Down the mousehole : Episode 012
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Welcome back, to Part 2, as I continue my fascinating chat with Rick Stainton as we start off talking about the team at Smyle.
Let’s talk about Rick Stanton, the person a little bit. I know sometimes it’s not always something we’re comfortable with, but how would you describe yourself, and I ask this because sometimes you’ve got a bit of a reputation as being direct speaking, sometimes aloof, occasionally rude apparently, but my times of interacting with you have been very much straight down the line. You say it as you see it and I think you’re considerate, but less about what I think. I’m interested to know what you say.
I think all those observations are very fair. I’d like to sort of reiterate, just before I talk about me very briefly, hopefully is that the vast majority of the success of Smyle, certainly in the last 10 years is beyond me and Matt, has been Dom and Andrew, the other key directors and the leadership they’ve shown, the development they’ve shown and the team that we’ve developed around them. So this is not a Rick Stainton showcase. This is a team effort and the vast majority of the client relationships, almost all of the operational delivery, almost all of the creative ideas have not come from me. So I am not going to take, apart from a small proportion of kudos from the growth and the achievements over the last 10 years. And I know a lot of people say, it’s not about us, it’s the team, but it’s so true with Smyle. I mean to deliver 400 projects a year, maintain all our clients, develop overseas relationships. I’ve done very little of that. I’ve just managed to…..If I have a skill set, it’s been grabbing a few of the right talent, letting them fly and sink or swim in a way. And it’s been by very lose management, autonomous approach to people. So that’s probably the mentality that I’ve adopted, and the rest of the team have taken the opportunity and smashed it. And that’s been more rewarding than anything. I guess, I think it goes back to the fact that when I was 20 years old, I fell 30 foot off a promenade in Portsmouth and broke my neck and was paralysed for a number of months and was told I was never going to walk again. Paralysed from the neck down… When that happens to you, and then you manage to have your finger move out the blue and then your feeling almost entirely, maybe 95 percent, comes back over a period of a couple of years, and you’re the only one to walk out the spinal unit out of 60 patients that year with the header jacket fitted. And then to go through your early 20s learning to walk again, you get a certain mentality that anything is possible. I guess in a scary way, and you can’t really inflict this on anyone, but you have a self-belief and you’ve sort of feel like you’ve got one over on a lot of people who haven’t maybe experienced that, which is very dangerous attitude to have. But it also means that you do quite a lot of straight talking. It probably means that you might come across a little bit rude. And I may well have been rude in the past. I probably can’t deny that. Probably to do with a few too many drinks at certain industry events. My team, certainly Dom and Andrew were aware of both the positive and the not so positive elements of my personality. And you know what, you can’t be all things to all men. I think, certainly in the early years the incident that happened formed a big part of my story, punching above my weight from an opinion perspective. I did have strong opinions because I thought the industry was in a very strange place with a lot of….what’s the word I’m going to look for really carefully here? A lot of people doing the same thing. And I wanted to be part of the industry that was pushing the boundaries and I felt that Smyle had an opportunity to push the boundaries. And we weren’t alone, don’t get me wrong. But I guess I got frustrated sometimes about not feeling part of an industry that was really striving and capitalising on the most amazing opportunities that were presented in front of it from a live experience development perspective, rivalling traditional marketing from a creativity and techies perspective and hearing about more traditional models more and more, and then shouting loudly about how well they were doing versus perhaps how well they were adding value to the industry. Perhaps inadvertently that created a bit of a reputation for me shouting above my station, being too opinionated about little Smyle, which frankly was up to a few years ago, quite a small player in the industry. So yes, I totally accept that and I’ve learnt as you should do from feedback from external and from colleagues. And I’d like to think that over the last number of years, certainly 4-5 years, I have, taken on that feedback and developed a slightly more respectful approach to the wider industry. I probably try to listen a bit more. I’ve also understood that you cannot impose your own background and your own attitude on anyone because that’s an unfair position because they haven’t shared in it and also understand that a lot of other people have gone through similar things in different ways and they have their own motivations. So that’s hopefully clarified where I’ve come from. It’s certainly no excuse for, for some of the incidents. I don’t think there’s been many. I think there’s been one or two reported repeatedly, or repeatedly reported. Thankfully they’re so distant, in my view anyway. All I’ve tried to do in the last 4-5 years is head down, deliver for my team, enable my team to deliver, focus on clients, focus on the talent around me. Most of them are better at my job… I’m sorry. Most of them are better at my job, how Freudian. Most of them are better their jobs than I ever would be. Some of them are probably better at my job than I should be. I’ve given them the ability to fly and they’ve dragged me with them in a lot of respects. And I think that’s made me a lot more humble and I have a lot of great friends within the Industry now. A lot of Industry agency heads actually and peers that I regularly talk to, meet up with. And I think the fruition of that if I’m honest with you, was the Sustainable Events summit. I put my head above the parapet about 4-5 years ago, founded and co-funded an initiative that I felt the industry should get behind. And I contacted the top 20, 30 agencies in the industry, the owners and heads of, and all but a very few and not dissing them at all. They had their own process and policies and initiatives. But the vast majority of them not only took my call, which I’m very grateful of, but also actually put effort and money behind my own initiative physically. Their own hard earned cash and attended the events repeatedly and supported it with taking their clients to it as well. I guess that was a realisation for me that I’m doing something right and maybe had a little bit more of an opportunity to engage with people in a respectful level than I had previous to that. And that was a nice reassurance that I was getting somewhere, in a better place of not only how I was engaging with the industry, but also there was some proof in the pudding that we could turn it into a positive, a positive thing. So there we are. How’s that?
