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Four years on: Creative Nottingham – the connected creative community

Image: Hugh Mcleod

The genesis of Creative Nottingham


I had one of those ‘well I never, I’m getting old’ moments lately. But rather than bemoaning that indie bands nowadays all sound like a rip-off of the Ramones, this was a pleasant ‘well I never’ when Sue Barsby got in touch to say Creative Nottingham was celebrating its fourth birthday.

I say ‘well, I never’ as when Creative Nottingham was a twinkle in the eye of myself and Camilla Zajac (the wonderful copy mistress of Green Light Copywriting ), stoked by early morning coffee and conversations on the merits of writing and digital media, I never anticipated five years later that Creative Nottingham would have seeded its own identity far beyond our original ideas. Delightfully, Creative Nottingham continues to inform, entertain and educate creative professionals in the city and beyond.

Combining Camilla’s editorial know-how with my knowledge from working in the ill-fated world of regional development quangos and digital strategy, our vision was to join up business communities using good old fashioned journalist editorial combined with the new thinking of social media.

Creative Nottingham (or ‘a blog to link up the creative and creative business people in Notts’ as it was originally, namelessly, touted around) was conceived in the wake of the Digital Britain report, after two decades of funding and research into the value of the UK Creative Industries.  It was inspired by successful community blogs like Birmingham’s Digbeth is Good and Created in Birmingham  (happy to report, both are still active and offering new perspectives on creative life in the city).

Before joining forces with Camilla, I met with several arts and business funding bodies in the city and region to get finances for the website set up and to pay an Editor, but made no headway.   Unofficially, the project was discussed behind closed doors at ‘creative business’ committee meetings with the good and great of Nottingham’s creative institutes. Comment was passed that this project would not get off the ground: stories about arts events and the like had no validity; what Nottingham needed was a creative business directory which an existing institute would raise funds for and deliver through official funding channels. (This, they failed to do).

New media rules


The project faltered at the first hurdle, but in the digital era the rules had changed. In the ‘old media’ era a publication was an effort of strong will and large resources – design, manufacture and distribution networks which required upfront finance. Launching a web publication in 2009 was a relative simple proposition (with some support in customising WordPress and providing a little web space), with social media spent in time rather than money, meaning we could get the project up and running using volunteer writers – with support, advice and guidance soon to follow from talented designers, web hosting companies, social media trainers and printers. It would be churlish to list everyone here (lest I forget some) but I’m really grateful for the time, skills and energy you all contributed in the early days. Even the domain was gifted (unwittingly) by a Nottingham City Council official after my begging tactics paid off.

Today, the site predominantly sustains itself from the generosity of its volunteers – operating as a self-managed service, using tools like Google Docs and Huddle to manage schedules, communications and make decisions. In practice, strong co-ordination is still needed to manage its volunteers, advertisers and writers (or ‘herd the invisible cats’ experience by most voluntary projects) – expertly directed for several years by Sue Barsby.

Camilla and I started a small trial blog to gather momentum and start conversations. In our original press release, Iain Simons, Director of GameCity, declared it as:

“an expression of confidence, not simply a list of apologetic reasons as to why we’re ‘as good as London’. At last, home has a homepage.”

After call-outs from social networks, Phil Williams and Charlotte Thomson joined the crew, with early meetings held in the back room of Edin’s in Broad Street.  Coffee (and cake) being a recurring theme in all things Creative Nottingham related. Many people, as is the way of voluntary projects, came and went throughout the years, however, John with Beard, one of our early members, continues to valiantly provoke and entertain with his reports.

Rather than a fly-by Creative Industries funded initiative, Creative Nottingham was intended to be something that could sustain itself, a point debated before its inception.  Also important to its ethos was a culture of inclusivity: using a light-touch set of editorial guidelines to steer, anyone could get involved as a regular or guest blogger, trying to connect and demystify the various ‘cliques’ that inevitably form around any creative community. Because we hadn’t got funders to answer to meant we had more creative freedom to write independently, promote and comment openly on public initiatives.

The power of the network


That Creative Nottingham is a ‘community’ (I’m not talking wanky social media speak, but genuinely that it was produced by – and for – its creative community) is intrinsic to its value principles and success.

It’s tough being a creative professional in Nottingham: there aren’t the sizeable networks or ladders of opportunity that creative can climb in bigger cities. Nor is it small enough to have the ‘we’re all in it together’ inclusivity of town communities. Running a business in the recession is tough work, as is the inevitable ‘drift’ for younger and older professionals to gravitate south, north, west (and every which way) for bigger or different opportunities. I have been led by this ‘drift’ back to London to sustain my business but reading Creative Nottingham has given me a lifeline into the city; at times I’ve felt envious of the wealth of great events springing up each week.

Image: Hugh Mcleod

The network is still crucial to the success of Creative Nottingham. When we launched in 2009, Nottingham’s social media business communities were less connected than today, with few ‘known’ bloggers and Twitter just starting to be adopted for businesses. For me, Creative Nottingham does and always should evolve towards the point where everyone is connected; the growth of guest bloggers and journalistic interviews are positive shift changes showing the network is evolving. And we didn’t (and didn’t need to) create the pay-for Creative Directory I tried to initiate.

In our formative years, I’m most proud of achieving a genuinely sustainable network that exists even without the foundations of its original members, and is all the better for the strength of its numbers and not being subservient to the constraints and whims of public funding.

In our first year, our crowd-sourced postcard competition and crowd-sourced logo competition  – despite coming in for criticism (perhaps, in hindsight, the labelling of ‘competition’ wasn’t the best tone for creatives), I’m proud of what we’ve achieved by working collectively.

In 2009 I wrote:

“In business they say you should always start with the end in mind. In three years’ time I would love to see Creative Nottingham’s blog finish. It should run its course as a thousand individual business, and collective city-wide blogs and subscriber-friendly websites spring to life to connect our city’s diverse, chaotic and exciting creative communities.”

Four year on, Creative Nottingham has a strong purpose and raison d’etre, one which has changed and evolved and, with your support as contributors and readers, will continue to do so. A platform for aspiring business writers, digital marketers, thinkers and creative business leaders, Nottingham needs its creative community (especially in the wake of ‘state’ support reducing down towards nought) more than ever before.

Viva the creatives!


Susi O’Neill is one of the founding Editors of Creative Nottingham.  She now has become a fully-fledged media cliche, moving from the shadows of Green’s Mill in Sneinton to Stoke Newington in London, working in digital strategy in publishing, performing alternative music and fringe theatre, and is one of Britain’s leading players of the theremin.  
Follow her on Twitter  @susioneill