Making a change

Having recently undergone a rebrand, events agency Top Banana has ambitious plans to increase turnover by 112 per cent to £8m for 2014/15 and double its employee numbers by 2020. The rebrand wasn’t just to do with numbers, however, with Nick Terry keen to stress the importance of making sure the agency “stands out in a crowded and over supplied marketplace”.

“The aim of the rebrand was to refine the focus on how we are different. We have a clear definable, provable difference. The rebrand was ensuring the story externally captures our actual delivery more closely.”

The difference, Terry says, lies in the level at which they work. “We work at a leadership level, helping leaders to communicate better, and, as events are the most powerful way for audiences to receive communication, we excel at that. Our mission statement is to help leaders communicate better.”

So far, so good, Terry reports, with the pipeline for the next financial year looking “very strong with a lot of repeat business, as well as some exciting new clients”.

So peeling back a bit, how did Top Banana come about? 

“I’d worked with Richard before and felt he was brilliant in areas where I wasn’t, so we had a chat one October evening  and by 1 January 1999 Top Banana went live.”

Early challenges included getting people to take the agency’s name seriously, knowing when to say no, and the way the tax regime worked (and still does) demanding payment on account. “That delayed recruitment several times until we grew our cash flow levels,” Terry says.

He adds that initially they targeted advertising and PR agencies, but quickly established that they were ‘bad payers’.

“We also found ourselves adding more value than these agencies were, so for the next three years our strategy was to move to a more ‘direct to client’ business model and within three years 95 per cent of our profit came from these types of relationships.”

He says the agency has always been driven to deliver communication that works and recognised early on that the jobs that did get results were where they had worked at a senior level within organisations and had the difficult conversations with the business leaders. “I think having spent half of my working life on the client side has always helped us understand client strategy.”

With a dual leadership style, how are the roles divided? “I am the visionary thinker. The strategy man. And Rich gets the strategy and brings it alive – he is a brilliant realiser.”

Richard Bridge considers there to be a good balance between the two of them. A balance likely to have been influenced by early career experiences and mentors.

A trip down memory lane sees Bridge reveal that his life ambition was to be famous with his band, until he realised he wasn’t good enough. A story which I’m sure rings true for many.

 “I then decided to do something sound orientated and got into events through video production,” he says. “I enjoyed it, was good at filming and editing and was producing a lot of films for events. I liked the mixture of the ‘live’ feeling  mixed with my creative video side.”

Terry, on the other hand, began his career in the industry when the MD of the first company he worked for approached him 15 years later to buy into his business. “Half my working life had been on the client side before I jumped. As a Business Studies student I had specialised in marketing so guessed I would be a marketing director of some brand or another.”

And when it comes to mentors, Terry picks one particularly close to home. “My Dad. So much of what I observed of how he treated his staff when I helped out in his office has stayed with me. In the early days of working by myself and for the first two years of Top Banana he did our books. He always had, and at 88 years old, still has this ability to ask a killer question that rocks me back to think and reflect.”

In the industry, Terry says it was Peter Tomlinson (co-creator of Tiswas) who taught him the importance of always asking ‘why?’

For Bridge, the person instrumental in making him who he is today was Karen Lombardo, vice-president of global PR at Gucci Group. “She allowed me to push boundaries and challenge convention and helped me to think bigger than I had ever before. She supported me and believed in me and we delivered some amazing experiences.”

Forbidden Fruit
Among his proudest moments, Bridge recalls the time when they hired the Forbidden City in China. “We had lots of challenges but I remember standing on the steps of the ancestral temple watching 150 waiters serve food simultaneously and thinking, with the lighting, the environment, the food and the entertainment, ‘we did that’. I still get goose bumps thinking about it now.”

Entertaining people, taking them on an emotional journey, making them laugh and cry, creating light bulb moments and creating business transformations, are what Bridge says he likes most about the events industry.

“I think the industry misses the reason why we are having events at times. Too many events are for events’ sake without making some change or progress happen within a business. It has to be about making a measurable difference.”

Terry agrees, noting the point in event intervention when the client feels something happen, looks at you and realises why you challenged them to do things differently.

“I think industry pays lip service to event effectiveness, often giving awards because the events are nice looking or demonstrate a new idea,” he muses. “I have chaired judging panels where a third of points are for efficacy (often the guide) and challenged all of the panel to score using that as a guide. None of us actually liked the winner but hand on heart it was the only one that could prove efficacy.”

The commoditisation of the industry is also a bug-bear for Terry. He expects some of the recent tenders the agency has looked at will end up with leaders of that organisation “not being supported by skilled content producers, but with the best deal on a speaker monitor”.

Addressing the current state of the UK’s live events sector, Terry says it is healthy with more entrants made up of startups and some restarts. Regarding industry associations, he considers EVCOM to be a positive step, mirroring what is going on in the marketplace with screen-based delivery and screen impact becoming a larger component of the live experience. He also praises the mia for its work to improve cross fertilisation of ideas between users and space sellers.

And how does having the main office being based outside of London affect business? “The set up works well,” Terry says. “There is real talent in the Midlands with the legacy of BBC and Central having a past presence in the area. There are also strong local design courses to feed our tactical skills base.

“Yes, a lot of our customers are M25 centric, driving the launch of our London office last year, with a strategy director, and experienced team members permanently based there, while our Midlands office with its 16 year legacy of brilliant client service, houses our production and delivery support facilities. Two dining rooms and one kitchen kind of thing.”

One part of agency life Terry takes issue with is how complicated the tender process has become, so much so that it can often be tricky to work out if it is possible to make money from the tender. “I see a trend where big guys go in cost neutral to ‘buy business’ and they try and get their profit for extra overs. The industry will end up devaluing itself.

“That doesn’t work for us. We do a lot of fixed priced jobs once both ourselves and the client have nailed what their ROI criteria is.”

Looking at the future of the events industry, Terry believes 30 per cent of  industry players are already low on cash flow, which he expects will drive consolidation. “I also see a polarisation in clients where internal communication will become more powerful and influential, putting pressure on organisers to raise their game and/or upgrade providers.”

He also expects fee work to increase, with agencies moving to fee-only models.
And where do Terry and Bridge see Top Banana in five years time? “Having established a clear niche in the marketplace for leadership and management events. Maybe an acquisition or two in complementary areas.”

It would seem that Top Banana is ripening at just the right time.

This was first published in the February 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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