Tom Campbell’s recent article, The end of the creative classes in sight, serves as a timely introduction to The Fifth Sector’s event, Creating the city: can the UK export its creative model?, on 19th March. Both Tom’s article and the discussion panel at Creating the city are stressing the same point: the creative economy is not a one-way bet. Like any others, the future health of UK creative industries depends upon continuing to invest in relevant skills for employees and in seeking to harness the benefits of a diverse workforce rather than sweating the asset of a supply of graduates willing to accept lower pay, arguably worse working conditions and greater career instability than their peers in other professions in return for the buzz, the perceived ‘cool’ and, supposedly, the creative ‘freedom’ on offer.
At the start of the banking crisis that triggered the current recession, both Tom and I were working for Regional Development Agencies, in London and the North West respectively, where our role was to try to ‘grow’ the creative industries. For a brief time, it looked like our message was getting through: the creative economy, with its flexibility, its preference for openness and collaboration over corporate secrecy and hierarchy and its focus on the distinctiveness of the product rather than on short-term financial return, had the model that would replace the value lost by the failed financial sector. Moreover, it represented a better bet, as its sustainable growth would return long term investor value.
Sadly, inevitably, the creative economy proved not to be recession-proof. Just as in other industries, creative people lost jobs, companies closed, and with declining client budgets came more pressure on employees to produce greater returns from reduced resources. Much recently, and partly in reaction to the ‘crash’, public policy has focused more on trying to change the sector, to make it more ‘businesslike’ and therefore transparent to ‘mainstream’ financial investors. Diversity has been devalued: only one model and one location, Tech City, is widely promoted by UK government and investment agencies.
This is not a plea for amateurism. Tom and I have always shared the view that creative businesses, like others, need good management and access to growth finance; at the LDA and NWDA, we directed public investment to training existing and aspiring creative leaders and supported networking between creative businesses and potential investors. However, the sources of value in the creative economy are broadly based. To focus exclusively on technology and finance inputs is to ignore the competitive advantage bestowed by the UK’s distinctive mix of socially-provided infrastructure – of art schools, degree courses, publicly-funded theatres and, not least, the proven incubator of global talent and technological innovation that is the public broadcast sector, Channel 4 and ITV as much as the BBC. To attempt to produce ‘the next Facebook’ or ‘the new Google’ by seeking to squeeze every new creative idea into a ‘start up’ template in pursuit of a pool of venture capital that may or may not exist in UK financial markets risks undermining the very working practices and sources of talent that for years provided the UK with its creative ‘edge’.
This isn’t a Luddite argument. Technological and process innovation are critical success factors in every industry and again, I would argue that the creative industries are no different from any other in that respect. Indeed, in many ways its continuing relative success reflects its greater receptiveness to change than most of British industry. But if the UK’s assertions of global creative primacy are to be anything other than hubris, policy makers and investors need to recognise that leadership does not follow from copying business models from a US textbook. The UK continues, for now, to benefit from its uniquely mixed creative economy. Policy makers need to appreciate that, support investment in all its forms and understand that the resilience and ingenuity of the people who emerge from this scruffy milieu deserve a better opportunity than to manage the slow decline of the UK’s creative industries to the same middle-ranking position it occupies in so many other sectors where it once led the world.
Tom Campbell is an associate of BOP – the creative and cultural consultancy. He will be attending Creating the city, so I hope to continue the debate with Tom there, and with you either at the event or through these pages.