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UK's Northern Silicon Valley Upbeat Despite Brexit Uncertainties

Spurred by the regional redeployment of the BBC, northern England has become something of a global hub for the ever-burgeoning digital and broadcast content industries, but will the ill wind of the looming EU exit scupper all that?

Photo: The hub’s hub: MediaCityUK has become ground zero for northern England’s media resurgence.
The hub's hub: MediaCityUK has become ground zero for northern England's media resurgence.
Photo: The hub’s hub: MediaCityUK has become ground zero for northern England’s media resurgence.
The hub's hub: MediaCityUK has become ground zero for northern England's media resurgence.

In recent years, the north of England has become something of a hub for the media and marketing industries – a development celebrated by Prolific North Live 2018 (PNL 2018), a two-day event held at EventCity in Manchester. Alongside a full programme of talks and seminars, this third edition of the event played host to a wide range of exhibitors from around the UK.

A telling sign of the region's post-industrial transformation is MediaCityUK, a complex occupying the site of the former Manchester docks and now home to an array of media players, including two national broadcasters – the BBC and ITV. Explaining why PNL has now taken on such prominence, MediaCityUK's Asset Manager, Lynn Haime, said: "We're at Prolific North Live to talk to people about the destination, what's going on at MediaCityUK and what kind of occupiers we've got down there. It's quite a hub for creative digital technology businesses and it's a major destination in its own right. A lot of our tenants have their own stands at the show.

"For our part, we're on the cusp of our 'future development' phase. Our existing estate is just over half a million square feet and we've got another half a million square feet to build out. Some of that will be demand-led and some of it will be built out to accommodate the growth of companies that we've already got on site."

One existing MediaCityUK resident is Eko 4 Global Services, an award-winning digital company specialising in market internationalisation. Vess Christoph, the company's Managing Director, was bullish about its offer, saying: "We have an in-house translation team and in-house development teams. We're able to create an online strategy, develop a design and then actually optimise it for different countries, which is quite unique."

Having established itself in MediaCityUK in 2015, Eko 4 Global Services now has offices in London and Boston. For Christoph, being located in Manchester was key to the company's initial success. He said: "Because of things like the business growth hub happening in Manchester, we've been able to get the skills together to become an international company in just three years. If we were in London, we probably wouldn't have become so successful in such a short time."

Christoph sees MediaCityUK as 'the Silicon Quays', a reference to California's Silicon Valley tech nexus, and is convinced that UK governmental support has been instrumental in its success, saying: "I've worked in Stockholm, Boston and Miami and they're all growing their own Silicon Valley, but there isn't that government incentive that supports companies coming in – holding workshops, getting the European money and the local council money, actually putting them into business."

In theory, Eko 4 is interested in developing ties to both Hong Kong and mainland China, but has encountered a number of difficulties along the way, with Christoph saying: "We tried it. We did the research but finding the right partners, working with agents and finding our way there is tremendously hard. We'd hope to expand into those markets in maybe three or four years' time."

Several exhibitors at Prolific North were based outside northern England. Marke Creative Merchandise, part of the worldwide Staples group, for instance, is based near London and creates bespoke merchandising programmes. Outlining its current offer, the company's Business Development Manager, John Chambers, said: "We work with SMEs and blue-chip companies as well as with a lot of international companies. Once we understand the brand, the values and the marketing message they want to get across, we then come up with a programme of merchandise to help develop brand awareness."

Marke Creative deals with all kinds of merchandising, from the traditional to the cutting edge. The idea of 'brand impressions' is central to the business – the actual number of times someone will see an item with a company's logo. In line with this, Chambers is convinced that branded tech accessories are now vital when it comes to building awareness.

Photo: Marke Creative: Brand impressionists.
Marke Creative: Brand impressionists.
Photo: Marke Creative: Brand impressionists.
Marke Creative: Brand impressionists.
Photo: Teads’ online video work for Forbes.
Teads' online video work for Forbes.
Photo: Teads’ online video work for Forbes.
Teads' online video work for Forbes.

