Down the mousehole : Episode 011
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Hello and welcome to the Three Blind Mice podcast from Radio.Events – a show for event professionals by event professionals. I’m your host and the MICE maister-in-cheese, the honorary doc.
Welcome to Radio.Events and the Three Blind Mice podcast. Thanks for tuning in. We bring you what’s hip and happening behind the scenes of Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Events. Three Blind Mice – the little pod with a cast of thousands from Radio.Events
Every now and again you have to stop and take note of the world around you. And more specifically be very aware of movers and shakers.
In the UK creative and events industry, there’s one force that keeps coming up time and time again. And, if very robust growth, 50 plus awards, including Agency of the Year for the fifth time in a little over 12 years is any barometer of success, then that team are clearly doing something right, delivering results time and time again for clients.
Clearly, my next guest stands at the vanguard of success. I caught up with him just before the festive break and immediately after their latest bout of success.
He’s not known for giving interviews, as he quite rightly says. I prefer that we just get on and do it rather than talk about it. Thankfully, on this one occasion he’s made an exception and as it’s rare to get him to share his thoughts in public. I’m going to split this conversation over several episodes rather than rush him to an early close, particularly as the chat is sprinkled with great nuggets and insights. And my apologies for a few audio gremlins. So, if you’ve not yet worked it out, today. I’m absolutely delighted to be joined by Rick Stainton, the CEO of Smyle – an agency which in their own words is dedicated to creating extraordinary live events and digital experiences.
Three Blind MICE
Rick, firstly, a big welcome to Three Blind Mice and thank you for joining me today and a huge congratulations on Smyle just winning its 5th Agency of the year award and securing place number 66 on the Sunday Times Virgin Atlantic Fasttrack. Wow, what a week.
It’s been a good week. It’s been a good week. Yeah, we’re very proud. I think the FastTrack thing was not a surprise to us because we’d been trying…I’ve been submitting the last few years and I think it’s quite an achievement to be recognised by national press, if I’m honest with you. And it’s something we should all be striving for, to put the industry on the map as much as possible from the national press perspective and we’re really proud of that and the team thoroughly deserve it. We’ve had a very intense last few years and a testament to our amazing clients. They’re very loyal to us and they’ve helped us progress as an agency, and the team have stepped up repeatedly, so that was amazing. It just adds a little bit of credibility to perhaps to what we’re trying to achieve. The Award is amazing. I mean, it’s the fifth. I think we’ve won a couple more Agency of the Year awards, but really it’s our fifth year of winning an Agency of the Year. I think one year…in 2013 we won a couple, like Eventia and C&IT and Event magazine… I think we won all three in one year, which was a little bit greedy. I think to have five Agency of the Year awards…five years in the last 10 years is something which is brilliant and I’m happy to say it’s the only years we actually have entered. I’m not quite sure how we’ve managed to pull it off. There are some amazing agencies that we respect and aspire to out there. Again for the team it reassures them we’re doing something right rather than just believing it ourselves. So yes, thank you. I’m very proud and it’s a great way to end the year in the run up to Christmas.
I think it’s a huge buzz and I don’t think we should understate it and for myself as an observer to turn around and say, you’ve won five Agency of the Year awards in 12 years. I mean, crikey, if Smyle aren’t doing something right and being a great place to work, delivering great results for clients, I don’t know who is. I mean, it’s just an amazing accolade. So warmest, congratulations to you, the management team, and everybody else involved who do the real work, of course, and not forgetting the clients who dare to put their business with you.
Yeah. Clients, the team, our freelance support, our suppliers, they all should share it. They all contribute to it. No doubt. This is not just one of any of them. And dare I say it probably unlike many years ago, we’re a bit more humble about things now rather than getting too over the top. Who knew?
Times change. But I’m a little confused because since the ‘sale rumour’ I understood that you’d stepped back, you were no longer actively involved, you were away counting your money, you really hadn’t got time to be entering awards, let alone going for a Sunday Times Virgin Atlantic FastTrack. So would you like to confirm whether you’re away counting the money and set the record straight?
