From Malaria to Blenheim, through to UBM, Jane Risby-Rose – the 20-year story of her yellow brick road industry journey.
There are many standout people in this industry, from those who are hugely successful and truly inspirational, through to those who have a standout personal style. Jane Risby-Rose has all of the above and so much more.
With the mane of a lion, her self-confessed hippy attitude and her knowledge, experience and success in the industry – it’s no wonder she was met with a standing ovation when she won the AEO’s Outstanding Contribution to the Industry Award this year.
“I’ve just held a job down for 20 odd years and have not got caught out yet,” the Global EVP for Events at UBM smirks, while sipping her cappuccino, sitting back in her chair, making you feel at ease almost immediately.
Life is but a dance, she explains. Rather than fear the future, Risby-Rose says it’s all about today; it’s all about reinventing ourselves and playing the game. While her career in events has spanned almost a quarter of a century, she refers to herself as a tourist in this whirlwind of an industry during her AEO acceptance speech.
“I’ve kind of been an accidental tourist in this industry, landing in this amazing world of Oz, after some acquisitional tornado blew my publishing house away, and what a wonderful yellow brick road it’s turned out to be.
“Hardly any wicked witches, a couple of flying monkeys, definitely a few munchkins and my fair share of scarecrows, tin men and wonderful lions to help me along the way.”
Continuing the reference to the 1939 film, Risby-Rose called the audience wizards; ‘creating these shimmering emerald cities we call events’.
“I sometimes have felt a bit of a fish out of water; I’m not typically corporate, I’m incredibly left-wing – although I don’t make a big deal out of it – I’m sort of anti-authority. I’ve had to navigate incredibly corporate people over the years, people I don’t feel are my species, in order to survive in this world.
“The one thing you don’t do, and the one thing I’ve not compromised is my own authenticity. I think that that’s partly what’s helped me to survive because I won’t be a different person, I just won’t, whatever the scenario is.”
And to think it all started back in 1983, when she was propositioned with £20 in Soho.
“I started at VNU straight out of college in the days when graduates could literally just hit London and go for an interview straight away. I was offered a job before I’d got off the train home – it was the first interview I’d had. All I knew was that it was publishing – I started selling classified advertising at Accountancy Age magazine in Soho,” she recalls.
“On the day of my interview I was early and stood outside waiting in my new outfit that my mum had bought me from this new shop at the time called Next, which was the crème de la crème of shopping. So I had my interview suit on and I was waiting on this corner when a man came up to me and offered me £20. He thought I was a hooker, it was just hysterical. That was my first bite of London.”
It was a really aggressive sales outfit and a brilliant hotbed of learning and talent, she says, where VNU had huge graduate intake back then and would take on 50 people a year and train them all from scratch.
“Within 11 months I was promoted to assistant manager, it was a brilliant meritocracy – so many of us are still in the industry today, the people that were spawned at VNU. It was the best learning ground ever; I did that for nearly 10 years. That’s where I learned everything, but it was all publishing.”
In November 1991, she moved to Haymarket for a year, describing the time as “a bit of a bump and bounce”. Following a trip to Thailand, Risby-Rose got malaria and dengue fever, was misdiagnosed four times and at one point, had only 24 hours to live.
“I was rushed into hospital and they saved my life in a time that was a really weird period for me as I was at Haymarket and had to take a lot of time off to recover which slightly soured that job so I left. It wasn’t the right place for me and that’s fine. It was a big lesson.”
If that wasn’t life-changing enough, unbeknown to Risby-Rose, when she joined Blenheim in 1993 with the Pegler brothers as her ’bodyguards’, she was 10 weeks’ pregnant.
“I had started in February at Blenheim, found out I was 16 weeks’ pregnant in March, got married in May, had a baby in October and was back in work by January. It was the maddest year,” she says in one breath.
“I was in publishing for a few years at Blenheim and then Miller Freeman bought the company. They had lots of magazines and a handful of shows, and we had loads of shows and a handful of magazines so there was a swap and I was effectively redundant.”
Playing the game
At the time, David Pegler was MD and had received a letter from Condé Nast with a proposition to do a live version of GQ, à la Cosmopolitan show. It wasn’t until Risby-Rose lost her job that Pegler took the letter from the pile of unread letters and handed it to her, saying ‘have a look at that’.
