Creative Community in Stoke-on-Trent - Factory: Assembly

- Creativity

Last week saw the bright minds at CidaCo hosting the Factory: Assembly at the Victoria Hall in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. The Netbiz Group’s Ruth Oxley, Rich Urwin and myself were there to plunge right into the midst of the latest business development programme to emerge in support of Stoke-on-Trent’s creative sector.

After arriving early to a reception where business cards were traded over tea and coffee, we were soon ushered into the Victoria Hall’s auditorium. The room amass with circular tables laden with white linen, leaflets and charming trinkets that foreshadow our first guest speakers. We were soon seated between Sue Hailstone (of Hailstones Designs) and Esme Talbot (of Scruffy Little Herbert) – the room is packed, two-hundred strong – and so the preamble begins.

Our spirits are initially stirred by Anamaria Wills (CidaCo’s CEO) whose rousing induction sings the praises of the creative industry and touches on the completely different types of interaction that occur in the international climate’s creative-knowledge-economy. Quickly following is John Holmes (of Stoke-on-Trent City Council) who spurs on the introduction to greet our first two guest speakers.

Tatty Devine’s Tale of Triumph:


Founders of Tatty Devine Rosie Wolfenden and Harriet Vine promptly take the stage and leap feet-first into recounting a history of their company. What began in 1999 by selling their handmade jewellery at a Camden market has thrived over thirteen years to become an international brand with a world’s worth of success. A particular anecdote recounted here was when our speakers were working their day jobs and were asked, innocently enough, where the jewellery they were wearing was from. Of course, they answered – “My company made it!” At the time, they weren’t a company, but the person inquiring turned out to work for Vogue. The next Monday, Rosie and Harriet were presenting a quickly constructed collection at the Vogue offices. From there they maximised every opportunity to push the work they did to every ‘next level’.

A repeating theme that came up during Rosie and Harriet’s presentation was the way that ‘personalisation of product’ can be used as a positive force for marketing. Part of their enduring charm is the way all of their jewellery is ‘up-cycled’ to create a much more personal and handmade feel – as indeed their origins were. The progressions of this can be surmised in an excellent quote from them that highlights the way that we can do more to empower our ability to sell – “People are looking for experiences” – An entirely true observation that shows how the market is morphing. It’s important for us to do more than just market products; it’s not enough to market our product as an experience –the act of marketing itself must become part of the experience in its own right. This blends brilliantly with my favourite Tatty Divine that distils the essence of experience driven marketing:

“Create the narrative by which to sell – market the artistry.”
– Rosie Wolfenden and Harriet Vine, Tatty Devine

Next was the Factory Shop Panel, which focused on the way that creative industries work in concert with the NHS and how the NHS is looking to foster more of that success in the future; chaired by Hugh Evans with a panel of Marcus Warnes, Geoff Rowe and Melissa Nurcombe. Hugh prefaced the panel by highlighting the way the NHS operates now against the challenges it will soon face. In short: the NHS is currently working in a reactive mode, which is unsustainable, so it must switch to a more efficient proactive mode of practice. Acknowledging the difficulty of the task and describing it as a ‘spiral of complexity’, Hugh reminds us that the key to a functional proactive NHS is one where we can “consider the whole person, not just the disease”.

Marcus Warnes was next with a well-placed follow-up to discuss commissioning challenges at the NHS. The underlying tone here is the same – individuals working at a micro level, where we account for patients proactively on a person-by-person basis. Next came Geoff Rowe who, as the direct of the Leicester Comedy Festival, may have seemed out of place, but his work using comedy to expose health issues is an inspiring demonstration of how the creative sector can succeed in producing real results for the NHS. Geoff hits on the imperative point of breaking down what we do to the simplest level in a way that helps us understand and present complex issues in a ‘lay’ way; we must create the right dialogue to address hard-to-reach audiences about hard-to-discuss issues. Melissa Nurcombe closed the panel with a focus on the role of digital services and their use in digital acceleration for the NHS’s services, reverberating all of the previously made points while adding her preliminary success stories to the mix.

At the end of this panel I can’t help but pay attention to the repeated focus on people and patients as individuals and the role of social responsibility as being reminiscent of existentialist and humanist schools of thought. It’s important for us to keep on progressing in all of our fields:

“We can’t just become better at what we do – we must do better things.”

Creative Co-Working with Duke Studios:

After a brief coffee break (with more business cards and biscuits) we moved onto ‘The Next Big Thing’; a session by Laura Wellington, co-founder Duke Studios – a multidisciplinary creative space offering office studios and a supportive co-working environment. Much like the story of Tatty Devine, Duke Studios began from near-nothing. The ability of Duke Studios to cater to their clients stems from its founders’ stand-point of knowing their target audience because they are their target audience. The role of Duke Studios as a creative hub for Leeds further emblemises the strength that can be achieved by interconnected creative communities.

“Be your own target audience.”
 Laura Wellington, Duke Studios

One lunch later (comprising a delightful buffet – with notably delicious profiteroles) our masses split off into groups of our respective sectors to discuss the needs and concerns of our businesses; for our work in web design, we found ourselves in the ‘digital media’ group. Led by CidaCo’s Lara Ratnaraja, there were a number of points that came up during the seminar:

  • How do we, as creators, map the landscape(s) of our fields?
  • How do we best get new employees with our needed skills and how do we handle this in relation to degrees and apprenticeships?
  • The public sector is a growing source for creative contracts – how do we best capitalise on this?
  • As the racing pace of technology advances, the maw of the accessibility gap widens. How do we best maximise accessibility and engagement at all levels?
  • The Technology Strategy Board continues to be an exciting source of ideas and opportunities. Are we each making the most of it?
  • How do we deal with the perception of ‘competitor’ vs. ‘collaborator’ and how do we go about transforming people from the former to the latter?


Our last workshop was out of a choice of four, so my choice was Environmental Sustainability with Teo Greenstreet. With a powerful opening featuring the following poster we were reminded how, with 95% certainty, the actions of humankind are the principle cause of climate change. Given my nature as a cyber-hippie of sort, it’s equally harrowing to see the ‘deadening of our response’ when we’re presented with this issue. It’s up to us – all of us, not just the present creatives – to find a position between social need and marketing opportunity where we can both convey and correct this dilemma.

As the clock passed 16:30 we reconvened in the high hall of the auditorium to collate our findings from each of our boardroom sessions. Coming together, we were left with another list of prominent issues to consider that affect us all, regardless of sector:

  • With the rise of non-standard modes of education, how do we handle the feeling of being undercut?
  • Collaboration is key – but how do we best achieve it?
  • In a digital age with less scope for physicality, where do we find our customers and how do we reach them?

Closing with another short speech from Anamaria and with thanks given to all of our speakers and attendees, we were reminded of the importance of our roles as ‘adventurers of the future’ and the ability we all have to evoke change. Looking back on the successes of our speakers here, especially in the form of Tatty Devine and Duke Studios, it’s easy to shrug them off as being lucky in the face of raw risk. But there’s a truism to their achievements and the way they’ve worked that can be missed by the overly cautious:

“The greatest risk you can take is not taking risks.”

Netbiz Group are a web design agency in Newcastle, Staffordshire and provide services in eCommerce development, graphic design, SEOweb design, and web development. To find out more about us and our services, visit our website. To discuss any of our services with us, get in touch!

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