CN met David Taylor who has settled into his new role leading Grass Roots’ Meetings and Events division in the UK.
How is the M&E business performing this year?
It has been a big year for us, a year of change in terms of management and structure, and now ownership. As with the whole industry, we are facing the impacts, both real and perceived, of Brexit.
What was your initial thought at the prospect of taking the reins after Des Mclaughlin?
I did quip it was a bit like following Sir Alex Ferguson, which for David Moyes wasn’t exactly a success! But the reality is different. We worked together for many years and shared views on business strategy. Our styles are different but it isn’t as if I have stepped in from outside. I know the team well and understand the wider business offering. The transition has been very smooth.
Was the Blackhawk acquisition of Grass Roots a surprise and what of the synergies of the link up?
The synergies for M&E were not obvious at first but we are not that different in our approaches. Culturally, the fit was good.
As Grass Roots was quite a diverse business, the sale process was fairly long, but it gave us the chance for a prolonged dating period. We really developed an understanding of the long-term model and how we can all work together.
When I look back to our HBI days and compare that time to now, it’s fair to say that Grass Roots has been on an amazing journey and the diversity of services and the opportunities presented for the team has been fantastic. As part of Blackhawk Network we will have a more focused and simplified product and service range, which, supported by a sustained investment plan, we expect will deliver great growth potential.
I envisage us continuing our primary focus in our current market, while delivering more global and regional programmes that support our clients’ requirements for a partner that works across borders, channels and technologies to deliver truly effective performance improvement solutions.
Best piece of advice to pass on to those starting out today?
It is very easy to get wrapped up in the profession and world around, so I suggest people don’t take themselves too seriously. Another one for young people joining the industry is ‘not to think you are always right’. There is a chance almost every challenge has been successfully overcome by someone else out there.
Do agencies in the UK need the extra critical mass of being part of a larger multinational organisation now?
There is a clear trend towards clients wanting more regional and global solutions for their consolidated meetings programmes. This requires long-term investment, commitment and a geographical scale, which is difficult for privately owned companies to achieve. While Grass Roots M&E is by no means a small player, when it comes to the global needs of some of our clients it was clearly valuable that we team up with a larger organisation. There will continue to be a place for niche specialists but the days of the mid-sized agency are, in my opinion, limited.
And the vision for 2017 and beyond?
We are a performance improvement business that places primary importance on measurement and insight. Our clients’ world is changing and they need to be able to prove the positive effect of their meetings activity. Our services focus on this.
We go beyond the simple tasks of logistics, registrations and technology, starting the process with the understanding of a client’s business and where events can work for them. Only after that has been achieved will we bring in our subject matter experts and deliver on the operational elements of an event.
What trends are you observing?
We have certainly seen hesitation among clients when it comes to repeating something. While they recognise the idea of not trying to fix things that aren’t broken, it is more important to answer a simple corporate mantra – where’s the value? Holding a great event is no longer enough, instead we need to work with them to deliver solutions that improve performance.
Agencies are continually frustrated by time wasted on RFPs and briefs that they have no chance of landing. How do you deal with this?
We have a simple solution. We believe in the need to build partnerships with our clients based on strong relationships. We do not take on speculative work and are not in the business of writing proposals.
What role is technology now playing in the business?
While many agencies have thrown away their own technologies in favour of third party providers we continue to invest in our systems. An expensive decision, it ensures we can balance control with flexibility and individuality, all of which are points of difference in a sector where clients continue to desire specific and tailored solutions.
Which sectors are your targeting in particular for new M&E business?
Those sectors where we have historically seen growth and success including: banking, professional services, automotive, retail and tech.
What are the biggest challenges of the UK meetings industry?
Challenges crop up in all the time, some driven by economics, some by politics and some by completely unforeseen sources such as terrorism or the power of nature. At the moment – more value required for less budget; uncertainty in the market causing delays in decision- making, short lead times, and Brexit. The solution is simple – we need to work more closely with our clients.
What is your attitude to the ramifications of Brexit?
No one can know exactly what impact Brexit will have on the market, so sticking close to clients is vital. Through our Dusseldorf office we have already seen some automotive clients consolidate their European event procurement decision-making in Germany. That trend may continue. The most important thing to do is consider all the possible outcomes, ensure contingency plans are in place and continue to converse with clients.
What do you think of recruitment and what initiatives are you taking?
Grass Roots looks to recruit from the graduate market and we started an apprenticeship scheme in 2015. Flexible working and opportunities for international secondments are becoming almost prerequisites in our sector, so we have started to introduce initiatives to attract talent.
What trends should we be looking for in 2017 and beyond?
There may be fewer long-term contracts. We also might see a greater trend to more tailored solutions. And, most pertinently, we might see clients wanting to use more ‘big data’ solutions for evaluation and delegate engagement pre, during and post-event activation.