I’m very happy to put the record straight on a number of levels. I think whoever believes in rumours, that’s their prerogative, but the fact of the matter is pretty simple and not as dramatic as anyone might think. We took an investment from Rockpool private equity firm who are fantastic partners with a majority stake of 53%. Myself and the other three main directors retain a large minority stake of 43 percent. So across the four of us who have been together for pretty much all of Smyle, for the last 13, 14 years, we are all very much still shareholders and engaged in the business and are focused on delivering some increased success over the next… Many years, frankly. We have no big master plan. There’s no earn-outs in place for the next year, 18 months or anything like that. We’re fully engaged in the business. So across the four of us, we retain a significant minority stake of 43 percent and Chad Lion-Cachet who came on as chairman, has a couple of percent as well. So it’s very clear from my perspective, what our next mission will be, with the support of Chad and with the support of Rockpool who are relatively easy easygoing partners….as long as we keep delivering the numbers and say what we’re going to do and do what we say. And they don’t pretend to know our industry as well as we do, or know our agency or our business as well as we do, and are very much support partners and semi-passive rather than sort of getting involved on a daily or even weekly basis. So that’s fantastic. Me personally, my transition from MD to CEO is simply to enable some more people to focus perhaps on the internal elements and the strategy of Smyle on an operational and ongoing basis. And my aspiration was to add a bit more value, at a more strategic level and support the group, whether that’s engaging with wider elements of the industry or associated industries through partnerships or talent or mergers, acquisitions or international expansion, all of the above as well as developing existing and new client relationships, which I’ve always tried to do either directly or indirectly, which I thoroughly enjoy doing. I’m still doing all of that. I just think there’ll be a bit of a diversion in some of my days. I’ve got a lot going on from a personal perspective, moving house and kids that are soon going to be doing GCSEs and A levels. So I may be taking a little bit of the odd day off throughout the weeks and months in the next few years than perhaps I have in the past. But it’s not anything more dramatic than that in the short term that I know of any way… in my view. I’ll probably take a few more days off a month than perhaps I was before, which was negligible. I’ve got a clear role, clear remit and it’s really making sure that the rest of the directors have the right resources available to them and we recruit at some senior levels. Perhaps we’ve been a bit…what’s the word? We haven’t quite grown up as much as we need to internally and we need some support from that level and I’m fully engaged with that and very excited about the next phase in Smyle’s journey.
Rick, just going back to awards for a second, I know you’ve got five UK Agency of the Years under the belt. Are you going to pause for a few years and let everyone else catch up? Are awards important to you?
Awards are very important and why shouldn’t they be? I think we have a real weird culture, not necessarily just in our industry, but certainly in the UK of not celebrating success and it’s like a taboo. It’s very sort of weird in a way. We have to be very sort of quiet and not celebrate success, which is weird, bear in mind all that we’re trying to all achieve in any industry, let alone the creative and live event industry is success. And when the chips are down and you’re in a bit of a weird, dark place and you’re struggling, people seem to talk about it more than when you’re achieving greatness. Both should be taken at the level that they deserve, less of the gossip and the rumour mongering and the opinions perhaps without the facts. And if you are able to celebrate success, it’s not about celebrating, it’s more about sharing and the fact that you’re doing something right and not just believing in it yourself but getting a third party to substantiate it and give it some credibility is so rewarding. Whether that’s you looking at a new member of staff that’s just joined last week and they’ve just joined the Agency of the Year or whether it’s someone that’s worked their butts off for 10, 15 years. And your first recruit, who… My first recruit is now a board director and a shareholder and he’s still in his thirties, which is an incredible achievement from my perspective. They both those sort of range and spectrum of people deserve to feel that they’re part of something special and we keep reminding everyone and our clients thankfully keep reminding everyone at Smyle, that we’re doing the right things the vast majority of the time. But then to get industry recognition on a level above that certainly of someone like Evcom which obviously is an independent board of judges. I understand that the CEO of the Federation of Creative Industries and the CEO of IIP were on the judging panel. It doesn’t get much better than that from a substantiation perspective. So you know, that independence of reviewing ourselves and the other finalists who were all great agencies, some bigger than us, some newer entrants to the industry, that was really refreshing to see. And any one of those four agencies that were short listed would have deserved to win I’m sure. It was our year this year. So yes, why shouldn’t they be important? Who doesn’t want to win an award? It’s not the be all and end all though, let’s be very clear. They don’t win you business, they just probably reassure your team and your partners around you that you’re on a good trajectory, a good place. And it’s a nice thing to get, but it’s certainly not the be all and end all.
