McLaren to accelerate growth of South Yorkshire’s AMID

McLaren has announced it will open a £50 million supercar facility at the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). Our MD Alexis shares his perspective on why this is a big win for South Yorkshire and an example of what can be achieved through partnership working. 

I am massively unlikely to ever buy a McLaren car. I have never sat in one. Why then am I excited about the news that the supercar manufacturer is going to open new facilities in Sheffield and Rotherham?

Reputations matter. The McLaren brand is renowned around the world for true excellence in engineering. Their research and development push the limits of what humans can do on four wheels. Their arrival in South Yorkshire will almost certainly attract additional companies looking to supply the new factory. Their new facility will provide further reason for South Yorkshire to be on the map for those investing and interested in advanced manufacturing.

Domain expertise matters. The ability to specialise in a specific area of the economy will be critical for cities and regions looking to compete successfully. Over the last couple of decades the Local Authorities in Sheffield and Rotherham, the University of Sheffield and blue chip businesses have been quietly building the world-class Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District (AMID). Their foresight is paying off. Today’s news will likely be the first in a number of high-profile investments.

Relationships matter. AMID shows that it is possible for Local Authorities to collaborate. Rotherham and Sheffield have been known to compete for investment. Competition is healthy but it can quickly become corrosive. Today’s announcement shows what can be achieved when you work together. The Local Enterprise Partnership has played a significant role in making this happen, bringing our city region together and putting us on the map – huge thanks should go out to them. Congratulations all round are deserved.

Meet our daily designer

The newest addition to our team, Jack, is a talented illustrator with a 12,000 strong following on Instagram. In his blog post, he explains what it took to stand out from the crowd when establishing himself as a designer. 

Becoming a designer

Many people strive towards self-improvement but often get stuck at the first hurdle, asking the question “but how?”. My answer is to step out of your comfort zone. It’s not as scary as it sounds.

A year and a half ago to this date, I realised that life was changing; university was over and the world of full-time work was fast approaching. And let’s not sugar-coat the truth, it’s hard, way harder than making it to a 9 am lecture.

Looking for my first break in design was frustrating, hard and demoralising. I had rejection email after rejection email (if I was lucky, some never even replied).

I decided I had to do something different, something that would make me as a designer stand out from the crowd. So, I started creating daily designs. It gave me something else to fill my days with, other than just applying for jobs. I set myself a target to post one design every day no matter how good or bad they were (trust me there were some very bad ones).

Using social media as my platform for a mini portfolio (great for job interviews) enabled me to make what I wanted when I wanted. Whether I was on the train, bus, plane, or anywhere.

Learning to draw

 I have loved drawing since my grandma bought me a full artist set when I was five years old. I still own this artist set. Moving on to Adobe systems at university equipped me with the tools to bring drawings to life on screen, and suitable for use in a professional context.

When I first started my daily designs, I’d read design blogs and find one piece that would influence the design I was going to do that day. My first designs were generally making a word visually reflect their meaning. I remember looking at other people’s work and wondering how they’d thought of doing that.
I was never a believer in ‘that lightbulb moment’ you hear about, but funnily enough, it happened. At some point, everything clicked. I went from looking at other people’s work for influence to me in a way instinctively knowing what will work. I built up a catalogue of designs in my head and people began to take notice.

Developing a brand

I developed an ethos like all strong brands and companies have. Simplicity is key. From this, a set of unwritten, yet set in stone rules were applied to my work. This lead to me taking everyday objects or nostalgic items and making them the centre of attention in my work. I didn’t want anything else to compete with them on the page.

With time, my ethos developed and so did my following. Simplicity was still the key, but the proof was also now in the tiny details. Having a nice outline and nice colours weren’t enough. I began to experiment with highlights and shadows, still focusing on simplicity. Many designers use gradients so their highlights and shadows blend in with their work. My thinking was different, the shadows and highlights should stand proudly on top of the work. This theme has continued to develop.

