East London Is Dead?

Certainly not yet. But Alex Blacklock finds that the Shoreditch creative scene is already faltering.

To say that East London is currently a creative hub, isn’t exactly news to anyone.

It was as far back as the early 1990s when Tracey Emin and art pals Damien Hirst, Alexander McQueen and Gary Hume all moved into the Shoreditch area, taking over vast warehouse spaces that had laid dormant since post-war industry moved out. By the early 2000s the White Cube gallery was attracting quite some attention and by 2010 it was the place to be seen, most likely on a fixie.

Fast forward to 2016 and Shoreditch is full of creative companies. From agencies Wieden+Kennedy, Creature and Mother, through to post-production houses like Pulse and digital radio company Last.fm. Even the media powerhouse Vice has set up shop in Shoreditch, taking up residence near Old Street’s ‘silicon roundabout’ along with some of the best of London’s tech businesses.

That’s all fine and good. Silicon Roundabout has been great for tech start-ups. Creating a cluster of like-minded, progressive companies in such a small geographical space not only drives their businesses forward but also exerts a positive influence on the whole area.

Old Street (and Shoreditch in general) has gone from a rundown area with nothing to offer, to a place that clients will happily schlep from Slough to in order to visit their agency for a presentation and maybe a posh lunch.

But it feels like the party may well be over.

Just like us normal folk, tech start-ups and creative agencies are facing the problem of rent hikes. Unlike us, their problem is at least in part self-inflicted; a by-product of their success, which has increased demand in the Shoreditch area and is starting to force companies to look elsewhere.

Shoreditch has been attractive to small, nimble, creative companies because it offers unusual spaces and low rents. These are companies who were founded on an idea, or often an ideal; and that’s all they have. They don’t have cash. Not at first, anyway.

In addition to big spaces and low rents, Shoreditch has also offered them a support network of other creative companies ready to help each other out.

But with commercial premises now commanding eye-watering rents, it’s only the big boys who can afford to stick around. Indeed, whilst Vice may still feel like a cool, young, counter-culture media outlet, let’s not forget that founder Shane Smith has a net worth in excess of $1.27 billion (not a misprint: that’s ‘billion’ not ‘million’).

Vice has evolved a bit since the days of ‘Do’s and Don’ts’. I don’t even think you can pick up the magazine for free in skate shops, anymore.

So where does this leave us? Broadly, creative companies are starting to fall into one of two camps:

Those who have been in Shoreditch for years, have grown and become profitable, but aren’t prepared to pay excessive rental rates when they are used to something affordable – so they are trying to move.

And those who are still start-ups, who could really use the network of like-minded creative and tech companies that somewhere like Shoreditch provides, but fundamentally can’t afford the rent – so now they don’t move there.

Where will they all move to? Nobody knows. But it seems unlikely they’ll all spontaneously stumble across another unspoiled gem of London and set up shop. Most likely they’ll start to move out of London and to other creative cities.

Bristol has been a creative hotbed for years, and Portsmouth is on the map. There are even whisperings of other seaside towns starting to blossom.

Alex Blacklock says that creatives may move to the coast.
Alex Blacklock says that creatives may move to the coast.

Maybe clients will soon be up for a day-trip to Bornemouth? Fish and chips on the pier before the train back to Maidenhead, might be quite nice.

As for Shoreditch, who will still be there? Well, Vice will probably be around for a while.

Tracey Emin will likely still be propping up the bar in The Golden Heart, moaning about how Shoreditch ‘ain’t wot it used to be’. (She’s doing that right now, by the way. Probably literally right now, as you read this).

That cafe on Old Street roundabout is quite good, that will probably stay. And Itsu. The City boys can’t function without Itsu.

Best hope there is still an Itsu.

Alex Blacklock is an account director at advertising agency Creature.