Randle Stonier: 00:11:30 Rick, whilst I appreciate it’s not your job to coach the rest of the Industry, but from your perspective, what do you think goes into a great award entry submission?
Well, it’s a good question. I think we’ve shared a few panels on that in the past. And there’s no elixir of ‘Live’. There’s no secret potion. I mean, first of all I write, I write them all, I have done since Day One. And I guess that’s maybe a good starting point because I guess I know what the tone should be. I know all the intricate areas of the business and where the successes have come from. Obviously I ask my colleagues all around the business to support and collate that, across whether it be HR, I.T, Finance, our Sustainability areas, the business, the commercial perspective, the investment in our talent.
I think that’s a really valid point because like you, having sat on various judging panels in the past, there’s a real disconnect sometimes when it’s delegated to the most junior member of the organisation to submit it or indeed even to a third party who doesn’t really understand the nature of the projects or the temperature of the organisation. I think that that detracts from the opportunity.
I totally agree. However, it’s good also to share the input and the content so that everyone feels that they’ve contributed and I don’t know, everything that’s going on in the business and there are nuances of some of the client development elements I might not know about, or the nuances of some of the case studies of some events I might not have been that close to, from perhaps an HR or a Talent Development perspective or Sustainability, our Planet Smyle Committee, they may have had some data and stats that I might not be fully aware of in my head at the exact time I’m collating the information so they feel part of it as well. I think if you’re able to read submissions, I’m not sure if they publish them or at least they do a synopsis of why agencies or anyone has won awards in the past is a good research point of view and what emphasis they placed on certain areas of their success over the last 12 months. But I think most importantly is, put yourself in position of the judges. We’ve all…not we’ve all… but you and I and many of our agency peers have done judging and it is quite a long arduous process and like any pitch, essentially you’re pitching the best results, solutions, concepts, buy-in, story, narrative as if you’re pitching to a client. But it all needs to be backed up by sort of credibility of data. It needs to be backed up by good imagery. It needs to be backed up by video. It needs to have some very succinct key USP’s, key achievements that are very easily digestible so that the person just wants to read more, it’s a narrative story, you’re telling a story of the last 12 months, so long winded paragraphs or lacking of inspiring imagery, inspiring stats, video that don’t all look sort of click and line up together is going to probably confuse and the energy and the attention of the judge is probably going to wane in at some point and you want them just to get to the end of it and go, ‘Wow, this is a great entry. I really enjoyed reading it. I took time to read it. It was very well presented. It looks great. I get the key messages they’re trying to get across and they’re presented in a really succinct and poignant way without overselling, without making up unbelievable stories and claims that really can’t be backed up with visuals or stats.’ So it’s a package with a bow that all judges, whatever their background, whether they’re from a technical, creative, comms, international perspective, and go across the board that I got that. We’ve all…well I have personally, but many people have judged awards where you just sort of don’t quite get what they’re trying to say or you don’t quite understand them. These guys have about 30 seconds to a minute max probably, reading the entry to get it – so that’s summary, the synopsis is key, the key points, then you go into a bit more detail, back it up with all the stats, the imagery, and then go for a punchy conclusion of our next plan to demonstrate this isn’t just the only year we deserve to win it. So there’s a continuity of approach and tone of voice.
