Interviewer: Peter Houston

Peter: Tell me about the origins of Mash Media

Duncan: We’re actually 25 years old this this month, in a couple of weeks time. We were launched by Julian Agostini in his brother’s back bedroom, and his background was within the exhibition industry and he noticed that there was no magazine for the exhibition industry. People told him there was a reason for that, but he persevered and the rest is history, from driving it around in his Fiat 125 to 60-strong people based in Kingston now, so quite some evolution.

And over the period of time, he expanded over different events sectors, so from exhibitions into conferences, both in the UK and globally, with a couple of purchases, but mainly through launch.

I joined the company in 2010, just over 10 years ago now, and my background is publishing, for companies like Haymarket and Centaur, and when I joined we were a pure play publisher with some events tagged on to the magazine brands, so a couple of awards, ceremonies, that kind of thing.

We had the opportunity to make some purchases in 2012 from Ocean Media, a magazine brand called Access All Areas, which is about the outdoor events community, and we purchased that along with a show called Event Production Show.

Once you’re in the market, you get offers and over the next two to three years, we then bought Confex from UBM, and what is now the PA Show, which was a mixture of buying a small PA show from Prism Group in Bristol, and then Office from Diversify. The reason for that was it’s not event specific; the PA and EA community are very much involved in organising different types of events. So it sits alongside the other shows quite well.

So to go back one of the first things you were saying about that kind of reticence in the market to start a publication for events, why was that, why was it seen as a difficult market?

Well, I think the main reason for that, and this is borne out on some of the things we’ll talk about later, is that there was no community. The exhibition organisers worked in their own silos producing and delivering their events, and they didn’t see themselves as part of a community.

I think the the AEO was setting up back then, the industry association, or had just come about, and so they were just starting to be brought together. But because they focused more on the markets they created the events for rather than seeing themselves as their own industry.

And that’s changed through how Exhibition News has kind of brought the industry together over the last 25 years. When you have that community, you can create magazines and events around it, and they didn’t see themselves as that back at the time.

Obviously I’m looking at this from my experiences from a publishing perspective on this, and I know loads of publishers have started more events, but has the events market grown anyway? You know, outside of publishing?

Absolutely. If you look back to 25 years ago – this is guesstimated numbers – but we think there were approximately 1,000 trade shows and consumer shows in the UK. If you look now, and dug hard enough, you’d probably find in the region of 2,000 because the whole face-to-face…since I’ve been in publishing in 1996, obviously the internet and digital has come in and taken over a lot of the traditional print.

But as well as that, people have experienced and now require more of the face to face connections that live events give, and I think any any publisher today should be using events as a staple part of their portfolio. It helps you build better relationships. It gives your clients what they want, which is face time with customers, and it helps you create the market.

It’s an interesting thing that isn’t it, it’s almost counterintuitive. You know, the more connected we are, the more we want to stand next to each other and have a chat.

Well, yeah, in the exhibition industry, and I’m focusing here quite a lot in exhibitions because Exhibition News is the portfolio I run, so it’s one which we’re very strong in.

But in terms of the number of companies and the number of suppliers, it’s not that big. And you have a lot of companies, you know, there might be say for example, furniture, not the most exciting thing but an essential component of trade shows.

There’s probably five or six core suppliers within that market all competing for the same people, so they have to actively be seen by their customers and cement and forge those relationships all the time. And they do it by being at every event there is for exhibition professionals. There are two or three people within that sector who they’re more noticeable by their absence from an event than they are by being there.

Is there a real separation between exhibitions and conferences, or is one always run in conjunction with the other one?

The conference market is very different to the exhibition world because it’s a lot more vast. It’s a much bigger industry. I mean a conference or meeting is from two people to 10,000 or beyond that. If you look at some of the big Adobe events that run, or Cisco, across the globe.

What conference organisers over the recent time certainly have started developing the exhibition side of it, because it’s an extra revenue stream, but really, the people there are mainly there for the learning rather than necessarily meeting or talking to suppliers. So they’ve tended to go down the sponsorship route.

But similarly now, if you go to certainly a trade show, the amount of theatres that there are in place at a trade show now because content is king, and it’s no different to a magazine from that front. So the exhibitions need that level of content because you need the different reasons why someone would attend the show, we’re asking for people to spend a day or more, certainly hours out of the office, time is precious.

So they need to know that if they’re going to go to the to a show, they’re going to meet the right new suppliers, they’re going to network with the right people, increase their contacts, but also they can learn.

So we spent a lot of time looking at what the options are, what do they want, what keeps them awake at night, what scares them about their businesses; and we build content programmes around that. The core difference being that trade shows in particular are free to attend.

But same as trade magazines, you have to deliver an audience, once you’ve delivered an audience, you can bring the sellers in, and you create the marketplace.

That comparison between magazines and events, it gets made a lot, but what’s the real core of that, you know, the idea that magazine publishers are – I’m just going to say uniquely – but certainly well place to start events?

