December 7, 2010

Places other than London

A week or so ago, I was sitting in a sleek loft in Hamburg- a research facility in Germany’s most affluent city, watching the wealthy burghers talk about driving habits and luxury cars and products. Architects, ship brokers, doctors and business owners sat down to give us their opinions. One of the key questions our client wanted us to find out was what British meant to them, and what it could mean for a brand.
The answers were an eye opener for me, and they were not atypical, merely generated by Hanseatic misconceptions. Groups in Shanghai and Slough confirmed their views.

We had spent a long time talking to our client about the subtleties of the idea of ‘Modern British’ how we could align their heritage and their future through this lens, taking the ideas of the ‘new urban knight’ and the clever international image of Britishness- Zaha Hadid, Ozwald Boeteng, Burberry Prorsum, Jony Ive and use that to modernise the ‘Britishness’ that currently lingered around them, the Britishness of tweed and retrospective fantasies.

This subtlety was lost on all the people we spoke to, and these were affluent, intelligent successful and well travelled people. One memorably said that Sir Norman Foster’s Reichstag refurbishment wasn’t evidence of Modern British, it was international. To him, nothing modern could be British, the concept was an oxymoron.
Growing up as a Londoner, and working in a London agency has given me an altered world view. Apart from birth and a few months after, spent in Florida, and three years in walls at Oxford, I have always lived in London. I travel, but I have only ever called one place home.

But that one place has been London, so I have laboured under the illusion that its cosmopolitan nature makes me more worldly and wise. It means that I have been exposed to more different influences, but it doesn’t make me wiser. In fact, I would argue that for every single knowledge worker in the advertising industry, especially in London, is hindered by the huge blind spot that cosmopolitan urban living gives you. London is such an outlier, particularly in the UK- 10% of the population, 30% of the income, 50% non-British ( the national average is sub 10%). There is no other city in the UK that even comes close. It is completely atypical. Being based in London makes us potentially worse at our jobs. of course we need to be connected with the bleeding edge of cool, the opinion formers, the uber-mavens, but unless our target consumer profile closely remembers Nathan Barley, we would be wise to look beyond Soho, beyond Shoreditch and beyond the end of the Norther Line line.

I spent this weekend with a friend in Norfolk, and it’s not that different, but the conceit that it is all too easy to possess in the capital is debilitating. Whether where you live is the centre of the universe or not, it is important to understand that that universe will never be one homogenous grouping. I know that every time I leave the M25, I learn a little more about the customers that we are trying to connect with.