I think you’ve absolutely nailed all that Rick, and the evidence speaks for itself. I think if agencies listened to your words there and reflected on it and adopted it, there’ll be stiffer competition next year. How do you celebrate?
haha. No comment. That’s very interesting actually, because it was a weird one. Unfortunately, none of my fellow directors, Dom, Matt or Andrew were able to join me at the award ceremony even though we all booked a table for it because they were all delivering gigs on site at that time, or actually we’d just won a very large global project literally the week before that Matt had to start putting together. I think Dom was on an event with one of our top clients somewhere in the country, it might even have been in London. So that was quite quite frustrating. However, the bonus of that was that our senior management team who had never ever been to any award ceremony before across the board so we were all at the table, including Chad our chairman as well. So we had representation from the creative department, the client services department, the HR department, pretty much operations I believe were there. So that was really, really nice.
Randle Stonier: 00:17:01 I hope there were some sore heads on Saturday.
Rick Stainton: 00:17:03 Yes, maybe, but it was a lunch. It was a lunch. So actually it was…you can fast forward a couple of hours. It wasn’t a five or 6:00am first train home as we call it, it was probably just about the last train home, which was actually a bit sad because the first one home is so much more fun. You do that walk of shame on Paddington or Euston at 5:30 in the morning, clutching an award what you’ve dropped three times. But how do we celebrate? Well, first of all, within half an hour or an hour of knowing that we’d won, we’d communicated to all the respective offices. I mean London, Hertford, and even Joe in San Francisco and made sure that they had a glass of champagne in their hands. It was Friday afternoon. They thoroughly deserved to all share in some sort of toast initially even though they couldn’t be there with us, all of us on the table. We have a little present going out to every single member of staff before the end of this week as a thank you from the directors as well. We have our Christmas party, which I’m sure will reiterate a bit of celebration at next Friday, and we’re also planning a celebratory event when the dust settles early in the new year when we’re not also manic cramming the next 10 days – two weeks, into the end of the year, and trying to organise everyone getting together, which we’re almost 100 staff now. That’s quite difficult to do. So that’s sort of the plan. We’ve taken the award around several offices already this week. We’ve got some, the FastTrack and awards certificate going up in the offices on a plaque and there’s been some lovely press around it as well through various publications which everyone hopefully will read and be distributed. So I think the big thing really is that everyone gets to see and touch the award. Everyone gets a thank you and the present both directly and indirectly from me and the director’s face to face. And then they also get a present to recognise the fact that they’d been thought of as part of the winning award entry, and then we’ll celebrate it a number of times across Christmas and the New Year. It’s really hard when you’re flying as an agency to stop and pause, but to really make the effort to do that, I think is really important, otherwise it belittles it and undermines, it a bit.
Let’s just turn the clock back more than a few years, not just to Day One, but to Day Zero. How did it all begin for you and for Smyle?
