November 2021, first published in The Times
Soho, in central London, is my centre of creative gravity. I’ve been working and playing there since I was 16. By any measure it is a special place but it risks being undermined by the reluctance of some business leaders to return to city centres.
Much of the debate about hybrid working and the future of the office has focused on precisely that: the office. The office as an atomised space. A discrete, almost hermetically sealed, isolated work capsule. But perhaps we also need to look at the bigger picture.
Some research, such as the Attractiveness of Global Business Districts report from the consultants EY and the Urban Land Institute, has at least acknowledged the possibility that geographical business communities really matter and can have a significant impact on the ability of businesses to retain the right sorts of people.
I think it is worth celebrating arguably the most compelling case study of them all: Soho.
The business world generally, not just in London but across the country, can learn much from this melting pot of entrepreneurship, creativity and maverick attitude as it helps to reimagine the future of city centres. Soho is London’s most vibrant and diverse entertainment quarter, known not just for its theatres and clubs and venues but for its amazing choice of restaurants as well. It is also, though, home to a whole host of entrepreneurial businesses.
That combination is as potentially fragile as it is unique.
It is the spiritual home of the advertising industry. That is why many of us have taken a more-than-passing interest in all the debate about the future of our working practices and the potential impact there might be for the whole notion of the city itself. Will people resist returning to the office? Will everything be done on Zoom? My feeling is that, although forms of hybrid working will continue to emerge, the whole notion of people coming together is not going to go away. We need to come together to learn and to inspire one another. People want to mix, they want to meet.
That is fundamental to the nature of creativity. Creative people are gregarious and curious, we know that from the history of art and artists. They want to experience what other people are doing, whether it is another artist or a craftsman and it may be a seemingly banal task they are witnessing but they always want to ask, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it that way?” They learn something from almost everything they see in the world around them. It is hard to get that sitting on Zoom.
So, for that reason, a district such as Soho has a great future, provided, as it has in the past, that it evolves in the right way. All areas go through constant transformations. If they don’t, they ossify.
The recurring theme with Soho, going right back to the era of Gin Lane and Hogarth, is that it has been a crossroads for migrants and outsiders and the sorts of people who brought all sorts of craft skills to this country.
You can still pick up traces of that in, for instance, a pub name like the Sun and 13 Cantons, which refers back to the fact that Swiss merchants and watchmakers atone time lived and worked in the area.
Then it became a focus for the entertainment business and restaurants, and again that implied lots of exotic influences. More recently you had art colleges nearby (at one time both St Martin’s and Central) and the film industry centred on Wardour Street. There has always been a focus on creativity. Perhaps seediness too, but it has always attracted creative people.
In many ways it is an area defined by the fact that there are not many big buildings around here. Everything is small and self-contained and you are never going to find corporate headquarters here. Its smallness and fragmented nature just does not appeal to certain mindsets.
They are, though, exactly the sorts of spaces that appeal to entrepreneurs and outsiders. People come here to make a start, which in turn means that there is an atmosphere that is both irreverent and tolerant.
You can sense it immediately. Early on in my career I worked in Covent Garden and Mayfair and Knightsbridge, but there is nothing to compare to Soho. It is something you feel, a sense of excitement as you cross into the area and you are thinking: “I’m in Soho . . . who will I bump into?”
Even though Soho had been through a grotty period we very much wanted to be there when we created Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) in 1982. Creative companies are very much defined by where they start out and I think it is very interesting to look at organisations that have struggled to make the right choices as they have grown bigger. Sense of place is vital for creative companies. Abuse that at your peril. Where you are is important in defining who you are.
When we looked at setting up again, after the sale of BBH, we still wanted to be in Soho. It is about being in an entrepreneurial business environment. For Electric Glue in particular, Soho is very much a part of what it is all about.
One of the dangers in the current climate is that some people want to see Soho become more domesticated but I would argue that we should resist the move to convert commercial properties to residential. And I think it goes without saying that the planning authorities must ensure that it is not all pulled down and replaced by skyscrapers. I am optimistic.
We do not want Soho to become a museum piece. It is still a working, thriving dynamic area. Let’s keep it that way and if we can do that I believe it has a phenomenal future as a cauldron of entrepreneurship and creativity. It is a matter of working to ensure that we get the balance right.
This opinion piece first appeared in the business section of The Times on 25 November 2021. If you have a subscription, you can access it directly, here.