Great. I’m going to change geographies. Hertford, Islington, San Francisco. Why? How does all that work? What are the future plans?
It’s like Del Trotter’s van, isn’t it? Maybe not. Well, very simply, when I started out as Smyle Events, it was just outside of St Albans in London Colney, Radlett and Matt’s Smyle Productions team were up in Cambridge, in Newmarket. And if you look at a map, equidistant between the two was Hertford. I was sort of vaguely aware of Hertford. My wife was brought up there. Several of our key team members at the time when we had 8-10 members of the team, maybe 12 in 2006-7 sort of in and around that area or commuting to Radlett or Cambridge. It’s got great transport links, it’s a fantastic town, a nice old market town, easy for the airports, Stansted and Luton, easy for the M25, M1, A1, M11 into the city, trains 50 minutes into London. I can do door to door to Angel in under an hour. So it ticked a lot of boxes and we found a good property there that we bought in 2007 and our initial HQ. That’s the simplicity of it really. Then Angel was a good one for north London – up and coming area. We were in Shoreditch initially which was getting more and more expensive Angel was 10 minutes away and we’ve got a fantastic site there, on the corner opposite the Tube. Again, one stop up from Old Street and Moorgate, to get back up to Hertford. And then easily accessible around London as well. There’s a lot of really nice agencies in and around that sort of area and we’re 5 minutes from Old Street and the Silicon Roundabout, so it supports our talent requirements as well as our proximity to a lot of clients based in and around London. And then San Francisco, you know, we’ve got a lot of key clients now that are basically owned and based on the west coast of the US and Jo was a friend of Smyle’s for a number of years, ex SportsMark so knows a lot about brand and activations on a large scale through Olympic work. Set up a one lady office there, which we’re very proud of and is supporting our existing relationships in and around the west coast in California and also around Silicon Valley. Hopefully, there are plans in the near future to develop that. So she’s supporting existing relationships and seeking out new ones as well, leveraging our reputation in Europe. So that’s really it, quite simply,
Which is great, not least because one of the questions I was going to ask you was about your leadership team of yourself, Dom, Matt and Andrew, very male dominated. Women figure enormously in the Events Industry, but I was going to ask you, what’s the role of women in Smyle?
Massive. The vast majority of our senior management team our ladies. We purely recruit on attitude and experience and the values of Smyle. The fact that the Head of Events, the Head of Creative, Head of Commercial, Head of HR and Head of Client Services. I think seven out of nine of our top senior management team are ladies. Yes why are there 4 guys at board level? Well, frankly we still deem ourselves as quite a new, up and coming agency. We may be 14-15 years old, but really we didn’t probably get going until 2007-2008, so we’re 10 years old and the four of us have run Smyle and we are actively recruiting senior members of the staff all the time. I don’t have the stats in front of me, but I would assess at least 60 percent of our team across the board are ladies. As I said before, the vast majority of our management team are ladies and who knows in the near future, we could well have promotions in place or we could be looking to the Industry for talent. I think a lady on the board or number of ladies on the board kicking us all up the butt, setting a new, fresh and dynamic approach to what is currently a male dominated board would be very welcome and refreshing. It’s not for want of a will or any other remit, we perhaps haven’t had the right appointment yet. The board hasn’t changed for best part of 14 years. Chad is the new entry as chairman and the representative from Rockpool as part of the investment. So it’s not like we’ve recruited loads more people over the last 10, 14 years who haven’t been women. We just haven’t recruited anyone. I think it’s a fair way of positioning it.