Essentially I worked at a couple of previous agencies. Motivaction, I started my career there and then P&MM. Both great agencies. I had great bosses who I aspired to and learn a lot of stuff from both as well… what they did well and what perhaps they didn’t do so well. And essentially in the second agency, I can’t remember, maybe in the first agency we used a company, a small tech company owned by Matt Margetson and Geoff Barrow called Smyle Productions. Who were were basically a sort of 3-4 man band, a little tech agency supporting a few agencies. A production company based in Cambridge, and they just had a certain vibe, a certain attitude about them, which I really liked as one of our main technical suppliers. So when I moved from Motivaction to P&MM we continued using them and then essentially I made it very clear to my current employers that I wanted to leave. I sort of had an aspiration to set up my own, but I didn’t quite know how viable that was. But when I left I got into discussion, informally over a drink with Matt and he said, look, what are you’re gonna to do now? I said I’m not really sure, but you know, maybe start freelancing or consult or go on my own. And he said, well, we don’t want to lose you. We like working with you personally. Why don’t you we try to do something together? So I set up Smyle Events. We had, obviously Matt had Smyle Productions, separately owned for 2-3 years, but we presented ourselves together going forward to the market as a slightly different model, of someone that could come up with maybe the event ideas and the client relationship at the front end, but also backed up by an in-house technical and creative offering at the back-end that wasn’t outsourced, which at the time was, was pretty rare, if not almost unique. So straight away we cut through the agency model traditionally of offering lots of services, but outsourcing the vast majority of them to third parties. I’m not commenting whether that’s the right or wrong model even now. And there are successes and failures on both sides. But that’s the story I felt would cut through a lot of the marketplace. And simply from there on we joined forces formally as Smyle Creative Limited in 2007 and moved into offices about 4-5 weeks before the recession actually kicked in, around September – October 2007. So that was a really good move. We went through the recession as a £3m agency and came out three years later as an £8m agency. The opportunities and changes in the industry and the macroeconomic situation does present opportunities for some agencies that can realise that the change of an environment, if you’re a small or a dynamic player, you don’t necessarily have to be small, you can maybe take advantages of those that are less able to react to certain bigger events, which is what we did. We capitalised on a few interesting opportunities. The creativity model married with the technical background seemed to hit through and cut through with Procurement quite nicely. We ended up winning a big client called Blackberry, RIM – Research-in-Motion. You may remember them, they made smart phones and were amazing to work with them. They were basically a massive part of our growth over that period to the point really when we got to 2013, early 14 and they just obviously imploded suddenly out of the blue. We decided to not do smart phones anymore. So we suddenly became a £3-4 million agency overnight, which was pretty scary. And then we had a choice. By then we’d incorporated video I think within us, Moving Image. We’d invested a lot more in kit. We’d moved to a big HQ in Hertford, a 12-13,000 sq ft office. And we were on a big investment growth plan and to suddenly lose 40 percent of our turnover was pretty disastrous. So we had a choice. Do we make people redundant, restructure or do we believe that as we’d just won Agency of the Year, (I believe for the third time – we won in ’08, 11 and 13, and we’d just won it), we thought we’d got a really good thing going here. We haven’t done anything wrong. It’s not like we’ve, we’ve mucked up anything quality delivery wise or the client relationship. It just wasn’t our fault. So me and Matt sort of inadvertently perhaps, took a lot less remuneration. I think we had no remuneration for about six months and put all our efforts into going out in to the marketplace, which we hadn’t really done properly. Because we were just too focused on our existing clients, rightfully so, particularly perhaps Blackberry and one or two others. So we went out to the Market and reinvigorated a business development plan and told everyone about our story to date and our model, which was still quite rare with the growing integrated elements of kit and creativity as well as the sort of standard approach to events. And within 12 months we won 5 or 6 blue-chip global brands like Roche, EY, Facebook, Salesforce and Red Bull amongst others. And going into 2014-15, we then delivered almost doubled turnover to £7-8. And then we did £13m and £15m off the top of my head. I think in ’16 we did £16-17m and then just gone, now we did £27m. So it was the right thing to do. It was a scary call for me and Matt to make, to fund ourselves effectively for 6-9 months on loans and credit cards. But that’s what people do here and it kept the team intact. We went out to market and the gamble paid off. But it was essentially a belief in the fact that what we had been doing was good.
Rick, I think that’s just stonking. It’s no mean achievement to come back from losing 40 percent of your business in one year and in case of Blackberry imploding and to go out and regenerate your pipeline or establish a pipeline of new business with the wins that you did and to have built from there. And the size and scale that you have done over the last few years. The results, the numbers speak for themselves.
And that’s where we’re going to take a brief break. I am full of respect for what the team achieved at Smyle after the demise of Blackberry, and to bounce back like they did. That was awesome.
We’ll be back in Part 2 when we talk about the Team at Smyle, how to break your neck and bounce back, growth, culture, the types of projects Smyle take on, why clients come calling and how to respond to briefs.
That’s it for now. Thank you for listening to Three Blind MICE from Radio.Events
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