Would it surprise you to learn Western Australia is more than mines, sand and the ghosts of Australia II and WA Inc?
How about if someone told you they have as advanced a creative industry as the big eastern cities have — more so in some respects?
Despite being as close to Bali as they are to Bathurst, West Australians have embraced the technology age as avidly as the rest of Australia. They’re producing advances in creative and IT fields that are considered world-class, let alone worthy of national attention. Ironically, it was the mining industry that drove the IT economy in Perth, investing heavily in technology before the bubble burst.
The Big End of Town
As in every market, the lion’s share of professional advertising work goes to the small number of big guys. In this case, Marketforce and The Brand Agency dominate West Perth (the WA equivalent of Military Rd, Neutral Bay), but leaner, midsize agencies like Vinten Browning, 303 and MJB&B are always nipping at their heels.
Between them, the top 5-10 agencies enjoy the spoils of most corporate budgets like TVC work and large campaigns. But just like in Sydney and Melbourne (and London for that matter), the traditional agency is devolving into a smaller, leaner beast and outsourcing is becoming the order of the day instead of maintaining expensive inhouse facilities for every possible function.
One or two interstate names like TMP and Adcorp are present, but they seem to concentrate on below the line work. Not many eastern or overseas companies have seemed very interested in owning chunks of the Perth industry in the past, but with the recent purchase of 49% of The Brand Agency by John Singleton Advertising, that might start to change from now on.
Large agencies in need of specialised services are more than catered for. Directories of creative services list more support services to advertising and communications than you can shake a stick at, from photographers to post production houses. And they’re not fly by night operations in someone’s computer room, either; many are pioneers in their field with international reputations recognised everywhere from the Caxtons to Cannes.
WA has a thriving feature film industry, for example, and the number of film and sound services that cater to it (as well as the television market) are staggering. Companies like Cyclops and Sauce produce the best known material on local TV, and outfits like First Light and Double G have equipment and services that wouldn’t be out of place in Hollywood.
There’s a broad cross section of long-established printing services with plenty of experience in large commercial work, and they somehow seem to avoid the buyout bloodshed that plagues the eastern market.
Only two major daily papers are produced in Perth. The local version of The Australian is printed at Perth Print and the West Australian is printed at their own Osborne Park complex. So even though there are no Chullora-style behemoths around, techniques and technology are up to the minute. Large quality operators like Lamb, Hero, Daniels and Supreme can handle large jobs with all the bells and whistles such as CTP, PDF transfer etc.
The small off-the-street digital print chains like Snap are also widely available, along with independent locals like Discus and Haymarket.
Designs on Small Clients
One thing Perth has a lot of — a lot — is small agencies specialising in design, web development, marketing, advertising, communications, public relations, all or any of the above and everything in between.
For a city of only 1.5 million people, you can look through the Yellow Pages, on the web or in the industry guides and find hundreds of operations ranging from one or two man bands up until the 7-10 staff mark. Above that there seems a ceiling — there are few operators between them and full service large agencies.
Many agencies are just a public name for a one or two-man team with one or two large repeat clients and little hope (or interest) of taking work away from the big guns with 50 or more staff.
They compete for the array of print design and web work (yes, a lot of it is in mining) and there are some major award winners known for quality. Outfits like Design by Marco, Egg and Chemistry are run by people who’ve been in the industry a long time and ridden out Perth’s seasonal work droughts.
And if they aren’t enough, operators with the means and facilities behind them are getting into the act more and more, including the publishers of weekly business paper WA Business News.
Perth is also the birthplace of some of the world’s most recognisable design names. New York based Deanne Cheuk is from here. And after making waves with some of the biggest names across Europe and the US respectively, Perth natives Tanya Sim and Mark Braddock have returned home to set up Block Branding. They still maintain a lot of overseas clients; the reason they came home was a belief they could service accounts across the globe effectively from Perth.
We frequently see work coming out of WA that rivals that of Seattle or Soho, and having taken up Internet access and other connectivity technologies as hungrily as the rest of Australia (more so in some cases), Seattle and Soho-based designers are often the ones who notice.
