Kathryn Bowditch, Director of Oxford-based agency Fourtold, on the benefits of leaving London for Oxford’s dreaming spires…
A man who is tired of London is tired of life said Samuel Johnson. A philosophy I fully bought into when I first arrived in Bloomsbury as an eager under-graduate determined to shake-off my small country town upbringing.
Fast forward 20 odd years and here I am heading off to the PR Week Awards with my Fourtold colleagues hoping to pick up the award for Best Agency outside of London. We may or may not win. There’s some stiff competition, proving what I am sure PR Week was hoping to show when it introduced the award this year. That the M25 is just a very busy road, not a barrier to great thinking and communications.
So, what happened? Tired of London or my eyes open to opportunities elsewhere? A bit of both. Clearly Samuel Johnson never had to experience the Central Line at 8am five days a week. Nor did he spend much time panicking if living 0.75 miles away from a school was close enough to ensure his child got a decent education.
And then there’s the pull factors. In the past, people felt by improving quality of life they would need to sacrifice quality of work. But when I made the move it was as much about having the opportunity to work with great clients and great people in a thriving new business. The easier commute was a bonus of course.
When communications meant just media and investor communications along with some public affairs, then London was the best place to be.
Now social and digital, employee and influencer engagement are as important – and can be done equally well anywhere. Added to this mix are technological developments and the ever-increasing cost of living in London all of which are pushing talented people to look for opportunities elsewhere.
These trends have accelerated in the past decade. Our team is delivering the kind of work that competes with any agency in London (or in any international city for that matter). We are working with a global Life Sciences business, managing its global social media and integrating its digital ecosystem following a multi-billion dollar merger. Along with an international financial services business to develop and increase its employer brand and a budding biotech business looking to tell its investor story. Clients like these were unlikely to look beyond London for this calibre of work 10 years ago.
Of course, there’s great clients outside of London too. Oxford – where I am based – is home to one of the most prestigious universities in the world (and publishing arm), home of the BMW Mini factory and a thriving world-class biotechnology sector. Every regional city will have examples of high profile and large organisations in need of specialist communications advice. A few years back the Oxford PR network was formed by two in-house colleagues at the Oxford University Press who wanted to provide support to the growing local PR community. It meets regularly and the first session I attended had the former Head of Communications at Oxfam to talk crisis management and was as good as any panel discussion I have been to.
But what about the talent? Isn’t everyone just attracted to the bright lights? Many are and many don’t feel they have any other option. Which is why I keen to highlight that London is not the only way.
Please don’t get me wrong, I feel privileged living so close to the one of the world’s best cities. But I appreciate it far more on my fortnightly trips to meet contacts, clients, journalists (or even the odd awards ceremony) than by doing the daily grind.
London will remain a magnet for many people. However, to best serve our industry and the people who buy communications services we need diversity – and sometimes this means offering a perspective from outside of the London bubble.
So, if you are a grad thinking of breaking ranks with your peers or a seasoned professional considering taking the plunge, go for it. London will be always be there if you need it. It’s just that it’s no longer the only path to opportunity and success. Oh, and the same applies to clients too!