‘There’s going to be a new normal. We’re not going to go back. It’s impossible to return to where we were; we’ve all changed, and the world has also changed.’ Kevin Jackson.
Kevin Jackson is the founder of The Experience is The Marketing and one of the most influential people in the events industry. He was working in the advertising industry during the 1987 crash and in the events industry during the financial crisis of 2007. Having gone through two major crises and established an impressive international career working with top global brands and building businesses, I immediately reached out to him to seek advice on how to navigate through the current uncertainty.
I have known Kevin for a number of years and highly value and respect his fresh and forward-looking perspective. His practical approach to business, which is based on many years of experience in advertising and events, is always spot on and can help businesses of all sizes. This time, the interview also brought a new perspective and a light of positivity during the current pandemic, with many important takeaways for events agencies to action upon. The complete interview from 15 April 2020 is provided below.
How do you visualise the events industry will be when the pandemic is eradicated?
At the moment, there are much more important things to worry about than events. We’ve all got to stay safe, take the government advice and make sure we’re looking after the people that need to be looked after, and supporting those people who are in the frontline.
I was around in 2007, which was the beginning of the financial crisis. I was also around in 1987 when the big crash was starting in advertising; so, we know that it will eventually be over.
I was listening to a Facebook live a few weeks ago. A friend of mine was detained in a high-security prison for six years with no charges and was eventually released. The way he got through this was to say, ‘I’m another day closer to the end.’ We don’t know when it’s going to end, but there are some things we can do to help us get there; for example, by creating our own routine.
What’s coming out now is that we’re suffering from the lack of a certain “breath for life” that we were used to, whatever that life was, and being isolated in your own home and working from home is causing a bit of grief for the life you lead. But if you build some routine around that, have your meetings and your Zoom, speak to your friends and colleagues, you’re going to build some routine. Make sure you’re getting dressed, showered every day and doing your exercise; you’ll build some routine, and that will keep you healthy, both mentally and physically.
Now is the time to plan
And I suppose that the things we’ve got to learn and realise is that in every business, there’s a time for planning and there’s a time for doing, and typically you do that planning time just before you enter a new year. Depending on your financial year, you start planning in November or in March, building your plans and forecasts, and there’s a chance to do it now. There is always a plan for the year, and you can start building your plans now.
We don’t know when this will end, but we’re guessing. There is now an easing of restrictions occurring, and there are talks about bringing football back at the end of May behind closed doors; so, things are beginning to change and move, but we’ve got to protect ourselves. Therefore, there’s a great deal of planning to be done.
The things that we’ve realised and seen is the acceleration of things that we thought will happen. For example, working from home; people have been thinking about it for 25 years, and it’s now happening. Paperless offices have been discussed for 40 years, and now that’s also happening. And as has been said a number of times, and we said it back in 2007/8, there’s going to be a new normal—we’re not going to go back. It’s impossible to return to where we were because we’ve all changed, and the world has also changed.
One aspect I’ve always focussed upon at the Experience is the Marketing is to examine things, and my blog was the epiphany of this approach. The blog was about depth perception because I’m blind in one eye. I’ve got no depth perception, and my thing was always to look at things and determine whether something was closer or further away than one would imagine.
One particular area I began discussing three years ago is something I refer to as ‘individual collectivism’ because I wanted to give a name to what was happening with millennials and generation Z.
These generations have said to businesses and brands, ‘I’m happy to be with you, to buy your products, but you have to start doing something for the environment, the poor and the homeless.’ They want the businesses and brands that they are working for or buying from to actively do good, rather than to passively not just do bad. And that individual collectivism has come out strongly during this crisis, where people are giving up their free time, money and making donations to people on the frontline, and that is individual collectivism where we’re collaborating for the greater good. You don’t mind giving up something for the greater good; you don’t want to give up everything, but you can give up something to be doing the right thing.
We’ve seen during this crisis brands that are doing the right thing, who are giving up something for this greater good. The brands are not trying to sell or make money out of it—they are doing it because that’s the right thing to do. And I think that we are definitely going to be moving more to that arena when we return.
You’ve got to be thinking about your audiences and what their mindset is when they come back to the ‘new normal’, and you must consider what you could do as an event, business or brand to look after the greater good, to give a proportion of what you’re doing to something else and to make something else happen. It is important to do something that is cause or environment related, and I think that we’re going to see an explosion in those sorts of events because that’s the mindset of the moment.
With Coronavirus impacting everyone in the industry, are you taking the time to create action plans for when the pandemic ends?
It’s about thinking about your business. Individually and collectively, we are all changing, and what we are going to see out of this crisis is that things will not return to where they were. Some people will not go to where they were because they will have decided that they don’t need so much money, saying ‘I’ve been on this hamster wheel, I’ve been running fast all my life, and I’ve realised I’m standing still; so, I’m going to take the time to do the things I want. I’m going take a lesser job or work part time, and I’m going to begin doing the things that make me feel good.’ Many people will take that approach. Agencies must recognise that and make space for that to happen because people will have changed through this, and agencies need to be thinking about where the businesses and brands they work for are going.
If most agencies work for brands for multiple years, they know their calendar and activities better than the brand does, and sometimes they even know their customers better than the brand does. So, this is the time to begin thinking about how you can make a contribution, how you can add value to that business or that brand that you have been working for.
When is the right time to start having a conversation about future business with the clients?
In a certain context, now is not the right time to sell. However, in another context, it definitely is the right time to sell. Everyone is unsure of the way forward, and essentially no one knows what’s going on. It’s impossible to know—everyone is guessing. But as the restrictions are lifted, everyone will be wondering what to do. Now is the time to start wondering. Because when these restrictions are lifted, you don’t want to be the last one to move; you should be one of the first, aiming to be influencing the people around you. So, you need to be thinking now.
