Since moving back from London many of my chums in the industry have asked me what I think the differences are between Bristol and London digital agencies. I thought I'd stick my thoughts down based on my experiences working for E3 a medium size agency based in Bristol and Dare a large London agency.
I worked for one of the biggest digital agencies outside London - E3 and there is still a big difference in size to the big London players. I think E3 was around 50 people when I worked there, Dare was around 150 when I joined and were using anything up to 60 freelancers a month as they'd grown so fast! I found it a real challenge to get to know people in the same way as at E3. Both companies had great social outings, events, sports clubs and were full of great people but there was just loads more names and faces to remember at Dare. Which leads me nicely onto the next point...
Roles & responsibilities
Given that the big London agencies are larger than their regional counterparts it stands to reason that there’s more role specialisation. This was something that I took a little while to adjust to. Dare has a specialist planning partner, planning directors, campaign planners, social media planners, user experience planners and information architects - and that was just the planning team. I also found there to be significantly more roles in the creative department with specialist conceptors, art directors, copywriters, graphic designers, flash designers, animators, video specialists and so the list goes on...
My point is that in smaller agencies many of these roles are the carried out by one or two people, they simply wear different hats. This is both good and bad. The good is that you get consistency throughout the project and there is less need for information sharing, collaboration, handovers and there is less potential for gaps in responsibility. Also, by having fewer people involved it's generally easier to get things done quickly and at a lower cost. The bad bit is that specialists really are experts at their piece of the puzzle, often adding an extra level of thinking or innovation to the output.
In my experience one of the key differences between regional and London agencies is the investment made in serious thinkers. Having not worked with specialist planners before my arrival at Dare I thought it might be odd relinquishing some responsibility for the strategic development of campaigns from territories to propositions to performance measurement. In fact this turned out to be one of the best things about working for Dare and is actually one of their USPs.
Planners look after specific accounts and are specialists at all things relating to that account. They know the overall account strategy, they know the clients business, they know the clients objectives, they know the target audience inside out, they know what the competition is doing and they know what's happening in the wider industry so who better to develop the proposition for a given campaign? This isn't to say that account directors can’t do a fantastic planning job, in fact they are positioned so closely to clients that they may have an advantage over planners!
Again one of the luxuries of a larger agency is that you can give specific individuals the sole task of ideas generation. Conceptors are not required to be fantastic artists able to draw the most amazing scamps, nor do they need to be Photoshop pros. Rather they need to be worldly creative individuals with visionary minds that conger clever, innovative, engaging and exciting ideas. Traditionally, conceptors work in pairs with one individual taking on the copywriting responsibilities and the other taking on the art director type role.
My only reservation about splitting concept teams out as specific roles rather than drawing creative ideas out of the design pool is that it can take a while to get things turned around and the final output may not remain true to the original vision. On the odd occasion we'd spend a while cracking the creative idea (I'm sure not an uncommon issue when trying to achieve through-the-line campaigns) it could run up a significant concepting bill before we've even got into design. This meant that production budgets and timescales could get squeezed and ideas might not get produced to the original vision.
This point is most likely to be a general large agency issue but it just seemed like we were able to get more work done in a shorter time at E3. I think this is primarily a size problem, the bigger the agency the more role specialities and the more time it takes a piece of work to progress through the various production stages of the agency. Being larger somehow seems to amplify the resourcing issues – Dare invested in 3 full-time studio trafficking staff and some serious long term planning but on occasion found it hard to be as flexible as smaller agencies might.
In London the industry scene is much more developed with agencies really getting together behind organisations like the IPA. This is starting to happen in regional hotspots – Bristol Media are doing a great job for creative agencies in Bristol but I'm not sure if this exists in many other regional cities!
People connectivity is also closely tied to industry connectivity, in my experience it seems like movement between jobs/companies seems both more frequent and more acceptable in London. Most people have worked a number of other agencies as there are more employment opportunities due to the volume of agencies. This leads naturally to an inquisitive workforce often posing the "do you know Joe Blogs at XYZ agency" question. This open working culture can only be good for all - the good people get to be known as do the bad ones!
To conclude I think there’s both good and bad points to working in regional and London agencies. Ultimately the specifics about how individual agencies are run are what make the difference, not geographical location. I'm fortunate to have worked with some people at great agencies.
That's it for my two cents worth!