Turning daily designs into a day job

My dad used to say “this colouring in won’t help you find a job”, which is one thing he no doubts regrets saying now. The skills I’ve developed feed into my role at Counter Context; I apply the same ethos to my illustrations which make for a more refined design. I’ve found that my illustration skills have come in handy in all the design jobs I’ve had, as it is normally a thing that is outsourced.

And now here I am, over 12,000 people who follow and like my work on Instagram, finally in a job that I like, learning from people with bags of experience but also finding myself with some tips to share, which I never thought would happen.

To progress, leave your comfort zone. Before you know it, you will find yourself back in that comfort zone, it’s just much bigger and better than before.










The Outdoor City needs to strut its stuff

In his monthly column for The Star, Counter Context MD, Alexis Krachai explores the uniqueness of Sheffield. 

It is 20 years since the release of The Full Monty. When I mention I am from Sheffield, people still say that they associate our city with unemployed male strippers. The tale of former steel workers strutting their stuff on the stage of local clubs certainly put Sheffield on the map. That is no bad thing but after 20 years many would argue times have moved on.

I recently chaired an event where leading property developers were asked how Sheffield could compete with Manchester and Leeds. Their answer was we should not. We should identify what makes us different. A few days later this newspaper’s front page shouted Sheffield needs an identity that changes perceptions about the city.

We have a new identity. It is staring us in the face. We simply need to be better at shouting about it.

You know an idea is a good one when people argue over who came up with it. Sheffield being the Outdoor City is one of those ideas. Few can deny that our city is surrounded by some of the finest countryside in the UK, if not the world. If you are not persuaded, then take anyone for a drive out to the Peak District via Surprise View.

We are the greenest city in Europe. We are home to some of the most successful outdoor companies and brands in the world. No major city in the UK can compete with our natural surroundings. Why would we want to compete with Manchester and Leeds when we have something unique to offer?

Being the Outdoor City matters. It can create new jobs and attract new businesses; companies want to relocate to places that offer a great quality of life. Investors want opportunities that only we can offer. The latest example is the Council looking for a partner to redevelop the site of the old Ski Village.

With so much to offer, what’s the problem? We are not being bold enough. The Council should be congratulated for coming up with such a great idea. The Outdoor City now needs support from other companies and organisations to make the idea really fly. This is not about who takes the credit. It is about coming together to strut our stuff and promote an identity that can put Sheffield on the world map for the next 20 years and beyond.


What is the role of the media in this new world of ours?

On the day that MP’s  announce an enquiry into the “growing phenomenon of fake news”, our MD Alexis Krachai explores the role of the media and the role we have, as communications professionals, to work with the media – not against them. 

2016 was defined as the post truth year. Fake news. Viral stories solely available on social media. The latest is ‘alternative facts’.

2 plus 2 does not yet equal 5 but many feel we are heading in that direction. At the centre of this swirling mass of moral, professional and political questions sit the media. The fourth estate. What now for those who work with the media?

Two famous quotes immediately spring to mind. Don’t poke the bear in the zoo and Napoleon’s comment that he “feared three newspapers more than a hundred thousand bayonets”. Many in the media see themselves as being under attack. Here in the UK, a debate swirls around the question of press regulation. Fake news stories are popping up in Germany and France ahead of elections. Across the Atlantic, the very future of a democracy is at stake as President Trump locks horns with what he calls the ‘lying press’.

A media under attack from commercial and political pressures is already fighting back. You can see journalists strengthening their resolve to root out falsehoods. You can sense that the media rightly see themselves as the bulwark that protects against authoritarianism and dictatorship. This is likely to impact consciously and subconsciously on the entire news gather industry. One of the world’s oldest and most noble professions is being challenged and harangued. For any organisation under the watchful gaze of the media, the imperative to be more transparent, collaborative and open will only increase. Journalists will rightly be less inclined to let anyone off the hook.