“So I rang Condé Nast up and it went from there. My first show was a launch, obviously I’d never done that before, and it was consumer, again something I’d never done before. It was an utter failure. Purely because not enough people turned up.”
A failure, but a massive learning curve for Risby-Rose, it is still one of the things she is most proud of.
“I learned so much, the things we did at that show were just extraordinary: climbing walls, live cut-throat razor shaving, we had a brilliant catwalk where they opened the pages of GQ, the models pushed it open.
It was just absolutely brilliant. But people didn’t come. I learned a lot about influencing and stakeholder management because I couldn’t get the GQ editorial team to support it and without that, we were sunk.
“It was quite a difficult proposition and it was both fantastic and dreadful. I’ve learned that it’s a game. There is a game to be played in terms of getting your stakeholder map intact and that if parts of your stakeholder map are not supportive then you’re not doomed to failure but you’re going to make success a lot more difficult.”
Over the years, while Blenheim became Miller Freeman and was bought by United Business Media, which later became known as UBM, Risby-Rose did a couple of other launches and then took on some major roles.
“I had two big jobs of running shows: one was managing the decline of a huge fashion portfolio and then the other one was managing the growth of the huge interiors portfolio – and I did both.”
Glad to have worked the downward one first because it helped her with the other, you learn from the failures more than anything else, she explains.
“You just have to fail as quickly as you can and learn as quickly as you can from that failure, but that’s what makes us. We are in an iterative industry so we constantly have the opportunity to reinvent. You can pursue constant innovation.
“We talk about ways in which we can collectively redesign experiences – it’s just about the enjoyment of change for me.”
Go your own way
Away from work, rugby plays a key part in her day-to-day life. It is a sport she says has helped her become more dogged.
“I married a rugby player, I live in Twickenham, I played rugby for three years at university and my best friend has an OBE for beginning women’s rugby, so I have the values around that as a sport and my early engagement in it.”
Risby-Rose was also the social chairman of her local rugby club at home – the first woman to hold the post in 75 years and used to sit in committee meetings with men talking about the state of the Guinness tap and who was washing the shirts.
“There was a huge amount of sexism back then but ultimately I won them round because I delivered and I made money for them socially that they’d never been able to do. And I did that when I was a teenager,” she says.
“I’ve definitely experienced sexism in my career and like all of us, I have definitely been on the wrong end of assumptions about me. Whether it’s covert or overt, sexism or bullying, my advice is to just work through it. Don’t take any notice of it. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong but you tend to win in the end. We have all got our own modus operandi as feminists but mine is non-confrontational – I just find a different way to beat them.
“I think you have to refuse to be scared of things like that and then bullies back down in nano seconds. They just evaporate in that situation.”
According to Risby-Rose, she is a borderline introvert, which may come as a surprise to some in the industry.
“I crave my own company and I crave solitude. I have to be on my own quite a lot of the time in order to reboot myself for another extrovert performance. So I can be quite different but it doesn’t mean I can’t be sociable. I’m a sociable introvert,” she reflects.
For someone whose New Year’s resolution was to stop being a spectator and start being a participant, her school motto was work hard play hard.
“I haven’t found anything to beat that really as my personal ethos, I think that’s just what I do. But I have got a big work ethic, which comes from my parents. Work is life,” she says.
“My parents were idealistic socialists who had those values where they believed in a better world for all and equality, so I was raised on marches and protests – the house was always full of political people debating in secret in the back room with my dad, and I’d sit on the floor and listen to it all. I soaked up all of that.
“I inherited a big work ethic and a real sense of trying to fight for equality really from them, but the playing hard is important too.”
A keen poet and art collector, the former CEO of UBM Live now has dreams of becoming a writer.
“I wanted to be a dancer and trained to be one for the first 20 years of my life, six times a week and then it all went wrong when I discovered men and alcohol.
“With my new place in Margate, I’m treating this time as the dawn of a new chapter…again. I’m constantly reinventing myself so I have visions of me sitting lonely on a cliff with my notepad, drawing inspiration from the waves like a Jane Austen-type character. That’s what I want to be.
“My ambition is to become a hermit and write poetry. But I don’t want to get consumption, which is what they all did. I’ll miss that bit out thanks.”
