Jenny Bishop flings open the heavy front doors of the Grade I listed Devonport Guildhall, and the view of the city floods in.
“On a clear day you can see St Matthias Church on North Hill,” she says, “The Guildhall looked down on Stonehouse and Plymouth in every sense – it is such a grand building.”
To the left is Devonport Column, the Roman-influenced landmark that is the highest public viewpoint in the city. Ahead on Ker Street, is the Egyptian House, one of only three of its kind left in the country. It is a remarkable enclave of historic 19th century architecture, all created by John Foulston over a six-year period.
But where once there was decline, now there is progress. The smart terraced houses that were the vanguard of the efforts to regenerate the area and reverse a century of slow decline, precipitated by the merging of the historic three towns, are no longer pushing at a closed door.
“RIO brought the first large scale economic activity to Devonport following the dockyard wall coming down,” says Jenny of the legacy of the Real Ideas Organisation (RIO). “And without that, all of the housing development would just lead to a dormant community. The Guildhall is an iconic piece of infrastructure and after a long and chequered history, it is now a centre for social enterprise.”
Jenny, a double graduate from the University – from the BA (Hons) Theatre and Performance in 2000, and the postgraduate diploma from the Chartered Institute of Marketing in 2006 – has been with RIO for six years, having set up and headed their marketing and communications department. She’s seen the community interest company treble its headcount, set up new offices across Devon and Cornwall, and expand its sphere of work to take on commissioned, funded projects at national, even international level.
It is also taking on new buildings – or rather, some very old ones. The Guildhall was the first – signed over to RIO in 2007 and refurbished with Community Assets Fund money and reopened in 2010. Next came Ocean Studios, the former Naval building in Royal William Yard, which was transformed into studios and workshops for artists and creative practitioners and taken on by RIO in 2017. It is now working on a project to convert the Grade II listed Market Hall in Devonport into a new space for digital by 2020 – in close collaboration with the University’s i-DAT team and Professor Mike Phillips. And they are also breathing new life into the 19th century Grade II Listed library in Liskeard, Cornwall. And then there is the Column Bakehouse, its artisan bakery that is trading on site at the Guildhall and at Ocean Studios and supplying businesses – including the University – across the city.
“RIO has never been ashamed of the enterprise element of social enterprise,” Jenny says, as we sit in the café, located on the ground floor of the Guildhall. “These beautiful buildings we take on are heritage, public assets, which the councils do not have the budget to run. We get no revenue funding – we have to trade and generate that ourselves to keep them alive and open. That’s part of our social impact, making sure Devonport is a nice place for people to live in and there is activity and facilities for people to use.”
Several young families and elderly couples are settling down for coffee and conversation this morning, with the racks of sourdough bread and freshly frosted cakes a very tempting attraction. Upstairs, people are gathering for the Red Velvet Cinema, which screens films in the former Mayor’s Parlour. A corporate event is booked for the Main Hall, and there is an art installation on suffragists in the historic jail cells that were formerly used as a ‘drunk tank’ when Devonport had its own police force, and as holding cells for the former Magistrates Court when it sat in the building.
Everywhere you look or go, there is regeneration or repurposing, and those layers of history that have worn so heavy upon the building over the years are now cause for celebration. Indeed, a trained eye sitting in the Column Bakehouse might spot references to antecedent ‘tenants’ such as the Mechanics Institute, Devonport Library, and even the mortuary that operated here in the 1850s, thanks to the naturally cool environment.
“It was a location for gasmask distributions during WWII,” says Jenny. “The American Forces held their dances here; it’s been a roller-skating rink, and I know people who have come to watch wrestling here. They never found the thing that could keep it open. RIO’s legacy is that we came in with a viable business plan for it and we now have it on a 125 year lease from the City Council. And our legacy will be that in 125 years’ time, hopefully this building is still here and thriving. None of us will be around to see that, but our job is to make sure we put the foundations in place that this building is a well-loved, well-used, well-respected part of the community."
“And one of the things I love when I go home in the summer is that the children are playing on the steps with their dolls and prams. This is very much the fabric of their community, and we have opened the doors and said “this is yours, come in”. We have not gentrified it or made it something out of reach of the people that live here. Yes, weddings and corporate events are not cheap, but a loaf of bread from the bakery costs the same as it does in a local supermarket.”