At Counter Context we have always advised our clients to be open and candid with the press. It is about working with colleagues in the media to build their levels of understanding and trust in what you do. There will always be times when the media will want to report on issues that make us uncomfortable. The key for any company or public body is to understand that keeping the media at arms-length is akin to putting a finger in a dam. You cannot delay the inevitable. Eventually, the moral and legal right to know will prevail. The ability to ask difficult questions will wash away even the most considered PR strategy. If you’re not persuaded simply think about how an innocuous question from a journalist can escalate into a Freedom of Information request.

We see the media as a partner. If they ask difficult questions it will likely strengthen the thinking and decision-making that goes on behind closed doors. Equally, being open with journalists and explaining the challenges often encountered in delivering major projects will help to build understanding and trust. That trust is key and can often result in more understanding phrasing when they decide on their next headline. Staying silent is not an option. It fuels suspicion. Creating a vacuum will leave space for others to fill it with what they want to say.

Ultimately recognise that the media are a massive amplifier that can turn up your message or someone else’s message to full volume. You can either put your fingers in your ears and ignore the noise or you can work with the fourth estate. It is not about manipulating the press. It is about treating them as a partner, a shareholder and one of the most important stakeholders in what we like to call a democracy.

Devolution: deal or no deal?

We’ve been paying close attention to the various devolution deals being offered up and down the country and the mixed receptions they have received. Account Executive Sam Rowe looks at some examples and explores what lessons can be learnt about communication, identity and the politics of geography.

Why devolve?

Some city regions such as Liverpool and Manchester have welcomed the devolution proposals with open arms. The reasons, it seems, are clear. It is well documented that local authorities in the UK are some of the least autonomous in Europe. You don’t have to travel too far outside of London before you hear reference to the ‘Westminster Bubble,’ the idea that those making big decisions aren’t well enough exposed to the rest of the country. It is also true that many local authorities are clamouring for extra funding. With the proposals offering both more powers for local authorities and more money to implement these powers, it seems likely that Councillors would be keen to accept a devolution deal.

This has not been the case on the East Coast, particularly in the regions of Lincolnshire and Norfolk. We have clients with large scale projects in these areas, and so we have followed the discussion on devolution with interest.

A decision must be unanimous between all levels of District and County government in the region. Lincolnshire County Council and South Kesteven District Council voted against the Lincolnshire devolution proposals. In East Anglia a combined authority was proposed to include Norfolk and Suffolk. While every single authority in Suffolk accepted the proposals; Norwich, Breckland and other Districts in Norfolk rejected them. In the final weeks of November, the local media in both parts of the country officially pronounced the devolution dealdead.’

So, why the rejection? The reasons are varied and worth exploring.

Geography and identity

Geography looms large in the decisions to reject the proposals. The Lincolnshire devolution proposals included towns as far south as Stamford, which is just about as close to London as it is to Grimsby. As part of the East Anglia devolution, Norfolk was to be paired with Suffolk, a proposal which was not popular in certain quarters.

These areas have distinct and unique identities, and any attempt to group different locales under one roof has to be done with the utmost care. People often derive their identity from the communities and towns in which they live. Whether you come from Norwich, Ipswich or Sheringham matters. Whether you come from ‘East Anglia’ currently means a lot less. The recent debate among Derbyshire, Sheffield and Chesterfield only goes to highlight this point.

The Mayor Issue

The main reason to reject the deals however, seems to be because of the proposals for elected Mayors. A question quickly arose about the need for yet another level of local bureaucracy in local government along the East Coast. Many people who rejected the scheme voiced their concerns regarding the new position, even those who supported the schemes seemed to be doing so despite, rather than because of, the proposals for a new mayor. Philip Jackson, a member of the Conservative Party in North East Lincolnshire Council, was quoted as saying:

“Having an elected Mayor isn’t the ideal situation but if it’s what we have to do to secure a greater say over our affairs I’m prepared to go along with that”

Judging by this and other responses, the idea of one figure making strategic decisions for the whole of one region, evidently does not sit well with a large number of Councillors.