Just staying with people for a minute. How many people are Smyle?
I think we’re something like 85 full time. We have something at any one time about 20-30 freelancers working on long term projects. So we deem ourselves to be a 100 plus agency at the moment. But I mean, gosh, it’s changing all the time. We’ve been heavily recruiting. We’ve grown our staff numbers. I think two years ago we were 50. Last year we were 65. This year we’re 85 and that’s the full time.
What kind of backgrounds are you taking people from?
Everything. People coming out of colleges or universities, whether they’re media, arts based or done event management courses or not. Through to people that have worked in broadcast and TV, because we have a large ‘moving image’ and comms content team, people that have come from other large agencies seem – perhaps the slightly more established agencies over the last couple of decades, we seem to be attracting a number of them, which is great, certainly on producer and production manager, and more senior positions. So we don’t really look anywhere non-specifically or specifically. I think it’s really healthy to have a nice range from the creative arts, the media area, live, experiential, and increasingly will probably look more at digital as well. We have certain positions to fill and we need a certain level of experience, but the majority of the time. And you know, I quoted my first ever employee Dom who is now practically with Andrew running the whole operation at Smyle. He came out of first year at university with having done a little bit of party planning in his spare time. And I just said, if you’ve got the right attitude and you want to learn as we go, then that’s how we’ll develop and obviously it’s a little bit more robust and a little bit more customised to individuals with personal development programs and so on, but we still feel that we’re learning every day. The variety of projects that we have, the variety of clients that we have, the international reach, the way we deliver over 60 percent now overseas, you know, anyone that’s going to come to Smyle, whatever their background will be learning something new as do me, Dom, Matt and Andrew everyday as well. Therefore, we can’t really recruit someone who knows everything and would never want to believe that we could. And that’s a big part of adding value to their careers as well as them adding value to Smyle from their individual backgrounds. That’s a very exciting vibe that we always have.
I read that your culture isn’t designed. How would you describe your culture and how has it changed over the last 12 years?
I’m not sure what ‘culture by design’ means. I mean, essentially culture is made up of a number of individuals, hopefully centralised and singularity of approach to things and that they’re aligned certainly in some simplistic values. We did have some very simplistic values a few years ago that we focused on, of passion and creativity and people, being at the focus of everything that we do. That’s moved on a little bit more now to creativity and we are the makers of ideas and they must be smart, they must be bold and they must matter. And that’s our mantra that we’ve had across all areas of the business because you can have creative ideas and development of approach, in any area of a business. It doesn’t just have to be the conceptual solutions for clients? It can be through process, it can be through better use of time, better use of resources and so on. Our culture obviously stems from the top, but it also comes from the bottom. The culture club that we have internally does a huge amount of proactive weekly work of just little surprises for the business as well as in longer term programs maybe throughout the summer, ‘Awesome Summer’, ‘Awesome August’ approaches through organising this or the seasonal events, and the company meetings that we have and, lots of other elements. An ongoing sense of that we do work damn hard, but we must remember to take a pause as much as possible every now and again and thank, reward, celebrate, and also look out for each other. And be aware that some people will be going through really stressful times when others have just come out of a project or in a sort of slightly more chilled or less intense mode just before a big project delivery. We have a certain tone of voice, a certain respect for the fact that we are all under it. And we’re all going through difficult projects. Not so much difficult, but intense, stressful projects. Live events are…it’s in the name, they’re live, there’s no major rehearsal for them. And they’re a big event. They’re a big event for a company. Sometimes, some things we’re delivering are a massive step in a journey – of a new product launch or an annual conference with a CEO unveiling a new strategy. And you know, that creates a lot of pressure on the guys. So I think very simply, our culture is all about looking out for each other, striving to be the best. We always strive to be the best in everything that we do. And I don’t mean biggest, I don’t mean the largest turnover or number of staff – that’s quite the opposite. It’s about having the best reputation for quality of delivery, which means we’ll hopefully get talent wanting to aspire and join us and clients want to be part of, and enjoy part of our work and stick with us, and develop with us and help us to develop. And if you maintain that focus on being the best that’s about as a solid and as simpler a culture as you can have. I have this mantra of ‘positive paranoia’ where even though things are going really well and we won these awards and FastTrack, I still wake up in the morning a little bit paranoid that what if we can’t pay the rent or what if a big client suddenly decides they don’t like us anymore? What if we screw up some big relationship or project, you know, so resting on your laurels, just celebrating and wallowing around success, naval gazing is really the most detrimental thing that could happen to our culture. I guess the other mantra is people that are coming in, whether they’re young, old, experienced, not so experienced, doesn’t matter. They all can add value to our business. They can all put their hand up at any point and go, hold on, stop. This could be better. I can change this or I’ve got a better idea how this can prove that. It could be a really small thing, a really big thing. If that ever changes and people say, stop, that’s not your job, or that’s not your department, get back in your box, then our culture’s very much undermined and I hope that it never will happen.