EMOTION AND EXPERIENCE
There’s no average day in the life of Jane at UBM, because with the attention span of a gnat, she says, and someone who bores easily, the variety of her role is fantastic and can be unpredictable.
“There’s a really broad agenda and because it’s global, cyclical and we’re doing a combination of proactive work that we can plan introducing new ideas into the company, we’re also the go-to gang for any number of things that crop up that we can react to.”
Whether she’d admit it or not, Risby-Rose has her head screwed on, without question.
“My dad died when I was really young, and so when that happens to you, change is never going to affect you again and tomorrow doesn’t really exist because what you thought would happen sometimes doesn’t. The best part of losing somebody you worshipped at that age, is that it shaped the rest of my life.
“That’s what gave me the desire for change. It’s a bit carpe diem; you want to be in an environment where you’re seizing the moment and creating moments for people.
“It’s all about harmony and trying to get that balance right so you can spark that wonder in someone,” she says.
"I get around 25 ideas a day. I’m just inspired by the wonder of the world and when I try to apply that to this world, there’s so much science now available to us that we didn’t really have before, but if you combine that with the best imagination and art, then you’re going to create wonder. We need to see more of that in the industry.”
To Risby-Rose, organisers should start by imagining the experience they want people to have and think about these people, not just as representatives of an industry that show up in some sort of uniform, but as human beings who are having lots of experiences in their lives that are changing them.
“From one IFSEC to the next, well over 50 per cent of visitors have probably watched Game of Thrones or something – you have to think about it and try to find the zeitgeist and introduce that in some way into this incredible opportunity you have rather than to present it in a way that was designed many iterations ago for a group of people who have moved on,” she says.
It’s all about introducing emotion into experience, she explains. The differentiator between events as a medium and all other forms of medium is the opportunity to incite emotion in a live environment in a way that only people together can do.
“Whatever your politics, look at the thousands of people that are showing up to see Corbyn, look at the huge amounts of debate around the Scottish Referendum and around Brexit, there’s a pride in every city in the UK now.
“This desire to come together collectively to have a connected emotional experience is something that we should be translating into our shows. Every event we put on has got a surprise in it – one surprise that everyone in that room isn’t expecting, even if there’s one thing that provokes huge laughter, or gives people the opportunity to hug each other, or encourage debate – these are all pinpointed emotions that are very sensory and contribute to people’s experience.”
It’s true. People that are getting the customer agenda right increasingly make us feel special. It is a hard notion to argue against.
“We are all beginning to notice that a big change is afoot.
"But I still don’t think I’m hearing a lot about what the real solution is going to be, and maybe that’s because we don’t know yet. If you don’t know, what do you do? You tackle something you do know about in a different way.”
KEY TO SUCCESS
Responsible for driving UBM’s accelerated event strategy and chairing the GEM (Global Events Momentum) initiative of best practice devolution and growth innovation, Risby-Rose has no clue where she’d be right now if she wasn’t in events.
“Whether it was fate or not, or whether ultimately I would have done something a little bit more proactive to have got myself involved in live events, I think that that’s where my destiny was.
“Because if you are kind of a part performer, have a love of theatrics; if you have got creative energy and if you love nothing more than seeing people being brought together then it’s the best destination for you.”
The exhibition industry is made up of many characters, and Risby-Rose is happy to admit in the past she has certainly been one of those.
“In the past, there were times where I’ve worn hot pants when I was told not to,” Risby-Rose recalls.
“When I worked at VNU, I used to wear Harry Hall jodhpurs with pointed boots, a cravat and I used to have a crop that I used to whip the desk with to tell people to get on the phone. It was just ridiculous.
"I used to wear extraordinary things and did some mad stuff.
“The biggest thing I have learned is that you’re only going to be successful if you are true to yourself. There’s performance in terms of being a little more extrovert than you are – that’s fine, that’s easy, but there’s a performance in terms of pretending to be a different person and that’s just not sustainable.”
Once you conquer that, and are courageous about it, nobody can touch you, she says.
“If you work hard, keep your head up and keep trying, you can find a way to unleash your own passion and your own creativity. With a smile, she adds: “Success is found when you find a way to be the best version of yourself."