Well they are well placed because magazine publishers have a community at their fingertips which they’ve built over a period of time. And once you have that community, if they follow you, then you can create things around that. So there’s examples I’ll talk about later, but that’s also why publishers are able to launch events is because they have the community.

But I’d grown up through B2B publishing, and in 2012, when we bought Event Production Show, Julian my MD just kind of looked at it and gave it to me. I’d never run an exhibition before, and it was quite a daunting task because you suddenly don’t really know what you’re doing, but you bring in some people who can help you to get over the first couple of years who have done it before, know the physical logistical elements, but also know the marketplace which is very very helpful as you learn it.

And it is, you can liken it to well, why do people read a trade magazine? And therefore why would people go to a trade show? And it’s the same reason, it’s education, it’s knowledge, it’s case studies, it’s how to, it’s connections with new suppliers, it’s how to do their job better. And so the elements are fundamentally the same through a trade magazine and through a trade show.

The events that we run, certainly the trade shows, are basically saying, ‘We’ll help you run a better event.’ Why wouldn’t you want to come to that? We’ll make you better at your job, and it’s the same reason, read Exhibition News, read Conference News, read Access All Areas, we’ll help you run better events, or more profitable events, or safer events or whatever the key issue is, we’ll help you learn how you can do it better.

If you had any advice for someone, for a magazine publisher or any publisher starting up an event, what would that advice be? I guess the first one is to subscribe to your magazines!

Well it is! We did a new event a couple of weeks ago called Event Careers Live, which is, we want to help people who are in the industry or want to get into the industry, further their careers within the industry. And we had a lot of students, we deliberately wanted students at the event, and we wanted to make sure that they knew all about our products.

And it was quite scary that there were a lot of event management students who weren’t overly familiar with some of our brands, and our brands should be a staple part of their daily diet when they’re studying event management. You know, how else are they going to learn?

They’re going to learn the basic practices, and maybe do some practical work, but how are they going to learn about the industry? Who are the big players? Where are the career opportunities? What are the types of roles they can pursue? And I think that was a real eye opener for us, and certainly where they are taught about event management, exhibitions is not a part of that. The exhibition industry is huge, not just in the UK but globally.

But yeah, read our magazines, of course, and subscribe to our newsletters and the websites, but I think one of the key questions you have to ask yourself is, what problem is this event solving? And that’s the same for any product, I guess. Again, it’s no different, if I launched this, what is the problem that I’m solving? Or is it, have you just seen a commercial opportunity, because any idea based purely on your own commercial opportunity, possibly isn’t ticking the boxes of what your community wants.

So like you would with anything, do your due diligence, research your market, and then bring in people who can help you get those events off the ground. There’s a lot of very skilled and experienced freelancers and consultants out there who are willing to help you.

I saw an interesting quote, doing a little bit research this: if the industry grows, then we grow. I think it was Julian that said that was it?

Yeah, that’s our company motto!

As a motto I think that’s really interesting, it just speaks right to the heart of the B2B aspect of publishing, is that idea that if you’re not solving a problem, if you’re not helping people be better at their jobs and grow, then you probably don’t have a sustainable business. That’s a great motto, but how would you go about applying that day to day in the business? How does it shape the business?

Yeah, it’s a good question. We’ve done a lot of things which are very deliberately targeted on that. A few years ago, we did a few tours of universities to promote the exhibition industry as a career path and make them think about that. We have spoken with a lot associations and publishers who are key for events generally about why they should have more events in their portfolio, and why exhibitions in particular, if they’ve got that community, are definitely within their potential. So we’ve deliberately gone out and done that.

But we’ve also looked at the industries and said, well where are the growth areas? So for example, within exhibitions you’ve got, there’s probably about 25 to 30 large players, it’s not dissimilar to the PPA model, really the 80/20. You’ve got a host of global and very successful exhibition organisers who can run the shows throughout the world, and do it very, very well. But there are hundreds of smaller companies who are sweating day in day out to produce maybe three events, and they do that very well as well because maybe they’re more creative, or what have you, but they don’t have the buying power, they don’t have the clout of the big companies, and it’s a lot harder.

But those people also don’t necessarily see themselves as part of the exhibition industry, or as a part of the events industry, they see themselves as part of the industry that they run the events for. It might be retail or hospitality, for example.

So we’ve created events which are purely for those people, which ultimately are based around, we’ve done an award scheme, we’re launching a conference. So there’s learning, we’re trying to help them be better at what they do, but also bring them into the exhibition industry and show them they’re part of this much bigger industry and community, and there are people ensconced in those communities who can help them run better events.

So it’s those kind of things which, ultimately, yes, as a publisher, we are commercially minded, but our role is to create the marketplaces where the buyers and sellers do business. And we do that through content and education and those types of things.

But it’s about, sometimes you’ve got to go out and find these people to bring them into your community to help it grow, and the EN Indy Awards in particular has been very very popular with our venues and supplier customers, because there’s 20, 30, 40 companies who they’ve not even heard of before.

So that’s that idea if I run a conference on heating and ventilation, I think I’m in the heating and ventilation space, but actually I’m in the event space, that it’s bringing those people into the community.