Very interesting. I’m guessing that there’s a tangential link to my next question here, which is I saw on your email footer that you actively support MIND in Islington, a mental health charity. How did you come to be working with MIND? What was the driver there?
We supported the spinal injuries charity for obvious reasons I’ve already mentioned – ‘Wings for Life’ with our Red Bull partners who are a big supporter of it and after a few years of raising a lot of money and doing a lot of activities around the business for that with which is an international charity, we thought maybe it would be a good idea to do something more local, that represented our position in Hertford and Islington. So we did a little review and also at the same time, 2-3 years ago, obviously the stress of working in the events industry, mental health was beginning just then, beginning to be a lot more prevalent perhaps in people’s minds as something that is actually out there and not hushed hushed, and just misunderstood perhaps as it was previously. So we had a think. We got together the Planet Smyle team who through our sustainability initiatives, that’s one of their key cornerstones, and we reviewed a number of charities. We looked at MeetingNeeds, which we had chats with Martin and Jennifer about, and someone put forward MIND bear in mind the stress of the industry. Bear in mind that they have a local office in, in Hertford, and they did one have one in Islington as well. And we felt that was really nice fit because then both offices felt they were contributing to the local community as well as doing something that people could nationally, not nationally but across the industry, could recognise, its relevance to our industry as well as supporting people, nothing to do with our industry. So that’s why we chose it. And the activation of that has been fantastic. We’ve had mental health workshops across everyone in the company organised through MIND’s consultants. We’ve done free videos for MIND and put them there on the MIND Islington website to showcase their work. We did them for free. We have had sales of ‘Ex kit’ and stock in our warehouse that probably would have gone, dare I say it, not to a good place like landfill or somewhere horrible like that, which we’ve actually sold to each other or supplier partners. It’s raised money for MIND. People have done all sorts of different walks and runs and other elements that have raised money for it. So it’s been a really easy thing for us to buy into. It’s been developed internally as an initiative to support our own staff. We’ve raised money, we’ve supported them in kind as well. It’s ticked lots of boxes, that’s made it engaging and relevant to our suppliers and partners within the Industry as well.
If you don’t mind, we’ll change tack and move to where it really happens in terms of projects and events. Let’s start off with the complete flip side of that. Do you avoid certain types of events, certain types of projects?
I think any agency knows where it’s best suited to deliver and it can’t, I believe, any agency can’t be all things to all men across every single industry sector and be experts in every single field and every single genre, not that I am aware of anyway. We will analyse every single project that comes through to us, especially with an existing client and be sensitive to the fact that we’re not going to pretend that we can do something we can’t and will be very honest with that. And I think most clients with any credibility will respect a trusted agency to say that’s not really our thing, but we’ll try and help you find a partner that can deliver it for you. And that could be from an internal skillset perspective or the fact simply that we don’t have the capacity for a certain rationale of resource at this particular time. We might have a really busy spike in operation and to do something else on top might threaten both the delivery of that as well as the existing projects. Geographically we might not be best suited for certain reasons because we haven’t got any experience in that initial location they’re looking at, which doesn’t happen that often, if I’m honest, we do events pretty much all over the world. But there may be a certain rationale for the local experience being pivotal. So, we’ll analyse any different project, but, you know, we do have I think, quite a unique range from doing Ryder Cup opening ceremonies, through to AGMs, trade stands to conferences, large scale global product launches to small video projects and larger video projects. So we do have an extreme range of delivering messages using tech in live environments, but there’ll always be certain perhaps types of clients we don’t quite understand, maybe their industry or their brand as well as maybe we think others probably would, and to pretend otherwise I think we’ll be very naive and a waste of their time as well as our time. So there’s many different criteria of projects we wouldn’t do, but increasingly there’s more and more that we’re beginning to explore into because by natural development of a business and the more types of operation and types of culture, types of clients you engage with, you become a bit more trusted. Then you see that you can touch other areas of whether it’s digital or experiential or further afield geographically and you then, by a symbiotic way, invest in perhaps a bit of skill-set to support that and, and then it becomes the norm and part of your toolkit. And that’s a very exciting development, organically within any agency I think. Without disrupting what you’re staying true to, what your core proposition is.