What can we take from this?

The discussions about devolution that have occurred across the country paint a complex picture. With so much going on in politics, the discussions on devolution have tended to fly under the radar. But it would be a mistake not to pay attention to what is going on. These discussions could shape the biggest reform in local government for decades. They provide a real opportunity for everyone involved in both the public and private sectors to position themselves to get their views listened to and acted on.

We need to build more houses in the UK

Demand continues to outstrip supply. Ensuring we avoid ever increasing house prices means we need to have the right mix of housing stock. Brownfield developments in town and city centres will play a role and urban extensions will likely become more necessary. Bespoke, modular and self-build will become increasingly evident in our need to be innovative and flexible.

More significant developments will also be necessary if we are going to deliver the housing stock we need to house families and help drive forward sustainable economic growth. The larger developments are the schemes that together will deliver the number of units that are necessary. It’s for these reasons that Garden Villages matter. The numbers may be debated, but the 14 Garden Village sites recently announced (or re-announced) by the Government, with potential to deliver up to 48,000 new homes, could play a meaningful role in making up the current shortfall.

For those promoting sites and for those making the decisions on planning applications, Garden Villages present an interesting conundrum. On one side these largely self-contained developments have the potential to avoid the common challenges and criticisms that beset smaller developments. Garden Villages bring with them not only housing but new leisure, education and health facilities. Self-contained, newly built communities designed to be sustainable from day one. They respond positively to the criticism that new housing developments in pre-existing communities place an unsustainable burden on already overstretched schools, health and leisure facilities.

On the counter side, Garden Villages also have the potential to aggravate pre-existing concerns. Questions are raised about the potential for urban sprawl. Neighbouring communities worry about the impact development will have on nearby roads and other vital transport connections. Many sites naturally fall in greenfield areas, meaning there is a particular focus on the impact new development will have on local ecosystems.

What does this mean for communication professionals?
In many ways, the task of engaging communities about these proposed Garden Villages is no different to promoting other housing developments. The scale maybe larger but the imperatives remain the same. Information is key. Building understanding about what the development seeks to achieve and how it will mitigate any impacts is vitally important. Trust is never more important. The responsibility of building a new Garden Village is significant. With responsibility comes the need to build trusting relationships with those who live and work around any proposed site. Tick box consultation will be found wanting meaning increased risk, cost and timelines for developers.

We spend every day working with clients helping them to build understanding, trust and support for their ideas and projects. Despite their long history, the concept of Garden Villages remains alien to many. On one side you have those who see a wolf in sheep’s clothing. An identikit estate dressed up as something else. On the other you have organisations and people envisaging something akin to Port Sunlight made famous by the Lever Brothers in 1888 or Poundbury, the prominent model village most commonly associated with Prince Charles. What does a Garden Village look like in 21st century Britain? Unless the developers behind these schemes can provide a clear, authentic and positive vision, delivering these new homes will remain a challenge.

Counter Context helps residential developers throughout and beyond consultation, helping to build understanding, trust and support in plans and organisation. You can see examples of our work here and to find out more information, contact

Show that Sheffield is open for business

In his monthly Sheffield Telegraph column, our MD Alexis explores the issues, the opportunities and the wider context that affects the city of Sheffield. This month, he writes about the expectations for 2017, after a tumultuous year resulting in Brexit, a new government and Donald Trump.

I did not envy the editors tasked with rounding up the key news stories at the end of last year. What to include for one of the most tumultuous years in the last three decades?

Locally we have seen the acceleration of devolution and the growth of Sheffield City Region. Nationally we have seen Brexit and a new government installed. The election of Donald Trump, who becomes the 45th President this month, has already had a profound effect on politics and economic projections.

What does this mean for local businesses and for Sheffield? It means the world grows more complicated. To create the jobs, attract the investment and generate the wealth that will fund public services will take skill, confidence and imagination.