As Head of Marketing with a team of six, Jenny coordinates RIO’s numerous public relations and social media campaigns, relating to both the company’s core activities and those of the buildings it owns. They are campaigns that might incorporate Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and platforms such as Snapchat – a far cry from the more traditional forms she used earlier on in her diverse career.
But a consistent theme running through her work and the conscious development of her craft is the love of creativity that defined her dreams and ambitions as a child and student. And nowhere was that better realised than during her theatre and performance degree, taught at the former Rolle College in Exmouth.
“It was a very Dartington-esque experience,” she says, with a smile that radiates the warmth of fond memory. “A lot of the lecturers had come through that school, and it was this amazing bubble of theatre and performance. We danced on the beach, we sang at the sea, we took a show to Gothenburg in Sweden. It was amazing, a brilliant time.”
Jenny specialised in contemporary dance and physical theatre, working with Ruth Way, and in her third year had to devise, develop, produce and market a show as part of a small group. It was her first taste of marketing. Her second came soon afterwards, when having graduated with a 2:1, she went to Edinburgh for the Festival and worked as “one of those annoying people handing out flyers on the Royal Mile”.
“It was building on the ‘how do you sell a show?’ aspect of that third year project,” she says. “It was segmenting, targeting, positioning customers – although at the time I didn’t realise it.”
Working for Avalon that summer also offered Jenny an insight into the world of PR, as the company had the contract to look after a brand new television programme called Big Brother. And when the infamous ‘Nasty Nick’ story exploded in the tabloids, she had a front row seat for the action. In fact, it proved so interesting to her that she secured her first major career role as the press office junior at Breast Cancer Care and relocated to London.
“I was there for two years and it was the best grounding I could have had in how you communicate with people,” she says. “I was writing case studies on women who had secondary cancers and knew they wouldn’t see Christmas; who were writing lists for their partners on how to care for their children, or what to say when their daughter breaks up with her boyfriend. It was the first time I was connected to the idea of purpose. Previously I was focused on performance, but now the penny started to drop that what really motivates me is being connected to a good cause.”
Jenny’s next career move was to arts marketing, when she landed the role of PR Officer at Plymouth Pavilions, with responsibility for promoting all of their concerts and shows. And it was living in the city of her alma mater for the first time that paved the way for her second involvement with the University.
“My manager asked if I wanted to broaden my skill-set with a marketing qualification. So I enrolled on the course at the University, accredited by the Chartered Institute of Marketing,” she said. “Every Saturday for two years, I came to the Business School and studied, doing the advanced level initially, and then the postgrad, under Dr John White (Associate Professor in Marketing). And one of the things that John always got us to do was a media review. What are the marketing campaigns you have seen this week? What have you become aware of that has some resonance? And to this day, in my monthly team meetings, we have that conversation. What adverts have you looked at? What are they trying to do? Who is their target market? What position are they trying to take? John’s practice and that discipline of always being interested in your craft – whether performance or marketing – is a great thing. And I try to instil it in my team.”
With that qualification under her belt, Jenny secured the job of Head of Communications at South Hams District Council in 2004, and overhauled several aspects of their marketing. For example, she launched a quarterly magazine designed not only to promote the vibrancy of the area but also to present council services information in a format that people would understand – whether house and home, or outdoors and leisure.
“It’s telling people a story about the place they live and why it should be cared for, grown and looked after,” she says when it is suggested that local government was perhaps not an obvious environment for her. “I have always tried to see the fun and creativity, and so I viewed it as a challenge. How could I bring some of the excitement associated with ‘what’s going on in a music venue’ to telling stories about the place they live? And also what the council, often seen as an austere and boring organisation, is doing to improve things.”
In 2008, Jenny joined House of Fraser as Regional PR Manager, but was made redundant soon after as the financial crash hit. The setback hit her hard, and it took several months of working in a bar, and a maternity contract role with the Big Lottery Fund, for her to regain that sense of purpose (something, with the benefit of hindsight, she realises she was at risk of losing had she remained in retail). And it was while handing over big cheques of Lottery money that she first met RIO.
