Ammo Talwar, of Punch Records, discusses his time in South Africa on a placement as part of the UK’s Cultural Leadership Programme and how the creative industries can help Birmingham find a competitive advantage on a global scale.

Good times can remind you all too clearly of the celebrations that you’ve missed. This Diwali ,I was lighting candles with my family, here at home in Birmingham.

But I spent the evening of my last Valentine's Day 6,000 miles away from my wife, shouldering my way through the very trendy Cape Town crowds carrying a laptop and a stack of papers.

I was trying to find my British mate, John Keiffer, who had chosen that evening to brief me on the marketing strategies of successful South African Cultural Entrepreneurs. Table for two? Not easy.

I was living and working in Cape Town for three months thanks to a placement with the UK’s Cultural Leadership Programme, a four year, Government funded scheme currently investing in leadership excellence across the Creative and Cultural industries.

The core element is an international placement within a creative business – whether a social enterprise or driven by a profit imperative.

Every placement has to be hands on – to force each participant to witness business leadership at all levels and achieve an overview of the cultural and strategic operating context.

Before, back in England I had been reading that a vibrantly reconstituted South African public / private partnership was successfully “joining the dots” between the fields of tourism, business and culture. Now I had travelled to Cape Town and was discovering exactly how this was being accomplished in order to bring these lessons back to the city I love, Birmingham.

It was an amazing experience, and months later I’m still applying what I’ve learned there to bring competitive advantage to my business and to the region, drawing from rich models not found in London or anywhere else in the UK. As a young business person my goal has always been to develop Punch, my own business, to fulfil all of its promise and potential.

What I learned in South Africa is that for Punch to grow to be all it can be, I need to pitch in to help in the development of the region’s creative sector as a whole.

My mission now is to act beyond my organisation to assist in the establishment of the creative sector as a highly valued contributor to the local economy.

We need to improve our value proposition as a region and create a competitive advantage that firmly establishes Birmingham and the UK as significant players in the global creative economy.

My experience in Cape Town showed me that the creative industries can deliver these objectives.

My business, Punch Records, ( is an artist-led music development agency known throughout the UK for its successful music promotions, events, productions, marketing and educational work.

Punch began by developing pioneering music activities for young people in and out of schools, and today it commissions and produces theatre, dance, music, visual arts, heritage and film.

Punch now offers independent consultancy on all of these subjects to a range of corporate clients, but I’m proud that the company has grown up respecting its roots in the communities it serves.

This was also something I saw in practice at the hugely successful organisation I was matched with in South Africa; Ravi Naidoo’s trailblazing Interactive Africa (

Naidoo has spearheaded a number of major projects to draw the eyes of the world to his nation, including pitching for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, planning the first South African in space and running the pioneering Design Indaba international festival.

The effectiveness of the Cultural Leadership Programme’s international knowledge and local connections ensured my placement at Interactive Africa was deeply rewarding – I was given opportunities to explore issues, follow discussions, learn motives, shape opinions, reflect on decisions, deliver outcomes and act directly on a number of questions and themes.

Certain highlights were especially significant for me; those where my original learning aims were fulfilled or challenged.

Firstly, that self-reflection and my own role as a Director of Punch has to be shaped by something outside of my comfort zone; remolded and remixed for us to carry on being leaders in our field. Secondly I saw how widespread implementation of delegation to staff, coupled with effective instilling of confidence in them to run with their work – rather than be micro managed – is a key factor in creating excellence.

I plan to encourage good practise, innovation and risk taking in the company, and support this process through guidance.

The other side of this coin is to take staff members outside the parameters of “safe” during team meetings – this could be geographical space or an alternative method to discussions.

Thirdly, in order to move the tides of debate, policy and occasionally innovation in the waters on which my business rests, I need to begin a process now of owning much more information.

This includes an understanding of how Government agencies work, of how Regional Assemblies are devised, how Councils and Regional Development Agencies affect the economy, of how Treasury decisions, major budget shifts and interest rates affect politics, which change policies which finally have a direct impact on your company’s market.

At Punch we have started to put some of these lessons in to practice, and I hope that those of you who deal with the company will see some real change in the next few months.

Those of you who want to know more about Punch or my African adventure are welcome to contact me for more details.