An example of how much western designers love what they do is a small publication called Smooch. Run by two local designers — one from print and one from web — it was conceived to tap into the humming undercurrent of creativity among the graduates and workers of WA’s design community. Surprising even its founders, submissions are coming from every conceivable corner of the globe, and local work stands up to the best in the world.
One area where WA meets and possibly exceeds its eastern cousins (certainly in pricing, often in expertise) is web development.
There’s a handful of big multimedia/internet marketing agencies that seem to do well, and an army of one man bands or collectives who club together and produce internationally-regarded work (both in design and development).
While the old school (pre-April 2000 crash) Sydney web development agencies continue to implode under crippling cashflow problems (and consequently reposition themselves), most WA web companies use their leanness to morph into providers of newer or related services. According to anecdotal evidence, one large agency (Webfirm) is reported to have over 200 websites in development at one time.
But what makes the difference is the expertise of the people. Name any Internet technology — WA is full of people who know it backwards and TAFEs and unis are churning people out (far too many for the industry to employ) who know php, SQL and running a mail server before they’ve even seen the inside of a commercial operation.
Companies like Bam Creative and Vivid Interactive consistently combine eye-catching results with strong technical savvy, and (typically of Perth creative enterprises) offer print and branding design too.
There are still a few old style independent newspapers, but West Australian Newspapers Ltd virtually owns the length and breadth of Perth with the West Australian — the only major daily in WA — and the Community Newspaper Group, which it owns 49.9% of (News Corp owns all but the rest).
There’s a hip movement of underground and street press, mostly owned by small specialist publishers who cater to everyone from the gay and lesbian market (Shout) to the music, movies and club scene (Xpress).
Because of the ubiquitous reach of the Sydney-based monthly consumer market, few consumer magazines are made in Perth, but some niches of local knowledge, tourism and lifestyle allow for a handful of female-targeted glossies such as Scoop Magazine.
All four major TV networks have facilities here, and there’s a staple of community and regional networks. The Perth radio market (having been virtually created by a single man — Gary Roberts — who started three of the four major stations in Perth) is not unlike any other capital, although the recent launch of cheeky upstart Nova FM has shaken things up.
Where to from here?
Perth is a small and fairly tightly stitched up market. Eastern agencies who come over and throw their weight around don’t do themselves any favours.
There’s an undeniable gulf between east and west in most business. Easterners usually don’t think Perth has anything particular to offer, and Perth knows it suffers a poor cousin syndrome, and so doesn’t put much effort into hawking its wares east.
So where does that leave the creative industry? Mostly, it services itself in a smoothly running intrastate mechanism. There have been (and still are) attempts to look to Asia for trade, but plenty of Australian investors have been burnt trying to work in such a different business culture. Plenty of eastern multinational branch offices as well as WA locals have discovered Asia to be a huge but notoriously difficult market to crack.
Increased trade in creative services between WA and the east is more likely as the world gets smaller and communication easier. Taking cues from the web development community (always the first to overcome barriers of distance), Perth creative businesses have an ever-increasing opportunity to realise they have national-standard talents to sell to the east. When they do, eastern clients will realise they don’t need to fork out enough for a week’s rent in a trendy Paddington flat for good quality work.
It’s easy to forget that WA is part of Australia when it comes to business — there’s a strong belief that Sydney is where the action is (particularly in Sydney). And WA does have a small sandbox to play in — with the dizzying but unyielding Asian market on one side and the enclosed eastern markets on the other.
But in terms of creative quality, that works in their favour. They face as much competition for less clients who don’t have eastern budgets to throw around, so it’s a matter of improve or go bust. Perth creative agencies can’t specialise too much, so that makes them work harder and learn more tricks of the trade (to be able to offer them all from under one umbrella) — resulting in high quality output.
So can Sydney and Melbourne expect a western invasion? It’s hard to say, but WA has the expertise, technology and experience to be giving the eastern creative services a serious run for their money.