With the award-winning Smyle in the agency ascendancy, Paul Colston meets MD Rick Stainton and finds out how a tap on the spine helped jolt an impressive career of achievement into a highly charged event orbit.
Many in the industry recognise Smyle MD Rick Stainton as the Stuart Pearce of the meetings and events industry for his fist pumping celebrations of many industry awards.
He started organising events after he suffered a severe spinal injury at the age of 20 and was given some time by his university to recover from being paralysed from the neck down.
The recuperation wasn’t wasted as the time inspired Stainton to develop his own fresh approach to events. Soon he started at an activity company and, after three years, moved to P&MM as Creative Director. From the early days, he names Nigel Cooper as one of his formative influences. “I learnt a lot from Nigel, both from when things went right to when things went not so well.”
In terms of takeaways from Cooper, Stainton cites in particular the ability to set a vision and take the team with you. The famed Cooper powers of endurance are also remembered fondly: “Last at the bar with the team and then first in the next day delivering the keynote looking fresh and full of energy.” The Smyle MD also leads from the front, and not only his own company. Stints at the helm of Eventia (four years on the board) and in leading the way for the Sustainable Events Summit led to major initiatives, galvanising many others in the sector to step up their activity.
Back to the biog, and in 2003 a fresh challenge was needed, so Stainton launched Smyle Events, in partnership with the existing Smyle Productions then run by Smyle’s Creative Director, Matt Margetson.
Smyle Productions was based in Cambridge and Smyle Events in St Albans. A full merger in 2007 saw Hertford, site of the current HQ, selected as an equidistant choice of home. Stainton is now responsible for a staff count of over 40 and industry awards and expansion have all followed. Highlights include the CEA’s Best New Company award in 2004, and Eventia’s Agency of the Year award in 2011.
Stainton did not allow the recession to wipe the Smyle off. The board even launched a five-year plan to take the company from a £3.5m turnover to £10m. A video department was launched in 2009; the Design Studio followed in 2010 and the set construction workshop and logistics department in 2011 and 2012 respectively. A small satellite office was also established in 2012 in Shoreditch.
In 2013, during the agency’s ‘10 Amazing Years anniversary’ year, Smyle won Agency of the Year at the Eventia Awards for a second time, as well as the Grand Prix, Production Agency of the Year and seven other industry gongs.
Global brands and new clients in the pipeline include, in 2014, a healthy cross section from the Automotive, IT, Telco, Media, Sport, Pharma and FMCG sectors.
Stainton’s philosophy is to rely on the skills of a highly talented in-house team, (led by Events Director Dominic Thomas-Smith and Operations Director Andrew Dawson-Wills) which works in an integrated model with a balance of resources across creative, event and project management, technical production, video, graphic design services and set construction.
As any good entrepreneur, Stainton is never standing still and, when asked where his interest in the Sustainable Events Summit sprang from, he says that he’d been impressed with the small event run by Seventeen Events. “I thought it was a great idea but could be executed better and that there was good scope for stronger industry engagement.”
Smyle, he explains, was in the middle of BS8901 development at the time. “The show seemed a good way of galvanising and demonstrating our commitment to sustainability.” Hence an offer to buy out Seventeen Events. Fiona Pelham, who was then a consultant on the team, joined and now Stainton says they’re at the planning stage for 2015 and beyond.
The current format came from the Smyle MD’s belief the concept could be refined to engage with the full spectrum of the events and live communication industries, as well as building on Smyle’s ISO 20121 certification and internal sustainable initiatives.
Smyle may have clocked up 10 years, but Stainton’s plan remains: “To be recognised as the best creative live experience agency”.
A three-year mission was launched by the board in April 2014 aimed at achieving a doubling of turnover by 2017. “This will be led by existing and new client development, acquisitions and partnerships,” the MD says.
A larger London office in Islington opened in August and is part of the development, along with further investment in equipment.
“New roles are likely to include a Head of Client Services and strengthened account management roles, as well as a number of senior management and director appointments,” Stainton adds.
To date, growth has been funded organically, but Stainton reveals “the stage is now set for attracting both talent and investment from outside in order to drive Smyle to another level”.
The team is on a mission this year to raise over £12,000 for Wings for Life, Red Bull’s foundation, which aims to find a cure for spinal injuries. The mission was introduced by Smyle’s Strategic Director, David Hornby, an ambassador of the charity.
Stainton views this year’s charity work as a perfect reason for not entering any industry awards this year. He describes it as a personal alternative focus of energies for the team. Smyle also recently developed a new reporting product on the back of its focus on ROI and sustainability measurement, called an EASI report (Engagement and Sustainability Investment). It produces GRI compliant data in an infographic report template, supported by Smyle’s third party certification in ISO20121. It was adopted by a pharmaceutical client for its conference for 600 guests in Berlin in March.
With his industry advocate hat on, Stainton believes the sector is in a strange place, with consolidation, convergence and contradictions abounding. “Some larger players have suffered as others have merged, while boutique agencies and consultancies launch every day. Marketing and PR agencies are converging across experiential and live communications.
“Traditional venue sourcing and travel focused agencies are needing to re-invent themselves as their services blend into an online or wider service offering that needs to include creativity, content and a stronger ROI. No longer is the question just ‘Where or what’s best’, but more ‘how’s best’.”
As to where the new Ricks are being rolled out, he says: “A worryingly low number of strong new stars are coming into the industry, changing the way things are done, disrupting the status quo or breathing new blood into a skills hungry sector. It still doesn’t seem to be able to present itself as a key employer or GDP contributor taken seriously by government or industry.
“Neither is it seen as a mature marketing and communications medium offering a recognisable and strong mandatory ROI component or template. This is probably because we still can’t define ourselves in a few words and have only a handful of big players with £100m+ of sales clout to shout about, compared to global, advertising and marketing agency brands.”
Stainton also feels there are too many associations with different voices and approaches and believes none are yet clearly heard by the stakeholders that can make a difference to the industry’s standing. “None of that matters, however,” he says, “if you’re enjoying what you’re doing, doing it to the best of your ability and making someone’s event experience that little bit better.”
Stainton is clear he is not about to waste the second chance he was given, after his accident, to live life to the full. With a wife and two daughters, and another due this month, there is plenty to Smyle about.
“The real raison d’etre for being in this still fast developing events industry,” he says, “is the opportunity to consistently take it up level upon level, set the bar higher than anyone else. The climb hopefully never ends, as you can always take a breather at any point and admire an increasingly better view.”
This was first published in the September issue of CN? Any comments? Email Paul Colston