In terms of creativity (because nothing happens until an idea is created), you can spend some time in your agency developing creative ideas to help add value to the businesses and brands you work for. You can examine appropriate strategies for your businesses and brands, and you can analyse your audiences for those businesses and brands.
If you work in an agency, as I have for 25–30 years, what takes a significant amount of time is that there is always a pressure, particularly in the events industry because the event will happen—the timeline starts, and you can’t miss that deadline. But now, there is no deadline, and all the things that you’d like to have for space and time to think, space to act; all of that creativity, strategy, audience understanding that you need to do, you can do that now. And you should be doing that. Because once the restrictions are lifted, action needs to happen. What we’ve seen from the big businesses that have gone out of business/into liquidation, is that business needs to happen, salaries need to be earned and profits must be created. There is no point sitting on the sideline once the restrictions are lifted; you need to know what you are going to do, and that scenario planning will be vital.
What will an action plan for the next 6–12 months look like for an event agency?
6–12 months will be difficult because you don’t know when the gun will go off, and the race will begin again. But I think in terms of resources, they have changed; your commercial viability, supplier network and partner ecosystem have all changed.
You must begin having all of those conversations now because you need to be understanding what you can do and what is possible as soon as the restrictions are lifted. And there are certain things that we should be doing now in terms of conversations, contracts and scenario planning that will help build confidence for when those restrictions are lifted.
No one knows what’s going to happen. It can be four, eight or even twelve weeks, but what you can do is build confidence knowing, with respect to your clients, suppliers and partners, what you will do as soon as the restrictions are lifted. This is the time to be doing that.
Typically, all of that happens in a rush. You have almost no time to do all of that, but you can build those relationships, have those conversations and ensure that everyone knows what’s going to happen as soon as the restrictions are lifted.
What do you think is the pathway to ensuring that the industry comes back stronger than ever?
I don’t think there’s any doubt that the industry will return more strongly. We are already seeing that things are happening where we are showing our strength, collaboration and ability to move past petty commercial rivalries, looking at the greater good and the industry as a whole. I think that is one of the things that we do well, and have always done well.
In terms of what we can do to be stronger is to think broadly about what has just happened and what can happen.
Digital events are now fully on the table, I don’t think there’s an events company that isn’t looking at this area; most have done one or are doing and creating them, and I think we’ve got to start looking at how we bring that in. Whether it’s part digital or part physical, or do we need to organise small groups at a location and get the attendees working and then join them up to a bigger meeting online.
We must think about the money we’re spending and the associated sustainability because we want to come out as a fully sustainable event industry. We need to return as a collaborative event industry, one that has been built already that is cause related or is doing good, and we need to be thinking about our people.
One aspect to emerge from the isolation that the industry has been discussing for the last 4-5 years is mental health (particularly in the UK). I think all of those things we’ll need to be thinking about because they will be on our agenda. It’s something that we’ll be dealing with from here on in; so, we need to grab hold of those things and make them a strength and benefit to the industry.
Are there any other creative/innovative event ideas besides going digital that could shape the future of events post pandemic
We need to meet. We’re social beings and have been designed to meet, collaborate and be social. Since the lockdown, people have been having Zooms and a ‘Houseparty’ (an app), as well as dinners and wine tasting, comedy etc.
People are doing interesting things with this. As an industry, digital or not, there’s a community feel to this. And I’ve also said that events are around building communities, and people are doing it naturally now. I think it’s a really strong push for us moving forward.
It’s not about the execution, digital or live, part live or part digital. It’s about finding the right community and doing the right thing for them. Because what we’ve found through this crisis is that people will organise themselves. It shows the power of community and of our social connection, which we’ve always said about events.
Events are important to businesses and brands because they make that social connection in the real world or digitally. Now, we must find the content that does that in that climate. What is it that will bring them together, motivate them and change their behaviour.
What are some measures you think should be put in place to ensure that the industry will survive any other global crisis in the future?
Having survived a few already, I don’t think that there’s any doubt that we can survive. What I’m hearing from the people I talk to and what I’m seeing from the things I read is that the events industry hasn’t found its space in terms of government pressure. We haven’t managed to let government know how important we are. Because to a certain extent, we’re a hidden industry.
We’re part of the motor, pharmaceutical and insurance industries. We know in the UK that it’s worth approximately 70 billion GBP, and we’ve got to demonstrate, lobby, push and prod to show how important we are to so many industries. People think of the events industry as weddings or parties; of course, it is that, but it’s so much more. That brings social cohesion and drives business.
The events industry is a massive business driver for so many other industries, and we’ve got to make sure that everyone knows that. This need applies not only for the governments of the countries we work in, but also the clients that we work for because I’m sure even some of them don’t even realise how vital we are to the thing that they do. We must step up and be confident about how much business we generate for the different industries, countries and continents and through face-to-face and online events because that’s how we survive.
I’ve always said that the events industry is a group of creative problem-solvers. Almost no matter what challenge you throw at them, whether it be the Olympics or a wedding reception, they’ll solve that challenge creatively and be able to deliver that thing. That’s the power of that industry—it’s unique. When we say that the Olympic opening ceremony will happen, it can’t move and has to be there; the wedding is here, and the event is there. It’s a timeline and a creative, production and financial challenge; there’s no other industry like it.
I think we can rightly stand up and be proud of the part we play in this amazing industry. However, we must have the confidence now to ensure that everyone knows what part we play in so many businesses.