LBB’s Alex Reeves immerses himself in one of the UK’s most creatively vibrant cities
This summer, the city of Bristol teemed with reminders of some of its most iconic creative creations. ‘Gromit Unleashed’ sprinkled over 60 custom-made statues of the mischievous hound, his hapless inventor of an owner, and the pesky penguin Feathers McGraw across the city. It was a reminder to residents and visitors that, although Wallace and Gromit may live in a fictionalised plasticine version of Wigan, they were born from one of Bristol’s most illustrious creative institutions - Aardman Animations.
Co-founded in 1976 by animation pioneers Peter Lord and David Sproxton while they were students, the studio specialises in animation and over the decades has turned out arguably the most famous stop-motion work ever made. Apart from all the Wallace and Gromit films, they made Chicken Run (the highest-grossing example of stop-motion animation ever), First Man, Flushed Away and hundreds of charming commercials and short films. “Aardman is an institution and a great asset to Bristol,” says Scott Griffin, partner at visual effects studio nineteentwenty, which has offices in both Bristol and London. The animation giants’ creative output puts the city on the creative map like no other business. “It does have a big impact on the identity and culture of the city,” agrees Jenny Boyce, digital consultant at Fat Media.
Jason Fletcher-Bartholomew, head of new business and executive producer at Aardman, notes that the company’s presence has had its impact on the city over the years. Now a whole cluster of animation companies exists in the city, fuelled by the same creative spirit that made Wallace & Gromit.
But, more broadly, film production in the city goes back even further, Jason adds, all the way to the ‘40s, when the BBC set up its Natural History Unit there. From this headquarters, the corporation has turned out some of the most breathtaking nature documentaries ever made, including Planet Earth II, Life in the Snow, Autumnwatch, and Elephant Family and Me. There are a number of other big natural history production companies in the area as a result, says Jason.
“The foundations of Bristol’s creative and media industry started with the BBC’s world renowned Natural History Unit and of course Aardman,” reiterates Sam Hearn, managing director at Omni Productions. “And from there, over the years hundreds of smaller branding, digital and tech companies have resided. The production industry here has always been strong. Bristol is home to some of the most talented creative and technical production teams in the world.”
It’s not just nature documentaries like Planet Earth and animations like Wallace and Gromit though. Tom Joyce, creative director at Sound Canvas, acknowledges the city’s healthy film studios such as Bottle Yard Studios, where period dramas Poldark and Broadchurch, to name a few, are filmed.
Creative industry is really what defines Bristol, it seems, but with emphasis on both words in that phrase. “Bristol’s a city of creatives and creators,” says Chris Giddings, marketing manager at Synergy Creative. “You can see that from Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge right the way through to Aardman Animations, Banksy and the leading-edge tech startups coming out of the city. It’s a really progressive city to live and work in.”
Along with Portishead and Massive Attack, these are the key Bristol name checks. The mischievous and elusive Banksy is one of the biggest household names in contemporary art today and much of his early street art is hidden around the city. Get a train in on Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway, take a walking tour looking for Banksys and end up at the one 100 yards from the Aardman studio, and you will have absorbed a good sample of what makes Bristolians proud of their city.
Dyson, famous for its vacuum cleaners and hand dryers, emerged from nearby Malmesbury. “As one of the world great innovative companies, it’s an amazing company to have here,” says Dean Robinson, head of VFX at Electric Theatre Collective’s brand new Bristol outpost. “4creative has also just announced that it’s moving its main creative hub down to Bristol from next year which I’m sure will have a massive effect on the type of work we have coming in.”
Bristol is a city looking forward, with an innovation and start-up scene that everyone there is keen to champion. “I can see companies like Open Bionics and Ultrahaptics being world-leaders in their respective fields but we’ve also got some established [tech] businesses like IMDB, Groupon and Just Eat with ties to Bristol,” says Chris of Synergy.
“I think it’s that mix of high startup growth combined with a talented workforce which creates such a positive business culture in the city and makes it quite unique compared to other cities,” says Fat Media’s Jenny. “There’s a huge mix of clients from large multinationals to small independents, all are supportive of the local industry and I think that’s key to the city culture. Bristol has a business sector which flourishes because businesses work with and support each other - this helps companies expand and makes it a great place to start up a firm.”
Electric Theatre Collective obviously felt this draw from the city, opening there in October this year. As Dean explains, the Bristol branch is aimed at supporting the growth of ETC’s London and LA offices, while keeping quality and creativity as high as is expected from the company.
“It’s absolutely booming,” says Dean, who had previously worked in London and New York. “It’s one of the biggest startup hubs outside London. Recently while we were looking at deskspace we looked into a number of spaces such as Desklodge, and they were bursting at the seams with tech startups which is so inspiring to see.”
This isn’t a coincidence. The city has an unusually supportive infrastructure for new businesses. Sam from Omni points to an abundance of enterprise zones and spaces for new businesses to grow. “I would say, notably for the tech and robotic firms coming out of the universities, there’s some amazing businesses growing. For instance one of our clients, Reach Robotics, has secured major global investment and has partnered with Apple - I think this is perhaps where the most exciting developments in the city are emerging, and is something we should all be proud of.”
Prophecy Unlimited’s office is right in amongst this community, just over the river from the Engine Shed innovation hub, which CEO Pete Brown says is “thriving”. And with the city of Bath just a short train ride away, the city has access to the SETsquared Partnership community – a collaboration between the universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey with partners in enterprise activities. “The recent iteration of the DisruptSW
index from Adlib demonstrates the wealth of commercially-minded thinking that will be the catalyst for regional growth in the months and years to come,” he adds.
