Leaders in Business - As the head of one of Northern Ireland’s largest advertising agencies, John Keane knows a thing or two about the local media industry. David Elliott got his thoughts on the future of the sector.
As the Northern Ireland economy has progressed over the years, advertising has become not only more important but also a more apparent part of daily business life. As a result, we now possess a cutting edge and highly creative advertising sector which has won plaudits on these shores and far beyond.
John Keane, managing director of Holywood-based Ardmore Advertising, has been involved in the industry throughout his life and can put his stamp on many ground breaking advertising campaigns.
But it could have been very different. John originally started a law degree at the University of Ulster in Coleraine but soon realised his calling was of a more creative nature. A switch to a communications course swiftly followed and landed a job with the Belfast Telegraph selling advertising, initially in Belfast before moving to the company’s London office at the spiritual heart of the newspaper industry on Fleet Street.
“I learnt at the coal face with the Tele,” John said in an interview with Ulster Business. “I had a wonderful time and was given a lot of seniority while really young.”
The call of home soon followed and John returned to Northern Ireland as a partner and shareholder in Ardmore where he looked after the advertising side of the business. Eventually, John bought over his remaining stake in Ardmore, the company he now runs and which, he says, is consistently one of the top three advertising agencies in Northern Ireland.
Advertising can generally be looked upon as a leading indicator of economic health and tends to bear the brunt of any wider economic slowdown so it’s no wonder the sector hasn’t had the easiest time over the last couple of years. John says Ardmore has performed well given the environment although that hasn’t been achieved without considerable collective effort.
“Income is down by 8% but we’ve actually racked up 32% more hours,” he said in reference to the company’s performance over in 2009. “We’ve done a lot more work but that is to support our clients’ needs. But if you don’t do that in the tough times you will very quickly be told to forget it.”
While the downturn has been tough, John remains confident for the future.
“We plan to make Ardmore one of the most capable marketing services on this island,” he said. “We’re already a growing business in (the Republic of) Ireland where we look inexpensive against competitors in Dublin. We’ve got the people here and it’s a relatively easy market to service, especially in this digital age.”
In terms of sectors, there is also merit for a company like Ardmore to be involved in those which can bear the brunt of such tough times.
“Tourism and food manufacturing will sustain Ireland,” he said, pointing at clients such as Irwins Bakery and the fact Ardmore were behind the marketing for the Tall Ships’ visit to Belfast. This latter area of tourism is one he feels strongly about in a local context.
“We’ve got massively improved tourism infrastructure but still have some way to go. There are plenty of low cost carriers that can bring people here but we’re still shy of enough rooms and need to address weaknesses in Monday to Sunday offering.”
That’s not to say the tourism offering here hasn’t improved dramatically in the last few years, one which has meant 2009 saw around 39 cruise liners visit Northern Ireland compared to five only 10 years ago.
In terms of the wider economy, John feels we need to shake off our risk averse nature.
“We’ve a lot of bright people working in Northern Ireland and we should be more willing to take pride in that. As a culture we’ve got to accept failure and allow people to learn. Government talks a lot about support for the creative industries but they don’t put that into action. We have a massively exportable business here and need to take advantage of it.
“Such confidence in our local talent bodes well for the future of an industry we can be rightly proud of and, as the global economy again shows signs of health, we can look forward to showcasing Northern Ireland’s creative output worldwide.”