Events fuel the Ironman

David Ball celebrated his fiftieth with a 250km run across the Kalahari. His career in events has, similarly, been a race with him leading from the front.

Raised in Kidderminster, Ball’s father was a GP and sat on the BMA Council and his mother was a plastic surgeon. His education was ecumenical to say the least: a Roman Catholic prep school, a Quaker public school, a CofE school, before some music study at Leeds University.

Ball’s early ambition was to write music for films. “I loved how music brought so much to the visual image,” he says. He feels, however, his career advice could have been better, and says a lack of guidance there explains why he has spent so much energy helping young people find their career paths early.

With best friends working in London, he realised that was where he wanted to be post-graduation.
Exhibition organiser and publisher VNU offered him his first job. “They were tough times but they had a fantastic graduate training scheme,” he says.

“My boss realised that I was up for hard challenges so I ended up on some of the difficult titles or on the tough launches like ‘Financial Decisions’. He told me to go out and eat, sleep and breathe the market – so I did.”

VNU boss Simon Cook ’s advice stuck, it seems. “He was definitely my first mentor and has remained a great friend.

“I had one rule which was never to eat at the same restaurant twice, so I pretty much did all my business over trying out new London restaurants – that was how work in that market was done. I was also 18.5 stone and smoked 50 a day! As a perk, my boss once lent me his company BMW and the first night I had it someone nicked the front grill off it outside my house in Clapham.”

A formative moment for Ball came with redundancy at VNU. “It made me stand on my own two feet and gave me the chance to test myself,” he says. 

A big break soon came with landing a pitch for Emirates Airlines with the Pulse agency.

The Comms Director of Emirates was the brother of a work colleague at Pulse – and friends with the MD. Emirates had been with the Mice agency for 11 years and put the global events and exhibitions piece out to pitch to 11 agencies.

“It was mostly exhibition work which we didn’t do very much of so I had to turn our group into an exhibitions business. We pitched a really brave idea that His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum liked – and suddenly those agencies dropped to three and then to one,” says Ball.

“We then had to work out how to make the idea work. The idea was to build a life-size replica of the Airbus A380 as a three-storey exhibition stand and make it see-through so that everyone could see the two decks.

“After the Emirates win I realised that I had nowhere to grow in Pulse and was never going to own a piece of the business.

“Guy Parsons, one of my best friends from Uni, who also became a longstanding client, said he was going to give me a large piece of work but only if I had my own company.”

Ball founded BrandFuel in 2005 and acknowledges key support also from Lorraine Twohill, then a client at Google, and from training partner Ian Jamieson.

Winning clients including Google, Travel Inn and Opodo Ball brought more opportunity.

Play hard

As well as working hard, Ball has a reputation for playing hard, having competed in Ironman-type challenges. So, when did the desire for extreme sport first surface?

“I visited my dad in the ITU after an operation,” Ball says. “He had both hips and a knee replaced and his ankle fused – a lot of which may have been avoided if he had been a bit lighter – he was 6’,6” and 19 stone. I was a similar weight and saw a dark future. It was a seminal moment.

“At the same time a friend phoned and asked if I wanted to join him cycling across Mexico. I said yes and started doing the HiTech adventure race series which I loved and then after two years joined Tri London – largely to teach myself to swim crawl.

“I entered the UK’s first half IronMan race in Llanberis. I swam half the race breaststroke. I got teased that I couldn’t do the race with the longest swim in it and do it all front crawl. That race was the Long Course World Championships.

“I had a tough but good race. That was 2002 and then a friend suggested I should enter the lottery for a place in the IronMan World Championships in Hawaii. I did and became the first person in my club’s history to compete in it.

That was 2003 and I was putting a lot of energy into training. I pick races to go and have adventures with friends. I have done Hawaii IronMan, Roth, Lanzarote, Switzerland, Lake Placid and Austria so far (and a few other marathons). The Augrabies desert race (250km in seven days) is the best race I have ever done which is why I went back last year and will hopefully go again this year”

Ball won the Fittest Director award in 2011, although it was mostly about the ‘fitness’ of the business.  At the later stages there was an actual fitness test, however.

Ball also encourages his staff to keep fit and BrandFuel runs the extra mile in support of charity (Hope & Homes for Children is the chosen company charity) through Pro Bono work. The agency also provides some of their team with permanent desk space.

“We raised over £50k for them last year and will provide nearer to £100k of value to them this year,” says Ball.

Three Brandfuelers did the London to Brighton 10ok walk and Ball believes he had the largest corporate team running the London 10k for the last two years.

He claims to invest £3,000 per head on training staff. “If we can develop the best people, we will attract the best and get the best opportunities from clients.”

That breaks down, says Ball, into:

? Core skills training approx. 8 days a year
? Functional skills approx. 8 days a year
? Personal Development (self selected by each individual) 4 days a year

The agency’s work on the big One Young World conference (profiled in CN in March) showed how to bring together 1,200+ young future leaders from 190 countries.

“The event itself was an organisational feat – so many nationalities – so its success would always be rewarding. Its mission to inspire and help future leaders makes it even more so,” says Ball. “It’s the only event where half the crew find themselves in tears,” he adds.

Investing in new ventures to help young people get a foothold in the industry and expanding BrandFuel’s intern programme are current passions for Ball.

Another goal for Ball is “making maths the new coolest thing ahead of coding”.

His own mathematical traits don’t run to taking credit for his companies. He is proud that all that has been achieved is thanks to his own seed of investment and efforts of him and his teams. “Not taking credit or loans hasn’t slowed us down,” he is adamant.

Ball believes the UK events industry is world class and aims to help expand it so that it becomes more desirable as a career for young people. He also believes changes should be made to the education system to promote the value of creativity. “There could be a more structured system of entry into the UK events industry, which should work more closely with government,” Ball believes.

He adds: “It’s time to sort out remuneration so that companies don’t rely on a disadvantaged internship system and they can pay people in a more appropriate way without incurring the wrath of HMRC”. He would like to see agencies invest part of their income into learning and development.
And the biggest business bugbear for Ball?

“Lack of attention to detail. The added value is in the detail. Getting it exactly right shows commitment. Also, people constantly using the phrase ‘You know what I mean’ in conversation, shows a sign of laziness.”

His career has certainly not been a lazy one and Ball reels off a string of ‘funny’ moments: “water pouring through the ceiling onto the stage of a conference; waking up at 7am, in a hotel reception, wearing a Hawaiian shirt with limes under my eyes, bottles of Tequila in my arms and cigarettes in my mouth. And a crew water pistol fight with 100 people in a very posh outdoor restaurant in Rhodes”.  

Not so funny was being evacuated from a burning five-star hotel at 5am after four hard days on duty at a major event.

Asked who has impressed him most in the industry, Ball mentions Munir Samji, Chairman and CEO of Blitz. “A great industry supporter and hugely generous. He’s also a doer: when he says he’ll better something, he does it.”

The most common client mistakes he lists as “underestimating the time it takes to get things done and poor briefs. The better the brief the better the agency response”.

Favourite advice to clients? “Trust us!”

This was first published in the May issue of CN. Any comments? Email Paul Colston

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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