Expanding on this, he said: "With smartphone technology, even if it's a fan that plugs into the bottom of your phone, a power bank or a charging cable, the reason that they're so popular is that the average person now looks at their phone about 500 times a day. That's a low estimate too, as it's such a highly seen product."

Despite such upbeat sentiments, he acknowledges that certain industries and markets are finding the current climate difficult and have tightened their marketing budgets. Clearly seeing this as a mistake, he says: "It's getting through to companies that, when finances are tight, that's when they should be spending the money and promoting their business. For us, overall there's still good growth in the marketplace at the moment."

Another internationally minded company exhibiting at the show was Teads, a software company specialising in online video advertising. Expanding on the role its services play in the overall marketing mix, Operations Manager Desiree Nicholson said: "We're the inventors of Outstream. We provide publishers with a player that allows them to monetise where it previously wasn't possible.

"It's all about the viewability of the video. Our format only begins when it's in view and when the video is out of view it pauses, so it's 100% viewable. We place the video within an article, within professional editorial content. Where previously we were monetising video in terms of putting it pre-roll, we now put it out-stream so that it can generate additional revenue."

Originally founded in France in 2011, Teads is now a market leader in its field, with about 80 offices across the globe and a range of major clients, including Vodafone, the telecoms giant. Bullish about its British business prospects in particular, Nicholson said: "Our UK office is in London and we also have a branch in Manchester. We are expanding and our business here is growing fast."

Similarly enjoying something of a purple patch was Hedgehog Lab. Founded in 2007 and based in northeast England, the company specialises in the design and development of mobile apps, while also offering corporate Internet of Things solutions and augmented reality / virtual reality services.

Emphasising the importance of the company's location, Head of Commercial Services Chris Brock said: "Being in northern England is paramount for us. We've got a truly thriving tech community but I don't think enough people know about it yet."

With an average annual growth rate of 67%, Hedgehog Lab was recently named by The Northern Tech Awards as one of its top 100 fastest-growing organisations, while Inc magazine has listed it as one of Europe's 5,000 fastest-growing companies.

In light of this, Brock was understandably bullish about the company's international prospects, although he did outline a few concerns over the UK's future trading relationships, saying: "While we're doing really well over here in the UK, and have six other offices, including operations in the US, Denmark and India, we don't know how Brexit will affect us just yet.

"I was over in Brussels recently and I met with the Department of International Trade out there in order to test the temperature. We would like to push on within Europe so we're excited, but a bit apprehensive, too."

Hedgehog Lab is eager to explore the post-PC world beyond the field of mobile apps and was recently involved in a major virtual-reality presentation for the forthcoming Great Exhibition of the North. As the innovation partner for local utility firm Northumbrian Water, it has consulted as to how the company and its customers might make use of Amazon's virtual assistant, Alexa. It has also co-operated on a government White Paper considering how the Amazon Echo could improve the lives of Alzheimer sufferers.

Brock also feels sure that Hedgehog Lab has much to offer companies in Hong Kong and mainland China, saying: "We know that there are very talented developers out there, but when it comes to apps I think the one thing that they are lacking in and could look to the UK for is user experience and user interface. It's globally acknowledged that the UK is at the forefront of graphic design. So, what a company like ours can export is beautifully designed native apps."

Photo: Prolific North Live 2018: Annual showcase for northern England’s increasingly diverse digital sector.
Prolific North Live 2018: Annual showcase for northern England's increasingly diverse digital sector.
Photo: Prolific North Live 2018: Annual showcase for northern England’s increasingly diverse digital sector.
Prolific North Live 2018: Annual showcase for northern England's increasingly diverse digital sector.

Prolific North Live 2018 expo took place from 28 February-1 March at EventCity in Manchester.

Catherine Jones, Special Correspondent, Manchester

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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