2016 saw some notable successes. As more cranes appeared on our skyline; residential, commercial and retail developments contributed to the increasing strength and vitality of Sheffield. The government’s decision to bring HS2 to the city centre will turbo charge regeneration in the years to come. The growth of the Advanced Manufacturing Park and the Olympic Legacy Park show we can deliver world-class innovation districts that will power our economy for decades to come.

We have every reason for confidence in 2017. The role of the City Region will continue to be important. We must harness the benefits of devolution whilst ensuring these organisations remain linked to local communities. An elected mayor will be important but we will also have to show every day how the City Region structures are having a positive impact on people’s lives. Building capacity is not the same as building legitimacy.

A mismanaged Brexit will harm our economy but new found freedoms can present new opportunities. Our challenge is to ensure Sheffield presents a compelling offer to investors and businesses. Whilst renowned for digital innovation, advanced manufacturing and sporting prowess, we need to think more deeply about what Sheffield has to offer to the global economy.

In November, the city will host the renowned Horasis conference, attracting hundreds of investors and business leaders from Europe and Asia. This is our opportunity to shine; to offer guests a warm welcome and to tell the world why Sheffield is a compelling place to do business.

We all have a role to play throughout 2017, showing the world that Sheffield is open for business.

The Brexit Plan.

Our Associate Director, Emily Marshall offers a summary and perspective on the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan.

Yesterday at Lancaster House, Theresa May gave her final speech on Brexit ahead of triggering Article 50. This could not have been further from that which, from the same location, Margaret Thatcher delivered in 1988 with the opening gambit: “Europe: open for business”. What we have now heard from May is the ‘Brexit Plan’, a move which has confirmed that Brexit means Brexit. Not a separation period, or ‘let’s see how things work out’, but a full-blown divorce – starting from now.

Any hopes from the 48% remainers or those who voted for a softer leave, for Britain to remain or partially retain being a member of the Single Market, have been dashed by May’s top two priorities:

  1. controlling EU immigration
  2. withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the European court of justice

Some softer Brexiters may have seen potential for a better economic arrangement to retain the free movement of people between Britain and the EU, similar to Norway which receives single market membership in exchange for a financial contribution. However, despite no formal system of control, May has stated that: “Brexit must mean control of the number of people coming to Britain from Europe”. Thus, leaving the 3million non-British EU citizens living in the UK in the dark as to their futures, as well as those British citizens who live and work abroad in the EU.

In summary, May’s Brexit Plan includes the following:

  1. A warning: May said that EU leaders would be committing an act of “calamitous self-harm” if they tried to punish the UK for leaving.
  2. Deal or no deal: May would prefer no Brexit deal than accept a bad Brexit deal, suggesting her openness to carry on trading with the EU on WTO terms in spite of a EU trade deal.
  3. Have your cake and eat it? May ruled out Britain staying in the single market but wished to retain the “greatest possible access to the single market”.
  4. Avoiding the cliff edge: In an effort to protect businesses, May has said she wants a ‘transitional deal’, something the Labour Party will be pleased to hear.
  5. Pocket money: May has made it clear that the days of Britain making vast contributions to the European Union every year will end. She has caveated that: “there may be some specific European programmes in which we might want to participate and, if so, and this will be for us to decide, it is reasonable that we should make an appropriate contribution”. It is a savings scheme, which some will see as impractical, if not impossible, given the interdependence the nations of the EU have to support our farms, fisheries, medical and scientific research and beyond. This also extends to education where withdrawal from the single market will result in cutting the numbers of EU students by over 30,000.
  6. What next? May confirmed that the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU will be put to a vote in both Houses of Parliament.

As for businesses, the Institute of Directors welcomed the “level of detail” provided in May’s speech:

“We now know that we will be leaving the single market, and while there will be firms who regret this, they will at least be able to plan on that basis.”

