Panel discussion: how are regional virus restrictions reshaping ‘the North-South divide’ for agencies and brands?

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The United Kingdom has always been a more fragmented place than its name suggests. Now, with tiered regional rules being introduced to combat spikes in Covid-19 in many parts of the country, disparities between local economies have been thrust into the media spotlight once again. The Drum, in partnership with global media platform Teads, recently hosted a panel of expert commentators to examine how brands and agencies in the Northwest of England are adapting to survive and prosper despite the ever-shifting sands of virus-related restrictions.

The Drum’s head of content Cameron Clarke moderated the discussion, where he was joined by Guy Jackson, regional director at Teads, Sophie Parfitt, head of media and content at AO, Lisa Thompson, planning director of Wavemaker, Simon Lloyd, chief marketing officer of Ice Lolly, and Euan Jarvie, CEO UK and Ireland at Dentsu International.

Guy Jackson of Teads pointed out how many brands used the early stages of the lockdown period to reconsider their marketing tactics and, in some cases, reassess their relationships with agency partners. He said: “There’s been a lot of pitching going on. Given the opportunity to step back from the day-to-day and business-as-usual, brands have been asking themselves serious questions and putting out a lot of tenders for agencies to help them deliver on new strategies. I’ve seen lots of Northern agencies responding with real creativity, thinking on their feet very, very quickly. The companies that have innovated through this period and come up with more versatile solutions are the ones best placed to succeed when we come out of the crisis.”

One key topic discussed was whether the massive increase in the use of remote working (and its proven success) can help to ‘level up’ the prospects of Northern businesses. Ice Lolly’s Lloyd said: “The talent pool certainly is much bigger than before. We’ve sometimes had a challenge in trying to attract the right talent to work in Leeds. The Trans Pennine Express is a notorious commute, which isn’t for everybody. The fact that we are now working in this much more liberal, open way gives us new options. From a talent perspective, there shouldn’t be a North/South divide anymore. Smart organisations now understand that people are able to work well from anywhere, given the right support.”

AO’s Parfitt added: “Agencies are only ever as good as the people inside them. Having worked all across the UK, I think that junior executives are given the chance to develop much more quickly in London agencies simply because they are often working alongside industry veterans and they get to work with bigger clients a lot faster than their counterparts based in the North. As the Northern industry matures and more businesses opt to work with agencies and talent outside of the M25, I think that will sort of disparity will naturally start to disappear.”

Wavemaker’s Thompson made the point that the North-South divide was about more than simply the physical location of agencies: “Traditionally, I don’t think the adverting industry has been open to a lot of people, in that it’s been quite elitist and tended to attract people from a more affluent background. I grew up in Wakefield and wasn’t that aware of the ad business as a potential career when I was younger. Different perspectives and diversity-of-thought have been proven to increase revenue for agencies, so we need to become accessible to a wider range of people. That’s not just about getting offices outside of London, it’s about pathways into the industry.”

Dentsu’s Jarvie noted how, in every decade of his career to date, there has been an economic recession triggered by one crisis or another: “What’s new this time is the restrictions we’re facing. I think we can be optimistic though – we’ve already seen brands and agencies learn and adapt rapidly to the first wave of the virus. Whatever comes our way in the next phase of Covid-19 restrictions, we’ve now got the tools in our armory to be able to manage those shocks.”

You can watch the full discussion above.

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