Out of Africa with Mark Cowne

Mark Cowne had been accepted for training as a junior officer in the Royal Engineers, but a career epiphany saw him go to Art college instead. He worked briefly at a studio in Southampton, before moving to account services, after realising he was better at managing and planning than being creative.

He was in Uganda when Idi Amin took over in 1971. He had taken a break to be with his father, who had been posted there as an air traffic controller.

“All the Asian business people were being evicted. A lot of Europeans were getting scared and leaving but my father had to stay and work out his contract,” he says.

He ended up staying a year before “it got really crazy and I had to leave”.

He returned to the UK and worked in the advertising industry, but missed Africa and decided to move to South Africa.

“It seemed stable and was one of those places British people went to along with Australia, Canada, New Zealand etc. Somehow I had missed the apartheid bit.”

South Africa, he says, gave him a chance to ‘grow up’ in his career. “Companies there were prepared to take a chance on someone.”

He got a job in a PR company and soon moved to become advertising director for South African Philips (a subsidiary of the Dutch electronics company).

An early mentor was Jimmy Heald, MD of Philips. “He was much older than me. He supported my strengths and identified my weaknesses and gave me guidance and training to try and overcome them.”

Cowne started his own advertising agency, which he later sold to become more involved in his big passion – wildlife. He created a game lodge development company and then developed the Tau Game Lodge.

“We knew about design and marketing but had no idea of operation or bookings, so employed Southern Sun on a management contract to run Tau for us. We saw their significant hotel occupancies in Sandton being an easy market to develop into a wildlife safari experience whilst holidaying/conferencing in South Africa. It worked well.”

He eventually sold up and moved back to the UK and his wife, Gina (née Kruger) started working for her brother-in-law John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor. She looked after all of his personal travel, social events, book launches, and his commercial public speaking events.

She noticed that speaker bureaus booking him had no real idea of his brand, his value, or market.

“We realised that our advertising background and brand management experience could be used to build people as well as products,” says Cowne. “Our talent and our clients became properly matched.”

Simpson helped the business by telling others in the BBC about the agency and soon Cowne was working with John Sergeant, Fergal Keane, Bill Wyman and Bob Geldof. “It just kept on going by word of mouth. Now we have just signed Cher and Al Pacino – it just keeps getting more and more interesting.”

He says deciding to grow the business organically, never raising capital nor borrowing gave solid growth and protected it from market volatility.

“Having said that we could have substantially shortened our growth time line if we had invested sooner in developing both our staff base and our services,” he adds.

Best business advice?

“When we started we thought it would be similar to the advertising agency model where everything is transparent, incomes derived from commissions and a loyalty to the brands. We didn’t know that was almost the opposite of the industry model here.

“By getting it ‘wrong’ we actually got it right, as commitment to the talent and transparent booking structures actually brought us a great number of clients from bureaus.” The key to success, he reckons, is understanding the products (in his case, talent) and being committed.

The business has grown to include literary support, brand endorsements, voice-overs. “The downside is that we lacked the expertise in most of those sectors so had to recruit the key people we needed. It took us a while.”

Which events have impressed him the most involving speakers on the KC books?

“Many of the events we do are similar, be it a big corporate conference, an after dinner speech or a music gig, but the one that really stands out is One Young World (OYW), started in 2009 by Kate Roberston and David Jones. Jones was global CEO and Robertson was MD of Europe.

“It was a sort of CSR thing for Havas (multinational communications group) but had the potential to be of genuine significance beyond Havas.

“The big idea was to put together a forum for the next generation of leaders in politics, religion, sport, science, etc from all over the world. A sort of Davos for young people.”

The idea was that ‘good minds’ of the world could be counsellors to the young people to assist them in taking over the reins.

“They asked us for Sir Bob Geldof, Jamie Oliver, Elle Macpherson, Kofi Annan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Sir Richard Branson and a few others. Oh, and they couldn’t pay anything other than travel. It did sound pretty impossible but we managed to pull it together,” Cowne says.

Those attending included young entrepreneurs from China running multinational online businesses, young Arabs meeting with equally young and dynamic Israelis to try and sort out their futures. The event really took off and countries started pitching to host it each year.

After London it has been to Zurich, Dublin, Pittsburgh, Johannesburg and recently Bangkok. It has grown from 600 attendees from 90 countries to over 2,000 delegates from 192 countries last year.

“We have had strong support from former US president Bill Clinton to Sir Richard Branson and many other leaders in business and politics. We have seen the delegates form ongoing lobby groups that have brought about change in the UN. It is an amazing event.”

So, what else makes a great event for Kruger Cowne?

“Being involved as early as possible. Working with the customer to identify their needs and goals within their budgets,” he says. “Matching our talent to the messaging/branding needs. Following through with delegates later to keep the momentum going.”

Funniest experience involving a celebrity at a Kruger Cowne booking?

“Mistaken identity. I was with Dave Stewart, musician of the Eurythmics, at an event in Norway. After the event we went for a dinner with friends. It was a nice restaurant with a sort of cave in the basement where more private dining could happen. “A young guy came charging in, sat beside me and asked for a photograph with me. I told him he may have made a mistake and tried to put him right but he wouldn’t listen. He then pulls out his camera and gives it to Dave to take the picture of him and me. Dave dutifully obliged and the man left with a picture of the wrong person but taken by the right one. His mates must have thought he was crazy when they saw the pic.”

Cowne underlines how much the global events industry is driven by market conditions.

“In a short space of time we saw the US market take off stratospherically with financial sector conferences to, overnight, collapsing when the global financial meltdown kicked in.

“Fortunately, our ‘products’ are international and as the US market crumbled new growth happened with Australian, Canadian and Scandinavian markets so we adapted accordingly.

He warns that customers can have ridiculously high expectations that are way off the budgets they have, while, equally some talent have unrealistic expectations of their values. “Just because someone may be a leading model getting kazillions of dollars for a quick photo shoot doesn’t necessarily mean that speaking fees will match,” he says.

Another piece of advice is ‘Don’t pretend to represent talent you do not really have’.

“There are many ‘agents’ emerging who are lifting biogs off genuine sites and adding them to their own, lesser rosters. We have had awful issues with so-called agents that have attracted enquiries for our exclusive talent and have then gone through a string of other agents before eventually getting to us.

“The customer has had commission on commission  and the messaging becomes Chinese whispers. We discovered bureaus adding up to 60% commission on a booking.

“Stay truthful and transparent. Your sins will find you out,” says Cowne.

Martin Fullard


Martin Fullard

Martin Fullard: journalist, presenter, producer. Martin is the Deputy Editor at Conference News and Conference & Meetings World magazines. He leads the digital channels on Mash Media’s Conference Division as well as heading up Mash TV. He is formerly a web editor at a national newspaper in the Middle East and motoring journalist.

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