Challenging the times

The great news that the stage play Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is to be made into a film set me thinking.  I had that “here we go again” feeling, but in a positive way.

The city that has given the world The Full Monty and the staged version of Brassed Off had delivered another gem.  But it wasn’t the line of successful hits that struck me, it was the nature of those hits.  They all carry the story of the underdog who wins, the triumph of hope over adversity and they cannot be dismissed as just some more gritty northern dramas.

They are the stories of challenging the norm and winning.  And maybe that is us.  Maybe that is Sheffield.

Shortly after the news about the “Jamie” film was announced I was at the Vibrant Sheffield Live event at The Crucible.  At least 400 people were there to hear and learn about, celebrate and discuss what makes Sheffield the city that it is.  It was a fantastically positive and informative event, and the Grant Thornton team in Sheffield, whose idea the event was, deserve huge credit for their initiative.

I was asked to provide some concluding comments and the point of what I said was simple.  It was that throughout the whole event no one had said that Sheffield needs to be more like some other place.

That to me is a turning point and something has happened in recent years that has moved on from feeling the need to be following in the footsteps of others to being confident in being the city that we are.  And before people start writing letters I know that there are things that still need fixing, still need improving in Sheffield.  But that is also true of anywhere else.

Reflecting this new confidence in being the city that we are, it is no coincidence that the city’s Channel 4 bid was simply called “This is Sheffield” with a bold, gutsy and very modern attitude.  Although not shortlisted, the bid received huge acclaim and leaves us with a stronger relationship with Channel 4 going forward.

So how does Jamie, The Full Monty, Brassed Off, the Vibrant City event and our Channel 4 bid come together?  Well, in my view, they all amount to being the challenger brand.  The brand, the place, that is confident in what it is about, different by being distinctive, determined, energetic, bright and fun.  A city that believes it can achieve and refuses to be ruled out.

Being the challenger brand though needs energy along with the confidence.  Challenger brands don’t always win, but let’s face it – no place always wins.  But in being true to their colours and being distinctive they surely get noticed.

I think I may have said in previous columns that I can be a bit of an optimist but as I sat in the Crucible Theatre at the Vibrant City event I just listened for 2 hours.  I listened as companies, charities, entrepreneurs, young start-up businesses, told their stories.  It was like scratching the surface of a treasure chest.  We were all optimists at the end!

So where does this leave us as a city?  Well, there are some bumps in the road ahead of us.  Government reviews of funding loom large on the horizon and need to help us tackle the costs of health and social care, many businesses remain cautious and still too many people do not earn enough in Sheffield.  We need to be focussed and realistic about these and other challenges.

Alongside that, there is what you might call the mainstream to focus on.  We cannot just be the challenger brand.  And that mainstream is going pretty well at the moment.  The Director General of the CBI on a recent visit to the city commented that the “crane count” on the Sheffield skyline was very healthy.  We must, though, never take that for granted.

And finally, alongside the “bumps in the road” – the issues we are facing and must tackle – and alongside the mainstream development of the city we have the modern, confident, distinctive, true to itself Sheffield.

I can think of no better example of how this all comes together than a site visit I did to the new Clipper Logistics distribution hub in Tinsley – it’s the former Polestar building.

It is huge.

More significantly, it will be working for Pretty Little Thing, born out of the Boohoo.com group.  Basically, it is fashion for the internet age.

Somewhere between 1200 to 2000 people will be working there.  At a time when the internet is getting blamed for damaging retail, these are companies that have made it work with spectacular success.  They have challenged the norm.  They chose Sheffield.  Or, put another way, the challenger brand chose the challenger brand.

  • A version of this article was originally published in the Sheffield Telegraph
John Mothersole
John Mothersole
John Mothersole is the Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council. He was appointed to this role in 2008. The City Council is the third largest metropolitan authority in the country. John joined Sheffield City Council in 1998 as Executive Director and since then has been directly and closely involved in much of the regeneration of the City. Prior to coming to Sheffield he was a Director with the London Borough of Camden for seven years, and before that was the Arts Development Officer for Newcastle Upon Tyne.