James Britton on Brexit and the flow of creative talent to the UK

A week on from the results of the EU referendum vote, Stinkdigital’s James Britton reflects on how it may affect the UK creative industries.

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There was a grim irony to being in Cannes this time last week, writes James Britton. A festival that celebrates creativity on a global scale was waking up to news that the UK had done the unthinkable, and voted to leave the European Union.

Aside from the immediate economic impact, we’re now faced with an ugly reality that tens of thousands of talented people may leave the UK, and a future generation of talent may never arrive in the first place.

Our company, Stink, was founded in the UK by ambitious entrepreneurs (read: immigrants) from the Czech Republic. Today, our team in London is made of talented people from no fewer than nine European countries, with an average age that falls in the mid-20s. We have producers from Croatia and France, visual effects designers from Sweden and Belgium, developers from Italy and Hungary, and designers from Portugal and Spain — many of whom have built their adult life here in the UK.

On the day of the vote, we posted a short message on our site to reassure our London team that the company unequivocally supported them. But, understandably, many have since spoken-out about feeling insulted and upset on hearing the result.

Our first step has been to calmly reassure our European staff that they’ll continue to have our support. The short term outlook seems to be that Europeans already in the UK will not be affected. The Leave campaign has been focused on making the UK a more complicated place to enter, and in an extreme scenario we may be looking at a future of visas and work permits for European staff. We have to take an optimistic view on this, and remember that we already employ many talented people from the US, South America and Asia, and we have a structured process for managing their visa applications and renewal. It won’t be straightforward though. New legislation introduced by the Home Secretary earlier this year means that migrant workers from outside the EU must earn more than £35,000 to secure a visa, which will now logically extend to European countries too. Some will argue this is a fair minimum wage for anyone in the creative industries, but will make it hard to hire overseas talent straight out of education.

Some may also argue there’s now an opportunity for a renewed focus on home-grown talent, especially outside of London. We have universities across the UK with huge creative and technical pedigree, but with room to improve, perhaps building a network of new blood inside the UK which sees us competing with the precocious talents of Sweden’s Hyper Island, France’s Gobelins, and Denmark’s CIID.

The deepest irony, that dawned on me while wandering amongst the advertising elite in Cannes, is that what the #Remain camp really needed was a more creative campaign. Instead of self-concerned rhetoric about Britain, the campaign should have focused on the positive aspects of a unified Europe, about a vision of consensus, compromise and cooperation. The EU has not only provided access to a free market but also brought forward important legislation on employment rights, parental leave, sickness rights, protection from discrimination and rights to equal pay. These are things that now need to be protected and should be high on the agenda of UK businesses.

The flow of talent in (and out) of the UK has immeasurably improved the work we do for our UK and international clients alike. It goes without saying that we want our UK office to be made up of a cosmopolitan workforce, speaking many languages, and bringing international experience and cultural references from outside the UK. This is what gives companies like ours our identity, giving our clients a perspective that aims to capture the attention of a global audience.

The creative industries remain the fastest growing sector of the UK economy, and a recent poll suggests that a staggering 96% of the UK creative industries voted to remain in the EU. It’s now for us to prove to the talented young people of Europe that an untethered UK is still a place they should consider for their career, even if there are new processes and hoops to jump through.

James Britton is European Managing Director at Stinkdigital; @james__britton;@stinkdigital. Illustration by Harry Haysom