Posted on: 15.01.2024

Does the creative industry have a North-South divide?

It’s only recently that we heard our neighbours on The Dock, Steph’s Packed Lunch, will be shutting up shop and ending their three year run on telly. This was very sad news, as it often feels like so much creative work is centred on London. The show was a great example of creativity moving north.

What’s the North-South divide?

Imagine a line that cuts England in half, leaving two very different sides to our culture, society and economy… and arguably that includes the creative industry.

Who’s the better half you may ask… after years of arguing as a country, do we even have an answer? Personally as a Southerner that’s defected to the North, I like to think I have a fairly balanced view on the argument. I love both sides! So I think it’s about time here at ilk, that we offer our collective two pence-worth. And for clarity, here’s where us ilksters fall…

What does that mean for creatives?

Noel Lyons (Chief Design Officer for NatWest) once said “I don’t think the divide is so much North/South as much as London/Everywhere else”[source], which makes a lot of sense since London is undeniably the economic centre of Britain. But are you missing out as a creative if you don’t work in London?

According to John Owens, from Instruct Studio Manchester, no. In fact working in the North might actually lead to a more entrepreneurial mindset due to financial constraints. “With this I see some studios being more experimental, multi-disciplined and with a real DIY ethic. There are far more freelancers, especially in digital, here in the North, which means studios can be more flexible in their approach to projects. The results of this are lots of collaborations.” [source] We’re all about collaboration at ilk, that’s for sure.

But the issue of money still stands. Are you financially worse off up north working as a creative? There’s always been the image of a working class ‘poor’ north, largely down to big shifts in investment and years of austerity. Thanks Maggie. But recently there’s been an increase in funding for the northern creative industry. In fact, over the next three years (2023-26) Arts Council England is injecting ‘£383 million worth of new funding for the North as [they] back creativity and culture for more people’. [source] This is great news for the North, as not only should it result in more opportunities for creatives, but also a real push to provide fair access to arts education for all. Not just for those that can afford it. (article here)

It’s hard to avoid the more obvious reason for choosing to work in London… the job opportunities. It makes sense that the economic centre of the country will also have a higher concentration of jobs with more diverse roles and high-performing employers. But this also means bigger competition as people fight it out to ‘make it’ in the big smoke. There’s a reason people call it the rat race, working relentlessly in competition with others for money, power and status.

This is something I’ve personally noticed to be different in the North. Don’t get me wrong, we’re working just as hard up here, but so much more of that work feels directed at achieving for our clients, not our own career advancement. The ‘underfunded’ industry of the North nurtures a much more collaborative and friendly environment. Everyone’s united to make the North a design capital instead of a competition for personal progression. 

That being said, personal progression and collaboration, in my opinion, come as a pair. This became so clear to me when I started at ilk. Continuing support from a mentor on my team as well as the other designers has seen my skill set and knowledge grow exponentially.

Bridging the gap.

After the years of arguing over which side is better, who’s to say we can’t just bridge the gap and bring everyone together? One big party! This is an idea that’s already in motion. ‘Local leaders across the North of England alongside some of the leading figures in the creative industries, have come together to commit to developing a ‘Northern Creative Corridor’ (NCC).’[source].

The main goal would be to connect the existing ‘clusters of creativity’ across the country, unleashing the true potential of creatives beyond location. But as the likes of Craig Oldham (Office of Craig) and Simon Forster (ECD and founder, Robot Food) have said in this Design Week Article, something like the NCC can’t exist without the infrastructure to support it. So I guess until the government is ready to invest in improving things like roads and public transport (looking at you, HS2) then we’ll still be here arguing amongst ourselves.

So which side’s the winner?

From what I can see, London is undeniably a cultural hub for art and design and does host some of the big hitter agencies in the industry… but so does the North! I think it would be wrong to say someone can’t make a name for themselves in design without having worked in London. It’s just not true! Especially in this day and age of remote working and increased online content, working location is becoming less and less important. You can still win big work from London based companies while operating in the North (just look at ilk rubbing shoulders with the likes of Aardman and BrewDog).

So I guess my real point of this argument is not picking a side, but to make people recognise the North has everything you need, and more! And if that sounds like your idea of a good time, maybe send a CV our way?

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