“I thought to myself ‘What an interesting, slightly weird and wonderful organisation they are’. They had just taken on Devonport Guildhall and I knew they worked with disadvantaged young people and the creative industries. And so that started to add up to me that it might be the kind of place that would be right up my street.”
But at that stage, Jenny says, RIO were not ready to employ a marketing professional, so when the maternity contract finished, she went to work for respected PR agency DCA in Bodmin (now based in Plymouth). Over the next three-and-a-half years, she led the PR for a number of major projects including the Olympic Torch Relay in Plymouth and the America’s Cup World Series. But when word reached her that RIO were looking for marketing expertise, she immediately applied for the role, won it, and took a pay cut to join them.
“That was six years ago – my longest time in any job,” Jenny says. “That is down to RIO always changing. Our whole purpose is to help make change happen in the places where it needs to happen, so the role and the organisation is always evolving. I still feel there is so much left to do.”
One of those projects is Illuminate, which in 2018, drew 28,000 people to Royal William Yard over four nights for a festival of light. A partnership with the University, Plymouth College of Art, Plymouth Culture, Urban Splash, Plymouth City Council, and City College Plymouth, Illuminate showcased the creative work of students and professional artists, from vast projections onto buildings to interactive displays using motion sensing technology.
“What we are trying to do with Illuminate is to respond to Mayflower, but not in a historical way,” Jenny says. “It is about creating something that looks forward to where we go next.”
Seen as Plymouth’s answer to Lumo in New York, or Lumiere in London and Durham, it also acts as a counterpoint to the World Fireworks Championships in the summer. And over the course of the next two years, where it will effectively open and close the 12 month programme of events for Mayflower 2020, it will grow, expanding outwards from Royal William Yard to cover an increasingly wide area including Drake’s Island and the breakwater.
“I was absolutely blown away by the work,” Jenny adds. “A lot of it was moving, it was beautiful, playful, and magical in many respects. And we have been overwhelmed by the response, and really touched by how it has captured the imagination. One man in his 80s got out of his wheelchair and he danced. To create something that engaged people from two to 92 in digital art…people were coming night after night because they were having a different experience with their friends than with their family. It’s given Plymouth something to be proud of.”
Illuminate, like the Market Hall project, is one of many examples where Jenny and RIO have engaged with the University. For Jenny it is particularly important, such is the debt of gratitude that she feels, particularly to Dr John White for 'upskilling her'. So she’s created placement opportunities for undergraduates – indeed, one former student sitting close by is now a permanent member of her marketing team – and offers live briefs for students to gain experience on. She has also returned on several occasions to provide talks on marketing and enterprise.
“That CIM was really a turning point,” she says. “It has unlocked a lot of opportunities that I have been able to take advantage of. Without that, without the Business School offering that qualification while you’re working, I honestly don’t think I would be where I am now, in this kind of role and organisation. That has been crucial to me as a professional. So I’ve been trying to ‘pay it forward’ to those young people just moving into marketing.”
By focusing on the creation of opportunities for the young, as exemplified by projects such as the Market Hall redevelopment, RIO is looking to play its own role in helping to retain – and attract – talent in the city. In particular, it is those tech start-ups with employees who want to cycle to work and go stand-up paddle boarding of an evening that the Market Hall is most carefully pitched towards. It’s why Jenny cannot, for the moment, envisage leaving Plymouth, nor RIO.
“It’s a culmination of everything I’ve loved in everything I’ve done in an organisation in the city where I live,” she adds.
As our time draws to a close, there is just one more perspective to take. Jenny points out a large Robert Lenkiewicz painting that looms high overhead in the Main Hall. It’s privately owned, but the Guildhall is acting as its custodian at the request of the Lenkiewicz Foundation.
“On the left hand side you can see the architects of Plymouth: Brunel, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, James Paton-Watson, and there at the front, John Foulston, the architect of this building,” says Jenny. “And on the right hand side you have Lenkiewicz and the other ‘vagrants’ who lived around the fabric of the city that these grand men designed. So it is a take on inequality and social justice, which was never meant for this building, but it feels completely right being here in the subject matter and the meaning behind it.”