If your new business is looking for space there are plenty of good options. “There are great creative hubs like Paintworks, Here and Temple Studios where lots of creative companies have space under one roof,” observes Scott. This allows for an interesting workflow for nineteentwenty, whereby their main hub of VFX artists are in Bristol and they have a London base for client reviews and meetings. It’s a great cost effective way of working for them and their clients that seems likely to grow if the UK economy remains so geographically unequal.
There’s also a very simple reason to choose Bristol over London. Omni began with what Sam says was “a very small amount of investment capital”, but it lasted them. “It was clear this would have lasted only a few months in London but in Bristol it gave us an opportunity to establish ourselves and stand out. Bristol was then, and is even more now, a thriving hub of creative activity.”
Tom from Sound Canvas often thinks about the differences between Bristol and London: “It comes down to money really. With the high rents and overheads of London comes a high pressure, competitive world that wasn't for me. In Bristol, without crippling overheads, I have found more space and time to be creative and collaborative, without so much pressure to focus on commercial work to 'pay the bills'.”
All of this adds up to momentum for the city’s creative business community. “Bristol is renowned for creativity and has become a creative and tech hub,” says Pete. “Over the years, other agencies and networks have set up in Bristol so the pool of talent, both within agencies and brands, has grown significantly. Bristol has a much greater pool of great people now compared to 15 years ago, when I moved here. Organisations like Bristol Media and events such as Vision Bristol and Social Media Week have all played their part.”
This draw has yet to pull in the advertising agencies like you may expect, though. As part of McCann Worldgroup, McCann Bristol is the only global network agency to have an offering in the South West, stresses Andy Reid, managing director at McCann Bristol and chair of the IPA. McCann’s been there for 25 years and Andy for 15. He’s become a champion for the city in that time. “For me what makes it unique is that Bristol is entrepreneurial, growing, relentless, authentic and approachable. As chair of the IPA, I believe that an agency’s regional location should be no hindrance to delivering national and international success,” he says. “It can also be a real advantage when gauging the mood across the nation not just in our capital.”
Prophecy works closely with the Digital Marketing Association and Graeme Robertson Trust to develop links with colleges and universities, delivering events such as Fresh Blood and the Big Book Crit - designed to encourage and motivate the talent of the future.
There’s a lot of talent already there, it should be noted. Sam points out that there’s also a wealth of talent which naturally comes from Bristol’s two universities. “Graduates decide to stay and fall in love with the city,” he says.
Andy offers a more detailed perspective on the local talent market: “Bristol is well supported by junior grad level recruits that are fed through from some of the universities in the area, and it also attracts an influx of senior staff moving out of London. However, with the economic situation being as it is, we are finding more and more individuals applying for middle management roles where their skill set may be too specialist and they struggle to find the right position. I would also say that planning roles are particularly under supplied in Bristol and the region.”
But the city wasn’t always booming like this. Jason from Aardman has worked in Bristol for 14 years. “The media industry has changed quite a bit in that time,” he says. “Lots of media companies closed their regional offices back in the ‘90s, leaving a big hole. But over the last few years some have seen the errors of their ways and are now in the process of moving back into the regions.”
Pete has a similar outlook. “Bristol has become a second city to London in a way it wasn’t when I first moved here, 15 years ago,” he says. “Back then, Bristol was seen as a South West outpost; now it’s grown to become a centre of excellence in its own right.”
In Sam’s view, the combination of startups and established brands is driving this status: “Aardman Animations goes from strength to strength. Recent Unilever acquisition Pukka Herbs has just invested in new premises, and the ambitions and proposed additional infrastructure from the likes of Bristol Airport and Bristol Sport show the world stage ambition of many flagship Bristol businesses. HMRC are constructing a new building just a few doors down from the Prophecy Unlimited office - so if the taxman can spot an opportunity, then all things business in Bristol must be booming, right?”
Record numbers of Londoners are moving west
, but Jason’s conflicted about the effects of this boom. “I’m not sure I want to entice more people to Bristol! From a purely selfish point of view the less people that come here the better!” He’s joking, but worries about losing the benefits that its size creates. “I think it’s very welcoming and has a very caring, community feel to it. We have a great working relationship with our partners and there are a number of local initiatives and meet-ups, such as the Royal Television Society. I think there is a community spirit in the creative industry as a whole. I would suggest that’s a major reason why Channel 4 are opening one of their creative hubs in the area.”
“Bristol’s an amazing place to live and work in the creative industry, just don’t tell too many people!” echoes Chris at Synergy, who made the move from the capital three years ago. He loves the city’s “tight-knit creative community, partly because it’s a smaller city, but also because there's a bit of a collective camaraderie for Bristol agencies that take on London’s big boys. It’s also made me realise that you don’t have to be in London to work on those big brands your mum’s heard of!”
Dean made the move even more recently when ETC opened in Bristol just a month ago. He’s found that everyone wants to work together to make Bristol grow and become as big as possible in terms of advertising power. He’s enjoying his move: “It doesn't matter that everyone works for different companies and across different fields, they all seem to have a togetherness which is refreshing as you don't find that in the bigger cities,” he says.
Outside of work, there’s plenty more drawing people to the city. And Jenny has a lot to say to draw the various arguments together: “The sector has grown because Bristol has such a good quality of life. That’s acted as a draw to bring businesses and talent outside of the greater London area to set up in Bristol.
“The incredible thing really is the amount of business opportunities in Bristol, which is comparative to working in London, yet the experience is quite different being far less frenetic, with a smaller, more supportive business community.
“There’s such a range of arts, culture, sport, music and a fantastic food and drink scene, which is the match for anything in bigger cities like London. It combines this with good career opportunities and also more affordable living. Bristol really does have something for everyone.”