Digital People: An Interview with Matt Desmier, Wise Old Uncle

Monday, 20 January 2014


With over 20 years in the creative industry, Matt Desmier really does know what he’s talking about.  With a finger in every digital and creative pie in the South of the UK and beyond, Matt’s reputation as the ‘man to know’ has been validated time and time again through his contributions to the advancement of the Souths creative community, such as his founding role Silicon Beach and his relentless consultancy work for the Souths leading agencies.

Matt let us pick his brains and grab some insights into the blossoming growth of Dorset’s digital community and just why the deep South is starting to compete with the Capital on even terms.

How would you describe your role in the digital industry in just 145 characters?

I’m a fixer. A little bit like The Wolf from Pulp Fiction, except that I work with aspects of the digital economy and not assassins.

Why should people be sitting up and taking note of the digital community in Bournemouth & Poole?

Because it’s a vibrant, thriving community with a lot to offer.  There are some fantastic agencies, doing some brilliant, innovative and effective work.  There are also some great in-house teams, from some internationally renowned brands, doing some impressive commercial work too.  There are some clever software and technology offerings too!  But it’s not just advertising and web design either.  Some of the financial service companies in and around the town are producing some world-class products and services, proving that digital is simply a way of life now.

What would you say the biggest advantage for agencies working in Bournemouth & Poole?

They are in the right place at the right time.

Attitudes have changed towards working with agencies outside of the metropolis and also towards working IN agencies outside of the metropolis.  This means that a region such as Bournemouth & Poole that is rich with agencies and big name brands (such as Lush, Sunseeker, LV=, Animal, Farrow & Ball, Nationwide, JP Morgan, Merlin Entertainments and others), and which is also well served by two leading creative universities; is placed in the right place at the right time.

With the Local Authorities recognizing the inherent value in this naturally occurring commodity, their support is only going to amplify the effects.

Plus we’ve got a great community around here.  Events such as Meetdraw, B&W Meet, Dorset Digital, Hackbmth and Silicon Beach, all help stimulate that community, making it an even more appealing place to be.

It’s a good time to be working in the digital economy in Bournemouth and Poole.

and the disadvantages?

Hmmm? I’m an eternal optimist who constantly sees the world through rose-tinted spectacles, and so I try not to think too hard about disadvantages.  It might sound clichéd, but they’re all potential opportunities to me.  However, the pragmatist buried deep in my psyche would name a disadvantage related to the advantage I’ve outlined previously, insomuch as there are many other towns and cities the length and breadth of the country who could claim similar USPs, i.e. lots of great agencies, indigenous businesses, terrific universities and supportive local authorities – rendering them not unique at all.  If we, Bournemouth and Poole, become complacent and don’t take note of the potential of other regions, we could become unstuck.

The game has changed completely with regards to where the creative expertise lives.  So much so that agencies that once used to compete for work now need to work together to attract briefs into the region regardless of who might eventually win them.  This requires an entirely different mindset and even with the great community and myriad of events we have and the attempt to create this collaborative culture, I’m not wholly sure we’re there yet.  Time will tell…

Why do you think the digital community has gone from strength to strength on the South Coast?

Well there’s no denying it’s a nice place to live and that has a lot to do with it.  The relevant proximity to London also helps, as does the broadband infrastructure (although that’s a fairly recent development).

But the real strength has come from the convergence of a number of things and not any one on its own.  These include (but are not limited to):

–       The success of indigenous businesses such as Redweb, Amuzo Games (formerly 4T2 Multimedia), Thinking Juice, Bright Blue Day and the businesses that have spun out of them.

– The specialisms of the two universities and the quality of the graduates that they both produce.

–  Operations such as The Enterprise Pavilion, the Executive Business Centre, the Open Device Lab and their staff therein.

– The dogged determination of a few key people and organizations giving their time and support to events such as Meetdraw, B&W Meet, Dorset Digital and Hackbmth.

And the more we’re able to shout about Bournemouth and Poole as a viable place to launch and sustain a business, the more we’ll be able to grow the sector.

How important is Bournemouth University & AUCB in developing the next generation of digital talent?

I think both universities are incredibly important when it comes to developing the next generation of digital talent and I think it would be hard to deny that they’re doing a brilliant job of doing just that.  However, I think there’s a fundamental issue about how both institutions engage with the “local” community if collectively we’re all to make the most of the opportunity.

