Rediscovering the spark: How SMEs weathered the Covid storm

  • 27 Jul 2021

Creative industries were among the hardest to be hit by lockdown. With theatres, music venues, cinemas, art galleries and the like shuttered, work dried up and countless businesses struggled. Sadly, some were forced to throw in the towel. 

For many in creative fields, the Government’s notorious reskilling ad featuring a ballet dancer with the headline ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber’ rubbed salt into the wounds. Yet despite the enormous setbacks of the pandemic, many creative businesses have kept going through a mix of determination and innovation. 

 

The term ‘creative industries’ is among the most expansive and nebulous found in business. It covers the expected sectors such as music, fashion, design, and TV and film, as well as the less obvious, such as publishing, advertising and gaming. As this is a broad church, some have fared better than others during the past year.

“We have seen a monumental shift in working practices, as well as expectations of consumer demand, which will have effects in years and maybe decades to come,” says Robert Lucas, FSB Creative Industries Policy Lead. “Adaptation is what the creative industries are built on, but the removal of the core of what they represent – socialisation and getting paid to tell stories – isn’t something that most sectors can hold up to for ever.”

Live issue

‘Pivoting’ is one of the buzzwords of our times, and that has frequently meant a switch from ‘live’ to ‘screen’. But this kind of transformation can have disadvantages. 

“There’s a danger we will lose the live experience, or that it will be less available to those who can’t afford it,” says Mr Lucas. “A democratic arts is the only way of keeping arts at the heart of our culture. There are a lot of factors to take into account when it comes to gradual recovery of the arts, from venues to performers to funding models, but it has survived before so I’m certain it will recover again – albeit slower than other industries.” 

The message Mr Lucas would like creatives to hear is that they are a business doing a valuable job, and should be supported as much as an accountant, solicitor or plumber. He would like some kind of financial encouragement for audiences and customers, like the Eat Out To Help Out initiative that benefited the hospitality sector, but is unsure whether there’s political appetite for such a move. 

David Parrish, a consultant and business coach who specialises in creative businesses, created an online video-based course and toolkit during lockdown called ‘RE-Designing Your Creative Business’. He believes that 
it’s more important than ever for creative entrepreneurs to revisit and fine-tune their strategy. “This is an 
ideal time for creative businesses to refresh their strategies,” he says. 

 

“That means redesigning enterprises around a new business formula that is based on a clear understanding of several fundamental factors. 

“Firstly, their unique definition of ‘success’, which includes but is not limited to financial success. Secondly, an analysis of competition in the marketplace and identification of their competitive advantage. Then, a laser-like focus on the right customers – i.e. those who want, need and value the products or services in which they have a competitive advantage.” 

Learning to adapt

Dr Jacqueline Jeynes, an author and owner of Pen Coed Publishing, a small-scale non-fiction publisher, says the problem for her during lockdown was the closure of public libraries and bookshops, where the majority of customers would see and buy books. While books are available to buy online, she says there’s a physical quality to books that’s lost when reading a description online.  

During lockdown, she took advantage of opportunities to adapt, participating in lots of online courses (some free, some paid for) and free webinars to learn more about websites, SEO, social media and selling online. She has 
introduced an online editing service that is available without the need for a physical meeting with clients.

Dr Jeynes would like to see small-scale grants launched to help creative SMEs recover faster. In the case of her business, she could use this kind of funding to pay someone to spend a week or two promoting her books to libraries through email marketing. 

“Just that level of help would kick-start the business and get some money coming in,” she says. “I know that, as a self-employed individual, the size of the business at the moment does not qualify for any help, so I have to rely on personal funds – as do many other writers, artists and craftspeople. I am sure that a grant of just £1,000-£2,000 for each business left out of the funding initiatives would have a huge impact in both the short and the long term.”

 

Actor/illustrator/musician 

Sherwood Alexander was part of a touring production in Austria that was cut short when the pandemic hit. Since then, acting jobs have been few and far between, “more so than when things were normal”, he says. Yet lockdown has given him the chance to “knuckle down” on his screenwriting. It’s this kind of adaptability and single-
mindedness that should give the creative sector the confidence it needs that it will, one day, thrive again.

‘Festival experience at home’ 

Grimmfest is a Manchester-based horror film festival now in its 13th year. Traditionally, it presents big-screen cinema events with partners such as Odeon Cinemas and Stockport Plaza, but lockdown meant it needed to find new ways to bring movie premieres and big-screen classics to audiences. 

In April 2020, it established Grimmfest TV, a platform to host award-winning horror films online. Then, in October, 
the annual five-day Grimmfest ‘live’ event, normally held at the Odeon Great Northern, Manchester, became an online festival using a new virtual platform from Eventive, with funding from Creative England. The online festival included live Q&As, allowing fans to interact with film-makers.

Grimmfest also set up the Reaper’s Arms, an online ‘pub’ social space on Facebook, to encourage further fan interaction, and this year launched its first Easter festival, again online but with the hope that it will become a live event in 2022.

“A lot of people have embraced having a festival experience at home,” says Simeon Halligan, who set up and runs Grimmfest with Rachel Richardson-Jones. “Our plan is to bring back live events, but they will be more hybrid, including online elements, because we’ve learnt there are lots of people who would like to come to a film festival but can’t necessarily attend.”

Digital theatre 

Lucy Askew, Chief Executive of the Creation Theatre Company in Oxford, says her firm has had “an embarrassingly good pandemic” on the back of switching to digital shows. 

“We made our first digital show within three weeks of the first lockdown and haven’t looked back,” she says. “Our digital shows are unique to a lot of the digital theatre that has been produced throughout the pandemic in that they are very much created for the medium. Having a live audience who can be seen and experience a show together is a really key part of that and has been absent from a lot of streamed theatre. It has introduced a new global audience to our work, and opened up new funding opportunities and partnerships.”

 

In all, the firm has produced nine digital shows seen by more than 10,000 people in 22 countries, and 
has been featured in publications including The Guardian, The Financial Times and The New York Times. “We’ve employed 63 freelance creatives at a time when the industry was largely closed,” she says. “Despite significant achievements in the last year, it still feels as though we are only at the tip of the iceberg of all the creative possibilities.”

The business is in the process of creating its own ‘digital theatre’, supported by Innovate UK funding. “It will mean we can present work outside of Zoom with a platform that replicates the audience experience more closely,” says Ms Askew. “Once we’ve launched that we’d love to use it to help other theatre companies connect with digital audiences. 
“My advice to others in the sector would be to stay focused on why you do what you do. Throughout this historically challenging time, we’ve been really clear that our purpose was to keep entertaining people and employing freelancers, and an enormous amount of creativity has flowed from that clarity.”

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