On a pragmatic level, we are now clearer than we were yesterday on May’s Brexit plan, her priorities and hard lines. But whilst we teeter over the infamous ‘cliff edge’ we do not see that the Brexit Plan announced on Tuesday will provide any more clarity or confidence to businesses and decisions made by their investors until the negotiations start to crystallise over the next two years. It is without a doubt that British business and those who look to support it remain unsettled by the process that is about to unfold.

With the certainty of change ahead, there perhaps is an air of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. The pound is on track for its best day against the US dollar since 2008 and as Adam Marshall of the British Chamber of Commerce rightly points out: Brexit “must not become all-consuming.”

With that we remain focused on promoting benefits and opportunities for British business in the schemes and projects we are involved in and to carry on driving forward to meet our clients’ commercials and strategic objectives here in UK and further afield, as well as our own.

5,4,3,2,1…we have lift off!

What better way to kick off the new year than with a new look? The team here at CC is delighted to reveal our new website and our brand makeover, conveniently delivered over Christmas by a very kind, bearded man in a red suit…

After listening to feedback, we wanted a website that provides an enjoyable and accessible user experience. We wanted to showcase our work, our expertise and our people (because we’re really proud of them). We wanted to tell the story of Counter Context and why we are here, doing what we do, the way that we do it.

Hopefully, we’ve done these things. If you have any thoughts on our new website, let us know. We’d love to keep on improving. Just email our marketing manager, Claire:

USA Today – community is key

Account Director Thomas Mc Hugh shares some insight into community relations stories making US headlines.

I spent some time in Washington DC last week with a pharmaceutical client. It’s a fascinating place to be as a team of busy workers construct the staging for the presidential inauguration at Capitol Hill. Updates of Trumps cabinet and advisory team battle with an exciting NFL season for news coverage.

In the midst of this high-level paradigm shift in everything from international relations to the programme for Air Force One, I was most struck by Monday’s publication of USA Today. This national paper gave its key headlines to two community relations issues. One took the front cover headline. The second took the Money section cover headline.


Dakota Pipeline

I’ve been monitoring the issues around the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock for a long time now. The developer of a 1, 172 mile oil pipeline is at loggerheads with local native Indians around the construction of a pipeline near their reservation. There is concern that the pipeline could destroy local water supplies if it leaks. There is angst around the natural heritage of the area. #NODAPL been used almost 500,000 times on Instagram. Artists, celebrities, environmentalists and numerous others have rallied around the cause. Police have been deployed in heavy duty riot gear and there have been unsavoury altercations.

I would suggest that had the pipeline developer engaged proactively from the outset this situation could have been avoided. The company is losing millions each day the project is delayed. One of the calls from activists is for an environmental impact assessment. I would suggest that this should have been present from the outset. The community should have been engaged around issues of concern. Reassurances and additional measures to allay fears could have been built into the environmental assessment, construction programme and subsequent operation and maintenance plan. Ultimately, the route could even have been modified as a final gesture.

That this issue has become worthy of intervention from President Obama and the main headline in USA Today serves to underline the ramifications of failed stakeholder engagement.

Facebook to invest in social housing

In the wake of Brexit, the disconnect between the views of the people and those of the majority of businesses has become quite marked. There is much talk of how to build a bridge between the two. Many are drawing parallels to the statement that has just been made in the US Presidential election.

In this context, it is fascinating to see Facebook set to invest $20 million in a local social housing scheme in its back yard. It is partnering with a coalition of local community groups. The programme is tied to the construction of Facebook’s new Frank Gehry designed 513,000 square foot campus. It is clear that Facebook now sees the benefits both to the communities in which they operate and their own reputation as a socially responsible company.

In terms of the USA Today editorial, what happens next is fascinating: a quote from the community rather than the corporate.

“I laud Facebook and am glad they’re doing something. But we’ve reached out to all businesses in the community over the years. There needs to be education among them about housing.” Tameeka Bennett – Youth United for Action in East Palo Alto.