectives faster by making them smarter at business. â¢

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