Big Interview with Vista MD James Wilkins: In with the new

New Year, new you, is often the phrase banded about in January. For Logistik, the phrase New Year, new brand is more apt. Hot off the press is the news that Logistik is no more, and in its place stands the newly-launched Vista. A journey 18 months in the making, and one that MD James Wilkins says has been “emotionally, physically and mental challenging”, has seen the beginnings of a new, more grown up, confident creative communications agency.

“It’s more than just changing the sign above the door, we are evolving and developing our offer to represent what our clients want from us,” says Wilkins. “We are clearer about what we actually do for a living and are really trying to tune in to what clients have been telling us in terms of what they value about the business and why they choose to work with us.”

Biding farewell to his business partner and ‘best mate’ Dirk Mischendahl in October last year was a step on the road to this new Vista. After 17 years service, Mischendahl had an ambition to go off and do other things and with the agency’s offer evolving from a comms agency with an established events offering to an intellectual, creative services offering, the company’s new dawn was left in Wilkins’s capable hands.

“Dirk was a big presence and personality and he leaves a gap, but this is also an opportunity for creating a new culture and environment.”

A culture which he says will be based around collectivity and ‘connected conversations’.

“The challenge with Dirk’s departure [he was based in the Leeds office, with Wilkins overseeing the London HQ] was getting that genuine sense of leadership into Leeds. I have established a wider leadership team and whereas before it was just Dirk and me, I now have a team of five or six who are all based in Leeds and work closely with me.

“It’s about having a collective team in Leeds that lead that part of the business,” he says, before adding that the ultimate aim is getting everyone connected into the future vision.

“We want people to choose to be part of Vista. It’s not just about telling them what the vision is, it’s about including them in conversations.” As such, each area of the agency was tasked with building their own business plans to help shape the overall strategy. A third of the 100-strong staff were directly involved with Wilkins in creating a five-year business plan, which he says created a “genuine sense of collective purpose”.

Wilkins says his main focus in this new journey is: “Can I release the potential of these individuals in this business, as well as harness it”. Quite a feat, with a team of over 100. A team, which Wilkins says has grown by 20 since Mischendahl’s departure.

When asked to recount some of his early career highlights, it is clear Wilkins’s ideals for the agency stem from these early influences.

With a passion for organising events from a young age – “in my late teenage years I realised I could organise parties and people liked you if you could do this, and I made money doing so” – his first ‘proper’ career break came with a job with Marks & Spencer’s.

“I had to grow up and get serious – and get what I call a proper job,” he says.

During his time with M&S, Wilkins was responsible for launching all of the sub brands including Blue Harbour and Autograph. At that point he says, engagement and launching things was still done in a pretty basic way with OHP Projectors and low tech videos. He, however, recognised that if you want to launch a brand in the right way it was essential to embrace all aspects of the brand and get the public engaged with it.

“We did it to the nth degree,” he says. “We went to Blue Harbour, stayed at the Blue Harbour Inn in East Coast America, we found the music that best inspired East Coast America – and we recreated this place in conference venues all over the UK.”

His immersive strategy paid off. Blue Harbour was the largest ever retail launch in one day, he says, and became the largest casual wear brand in the UK in six months.

“I realised that with a bit of authority, conviction, confidence and ability, the power of an event should never be underestimated if you do it in a way that captures peoples’ imagination and you do it with conviction. If you don’t get every detail right, people will notice and you lose what you created and it’s no longer authentic.”

Wilkins says he gained a reputation as the guy that could launch things well at M&S, but reached a point where a new direction was calling. “At that point I wasn’t married, I had a house and a girlfriend and I thought what’s the worst that can happen if I go out on my own?”

Noting that he likes doing things with people rather than on his own, it was perhaps a touch of fate that he should speak with Mischendahl who offered him a partnership opportunity and the task of managing the then Logistik’s London office. “I joined on the basis that we would build a comms business not just an events business and that was the deal,” Wilkins says.

Many of his business philosophies that have steered him through his time at Logistik stem, in the most part, from the guidance of mentor, Maurice Helfgott.

“Maurice really took me under his wing. He was the youngest director of M&S and recognised I needed responsibility, autonomy and the ability to make decisions. In a large structured organisation that is hard to get, but Maurice gave me that.”

Helfgott also brought Wilkins into a company called Venture Capital, which he says was the best exposure he could have got for the job he does now. As Helfgott’s sidekick for 18 months, Wilkins stepped out of the usual corporate ladder to see some of, in his words, “the smartest people in the UK and the world”.

“I got to go into businesses and find out what was going on and see how business got done. It was an experience that couldn’t be bought. I’m forever indebted to Maurice for recognising something in me at that time when there were 65,000 people in the company, and for giving me the opportunities and time he gave. I was a young guy with a lot of confidence and probably not a lot else and he refined me – he gave me room to make mistakes, mistakes that cost money, but I always learnt from them.”

Something Wilkins also learnt early on was the importance of perspective. “Everyone will have a time in their career when you don’t know if you are coming or going, what you are saying is right, wrong or indifferent, and when you are not sure if you fit – and then you realise you have to believe in yourself and come out the other side, and with context and perspective you realise nothing is ever that bad. “A lot of what we do in the events and communications industry is in the important and urgent box and close to crisis far too often, and we lose perspective. A huge part of my job is keeping things in the moment and making sure emotion doesn’t override perspective.”

While his background may be in communications, Vista has a well-established events heartland and the industry is one Wilkins refers to as a challenge, but one that he loves. “I love the constant variety, pace and the level of competition. In the events industry it is not about being as good as your last event, but as good as your next one.”

His gripe with the industry? The fact that it is constantly commoditised, something he says is part client, part agency. “We are allowing this to happen and we shouldn’t be. We need to ensure we retain the importance of quality, creativity and intelligence, but for as long as we allow the sector to be commoditised we are not valuing those things. Pace is superseding the other three and it is all about who can do it in this time frame, for this price.”

Wilkins believes core elements fundamental to any agency will get lost by some in the price war, risking the industry’s reputation.

Another industry issue that Wilkins is particularly opinionated about is that of our representative associations. While he says he has an interest in them, it is not a provoked interest, and he believes there are too many bodies claiming to represent the industry.

 “To be honest, I’m not impressed with some of the people that sit at high levels in these associations and I think the associations themselves need to do more to help manage the perception of the industry, to really understand the future client needs.”

He adds that if he were to get involved with an industry body he would want to be influencing its direction. “The issue is how do we stop muddying the waters? Who is the standout industry standard? Who can truly start with a clear ambition and build from that and maintain that position? It is easy for me to stand on the sidelines and criticise, but my view is that I’ve not seen it done well yet.”

And what of the future for Vista?
Looking five years down the line, Wilkins says the strategy can be defined in a few ways. “We want to be seen as bigger than we are today; we want to have two new areas to the business; a clearly defined marketing offer; and we want to have an international presence – where or how we don’t know yet.”

A huge part of this rebrand, for Wilkins, is about “gaining credibility as a communications agency, not just a really strong events agency with consultancy on the side”. At the moment, the agency is still very dominant to events, he says, despite the fact it has other services. In five years time, he envisions that the balance will be different. “We will still have a very successful events business but a much larger consulting, film and digital business, as well as a strong studio and build facility.”

“Go fast, go alone; go far, go together”? a standout soundbite from my time with James that sums up his desire to make Vista a collective force to be reckoned with.

This was first published in the January issue of CN. Any comments? Email Zoe Vernor

Paul Colston

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Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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