Yeah, I mean, you are. We met a chap recently who actually within that market actually, I think he has to do with boilers and heating, and he’s just a one man band; he’s got a a weirdly named company called Boiler Room Exhibitions, which possibly is deliberate, but maybe not the right thing! But he’s come across what we do and he’s like, ‘I’m running this exhibition at the NEC, I don’t really know what I’m doing and I’m after all the help I can get to help grow it.’ He’s coming to us as the place where he can learn about how to do that better.

So you’ve got this really tight focus on the events market. But you’re launching an event for publishing, Making Publishing Pay. Why have you looked outside the events niche? Have you just spotted an opportunity, or is there something bigger going on?

Well, there is a tie in on that, because there’s two answers to that question.

One is, as publishers, we’re a small publishing business. We don’t have deep pockets. We don’t have people on our payroll who are skilled in specific things that can help us change our business model. But as publishers, we can look at our products and say, ‘Well, I think that this for example, our websites could be so much more, or we could develop strategies for reader revenue, or we could develop white papers, we could develop paywalls, and all that kind of stuff.’

We don’t know how to do that. And we looked outside into the market and said, well, where can we learn how to do that? The PPA do some great events, but again, their business model is focused in two areas;¬†one is on the independents, and one is on the big players.

You can attend some of these events, and you can hear about all these things you could do. But actually, it scares you because you don’t know how to do it. And that’s the key thing. So how do you actually – all these great things that you could be doing – how do you do it?

And we looked at the industry and went, well, there is no exhibition where you could go and do that, where you can wander around, meet suppliers, hear from experts, and learn how to actually change your business model, and develop new products, and new revenue streams.

There was the Publishing Expo, that faded away about what five or six years ago, maybe more. There’s a reason for that. But I think this is why with this event, we want to make it a practical, how-to.

We want people to attend it, to learn from people who’ve gone through these changes, so not just saying ‘You should really do this,’ but actually, here’s a case study on how you can, here are 10 steps you need to follow to develop this product or revenue stream.

And hopefully people will, by attending the event, will leave there – not every session will be relevant – but they might leave there with three core ideas, which they can go after and develop, which in a year’s time might add a significant amount to their bottom line. And that’s what it is.

We all hear, you know, display advertising revenues are down and digital’s not replicating it or replacing it, so if you don’t do any of these 10 things or some of these 10 things, then you won’t be around in five years. Well, here’s how you can do some of those things. And hear it from people who have been through it.

The other side of it, the reason we were doing it alongside our trade shows is because, over the years, events have become such a huge part of the publishers portfolio, we get a lot of publishers who send their event staff to Confex, and so we already have some reach into that market.

So it made sense to run them alongside as we develop this potentially into a standalone event on its own.

We had this conversation on the podcast last week, to be honest, that idea that yeah, The New York Times is doing wonderfully well. But a B2B publisher in the Midlands is probably not going to be able to do the same sort of things that has given the New York Times its success. So is it much more nuts and bolts, much more targeted at that kind of medium size publisher?

Yeah, absolutely, it is. And if you look, if you look at the subjects, it is how to do this, how to do that, or how this company did that. So you know, it is very much that practical how-to element where the case studies will show, ‘We started doing this two years ago. These are the key steps. We did it. And this is how you can do it as well.’

We launched the event last year as a one day conference. And we had a chap called Ed Tranter who’s returning this year, who’s an exhibition organiser by trade. And he basically talked to the industry about how to tap into that community, how to launch an exhibition and why they should all consider it.

One company in the audience actually spoke to him afterwards, set up a couple of consultancy meetings, and is launching I think three exhibitions this year on the back of attending that session and listening to Ed Tranter.

That’s why the event is set up, unless that person had attended that event, he wouldn’t have considered exhibitions as an option for his business.

It’s interesting because I think that’s what Publishing Expo used to be. And PubEx kind of lost its way I think, it got that idea of big themes, and it kind of got subsumed a little bit by the ad tech conference that it ran along beside.

Well, I think that’s also, the the big companies who were operating in that space six, seven years ago, they did get rid of a lot of their collateral. And actually if you look at some of the people speaking at Making Publishing Pay, Dan Pierce is doing a session which I think is one that I think will be amazing, Travel Trade Gazette do some amazing work, they’ve won awards recently. But they’re a classic example of buying a business out of the megalith that was UBM, and completely transforming what was a dying product.

And a lot of that has to do with love. Getting a small team around you who are passionate and actually care, and really getting underneath the skin of it, and giving it new life and breath.

I think we’ve done similar things with the trade shows. Event Production Show, when we bought it had actually been cancelled. We got hold of it, we put it back on, I wouldn’t say it was the most amazing exhibition in year one but it’s certainly tripled in size since then, and has got record numbers.

Confex was the same. Also UBM, they tried hard to keep it going, sometimes it needs a different pair of hands. So, yeah, there is a lot to learn from people at those smaller companies who have that passion and care and commitment to making things work.

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