Now, bearing in mind I spent 5 years working within one of the institutions and so to a lesser or greater degree, I was part of the problem, I don’t think anyone is particularly at fault here, its simply that the issue isn’t being acknowledged as an issue.  AUCB has one of the best graduate employment records in the country and their market place is international.  Equally, the relevant media-based courses offered at BU are highly regarded within the industry and their graduates enjoy careers in some of the worlds leading creative businesses, so from the perspective of the two universities – where’s the problem

The utopian view is that the world-leading businesses employing the graduates will all one-day be based locally and I’m not necessarily saying that this is not the case.  However the perception is that the best opportunities exist elsewhere – so the issue is, how do we change that perception?

And is that the role of the universities, the creative community or someone/something else, i.e. the local authorities?

How supportive has the local authority and Bournemouth & Poole council been in supporting the digital community as a whole e.g events, business funding, student learning?

Ha, I’d be biting the hand that feeds me if I said they were anything other than excellent!  But I do understand that there might be some others who perhaps don’t share my view.

At a macro level, it’s quite easy to dismiss the perceived lack of intervention from the authorities as them not being that interested and as such they’re missing out on a golden opportunity.  However, I think they’re both in a Catch22 situation to do anymore than they already are and therefore it’s incumbent upon the community itself to help the local authorities and themselves as much as they can.  For instance with the likes of Sunseeker and Lush based in Poole, both of whom employ 000’s of staff, the biggest economic contributor to that local economy is manufacturing and in Bournemouth it’s the financial services industry.  And between the two towns, tourism employs an awful lot of people and brings in a lot of revenue.

Because they have limited resource, if we, as a digital community, want the local authorities to focus their attentions on our wants and needs, then they will have to apply less resource to those other aspects of the economy.  But if they do that, then those other economic drivers might go elsewhere and we’ll potentially be worse off.

I think both Bournemouth and Poole Local Authorities want to support the digital economy as much as they can, and via Dorset LEP, the Digital Economy Manifesto and the Silicon South initiative, I think they’ll support it more and more.  But we need to be realistic about what we can and should, expect them to do and what we can and should be doing ourselves.

Have agencies been taking advantage of the improving economic climate?

The results of the Bournemouth, Dorset & Poole Creative and Digital Economy Census that I’ve undertaken for the past three years would suggest that the majority of agencies are enjoying year-on-year growth, so yes I would say they are taking advantage of the improving economic climate.  This presumption is supported by the very active recruitment drive I see happening across the local sector too – demand for designers, developers and account handlers seems to far outstrip supply and that suggests, to me at least, that the local sector is enjoying a level of buoyancy perhaps not reflected in other industries.

Would you encourage your kids to pursue a career in the digital world?

I don’t think my kids will have a choice.  The Internet as we know it is barely out of its teens, yet look at the fundamental impact it has had on our lives.  The speed of technological change is exponential and I can’t even begin to imagine the world my children are going to be living in, except I know it will be digital.

Anyone born in the past 25yrs has now existed in a world that has only ever known having access to the Internet.  And now with the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, not to mention access to 3G, 4G and WiFi networks, we simply expect to be connected wherever and whenever.  As a result the ways in which we work, regardless of where we work, have changed and with the genie out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back.

This is why I’m passionate about projects such as Code Club (the volunteer-led international network of after-school coding clubs for primary school children).  It’s scary to think that we’re not preparing our future generations for the world they’re about to enter.

If you were starting up a creative agency, what would be its name?

I thought of the name Wise Old Uncle long before I started the business and it was always intended to be a creative agency of sorts – and actually I would argue that it is one.  We’ve managed branding briefs, overseen identity developments; we stage events and undertake PR and communications; we do business development for agencies and we provide strategic marketing advice.  We just don’t promote it that much and as Matt Desmier rather than Wise Old Uncle, I’m known for doing other things.

If you could be in the creative team of any brand in the world, which would you choose?

Pixar.  OK, so it’s an animation studio but the continual quality of their productions and their attention to detail has elevated Pixar beyond being merely a studio.  Just like Disney in its heyday, you can trust Pixar to deliver and they’ve not missed a beat yet.  I’d love to be a tiny cog in that creative machine.