Why do you think clients come to you? What do some of them tell you?
I have to be careful what I say here. It’s probably 75 percent of the team, and 25 percent of the ideas because you can have the best idea, but the client might not believe in you or the team. Or you can have an idea, we can have an idea that is great but not quite right, but believe in the people to develop it in partnership with yourself to make it spot on. We’ve won pitches in the past where we haven’t quite got…not some but a few pitches in the past where the feedback’s been. we didn’t quite get the creative right, but we really liked your ideas and approach, but the team smashed it in their attitude and approach to everything. So happy to work in partnership with you to develop the final 10 percent of the creative. But don’t get me wrong. We’re all about creative ideas and they win business. They maintain client relationships, they maintain the vibrancy of the agency, internally as well as I’ve already explained. So the feedback we get through our NPS feedback system across pretty much every project is about the team and their approach, their attitude, the delivery of what we proposed and that it was on budget and it was as expected, if not beyond expectation. So that’s, got to be a good 75 percent of it, backed up with the best ideas in the industry, delivering what we say we’re going to deliver. It’s pretty simple really.
How does a new client or project work in practice from the brief, as much as you are happy to share obviously….n terms of the process. So what skills is it all done in house, how’d you compliment your core team for such projects and how do you measure the right results for the client and for the agency?
I won’t go into the intricate details of teaching the vast majority of anyone that will be listening to this, but essentially, briefs, brief opportunities, land on your lap, and you review them as I’ve just described. And then you put a team around it from various areas of the business, depending on the project or whether it requires the tech support, creative, strategic comms, moving image, content, logistics, whatever. And there’s a number of people, probably one lead person, from either the business development or client development/client services team who has a good knowledge of the key client and their brand and the background to the brief and the audience and the expectation of what the delivery should look like. And most importantly, what the best creative winning ideas should really be put forward.
And then we do our thing and put it through the old Smyle machine and grind out a solution or a number of solutions into a nicely packaged proposal. Go and hopefully present that live. We have no sales team that presents. It’s our own delivery team that goes and presents, so the guys that put together solutions are the guys that will pretty much deliver the solutions and therefore by default present them to the client live so that they believe in not just what’s what’s being presented, but how there’ll be delivered, and by who and then hopefully, the vast majority of the time or at least beyond the majority of the time I should say, we are successful and then it’s full tilt, Boogie – go and deliver it and smash it beyond expectation. We have on most of our clients certain criteria of KPI’s that they want to hit, whether they’re from an external or internal perspective. What I mean by that is internal through process and delivery on certain timescales and comms. And then externally it will be depending on the project, it could be about profile, reach, feedback from the audience delegation on the impact of the content and buy-in. Many different measurement elements there. Some clients obviously are better at measuring that than others. And some are very good at briefing in agencies about the measurement process at the beginning so that it can be embedded within some of the solutions, others perhaps have a bit catch up to do. Everyone to their own. We will deliver on what we’re asked to deliver and try and go that step beyond as well to add value. And obviously our number one mission is to really maintain the client’s trust, deliver on what we deliver that’s put in front of us, and hope that we can use leverage that to develop the relationship as they need us more and more as they are growing their business. And thankfully a lot of our clients are really dynamic and really ambitious and we’re growing with their ambitions. That’s pretty much a simplistic life cycle. I can’t really say much more than that.
Outro Part 2
And that’s a good place to take a final break before Rick joins me again in Part 3 as we talk through some of Smyle’s case studies, discuss the Industry at large and how our trade associations and the events media to raise our stock with the national media and central Government, as well as the challenges of expanding overseas.
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