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Last Updated: Monday, 16 January 2006, 15:44 GMT
Creative industries head east
By Sumant Bhatia
BBC Newsnight

During the United Kingdom's presidency of the European Union, Tony Blair urged member states to whip their economies into shape to meet the challenges not only of the United States but the growing threat of India and China.

A camera crew in India

Conventional wisdom used to say that emerging economies would make the "cheap" stuff, while advanced nations would do the complicated creative work.

But that notion has never really been true. Japan and South Korea have proved nations can quickly move up the economic pecking order; now the likes of Brazil, China and India are making their mark in aviation, electronics and computer programming respectively.

But surely the United Kingdom has a few advantages over other nations, especially in the creative industries, from advertising to design?

It's just under a tenth of our economy, and has a fearsome worldwide reputation.


Sir Martin Sorrell
Sir Martin Sorrell thinks UK creatives aren't as good as they think
Nothing is fancy about WPP's offices, apart from its Mayfair address in London. This group, which didn't really exist 30 years ago, is now one of the world's largest media services companies.

And when its bespectacled boss, Sir Martin Sorrell, says we're creative here in the UK, but not half as good as we think we are, people take notice.

Sir Martin's view is simple: collectively there are more than two billion people in both India and China - by the law of averages there must be some extremely creative people there.

His firm is already outsourcing graphic design and animation work to 24 hour studios in Mumbai, and moving Indian executives around his global empire.

Cutting edge

However, what about the cutting-edge creative work?

The prime minister's message to be afraid, indeed very afraid, of the emerging economies, hides an opportunity
Well, we found an example of a New York-based company filming American adverts in India; and then there's Shamin Desai, one of India's hottest ad directors, and a man who would not look out of place among Britain's ultra trendy set.

He helped storyboard and shoot two UK adverts for Saatchi's, and ended up being offered a job in London.

Sir Martin Sorrell is more gushing in his praise of Britain's design houses that shape and fashion everything from products to corporate identities and logos.

It's a view shared by Sir George Cox, chairman of the Design Council. In his recent government report, he recommended shaking up our complacent firms by teaching them the benefits of better-designed products, and endorsed the roll-out of a national scheme that would see UK companies pairing up with designers.

Grand plans

But what happens when emerging economies understand the design mantra too?

Live elephants used in Shamin Desai's ad for Cobra
Live elephants were used in Shamin Desai's ad for Cobra
Two hours south of Mumbai lies a distinctive black-and-white striped house on the outskirts of Pune.

Inside, Elephant Strategy and Design has grand plans to be a global player within a decade - it's already doing projects for multi-national giant Proctor and Gamble. It's even designing luggage for the UK market.

However the prime minister's message to be afraid, indeed very afraid, of the emerging economies, hides an opportunity.

Both India and China are presently growing at breakneck speed, and that means chances for British companies to aggressively sell their products over there. So far though, we've been very poor at doing it!

Playing by others' rules

Ad director Shamin Desai and Elephant co-founder Ashwini Deshpande are both massive fans of UK creativity.

Director Shamin Desai explains his work to Sumant Bhatia at his home
Ad director Shamin Desai screens his work at his Mumbai home
However Ashwini has doubts whether the distinctive British design techniques will work in India, without some local "tweaking"; of course she's willing to help our firms!

So what does all this mean? Well, we'll have to start learning what makes Indians and Chinese tick, and play by their rules.

WPP's solution is the traditional British one: buy up local firms (it now owns a half of India's advertising industry for instance).

Cobra Beer is indeed a UK company, and its boss, Karan Bilimoria, says we have a distinct advantage over other nations pouring into India: namely our one million plus British Asians who have a better cultural understanding of the country, in theory at least, than our French neighbours, for instance.

And that, I'm guessing, secretly pleases Mr Blair!

Sumant Bhatia's report ran on Newsnight at 2230GMT, Monday 16 January, 2006, on BBC TWO.


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