From digital data to finding the right industry talent, Stuart Johnston discovers the world of exhibitions in his new MD role at Ascential plc.
Starting a new job is never easy, let alone entering a whole new industry.
Shell scheme? Floor plans? The AEO? If you’re not from exhibitions, you’re probably none the wiser to our world of visitors, exhibitors and love of acronyms.
But Stuart Johnston, the new managing director of Ascential’s exhibitions portfolio, makes being the ‘office newbie’ look effortless.
Clad in a fitted dark suit and crisp white shirt, Johnston takes a seat and, with a firm Glaswegian accent, lets his confidence do the talking as to why he’s fit for the role, in spite of the gaps in events experience on his CV.
“Exhibitions and events certainly have scale. They have global coverage and they’re not going to go away; people have been going to trade shows since before Jesus was born and there’s an opportunity to have a look at how we can make them better and understand their value more,” he tells EN. "What appealed about the job, first of all, was that I started to look at this industry and soon realised how much of a viable medium it is. It is growing.”
One of the things Johnston was guilty of, when he first came into events, was not realising how big they are. The industry, he says is a little bit of a sleeping giant.
“Certainly when I started my research during those early conversations, I started to realise the size of these companies; how big and profitable they are – these really are growing businesses. I then looked at the number of exhibitors and visitors to these events – these numbers are huge.”
Having spent the majority of the past 20 years with two UK leading firms, Experian and Sky, it’s the marketing and data insight, and the knowledge and experience of being a customer, that Johnston can bring to the table, among other things.
“To a degree, some people may argue that Ascential has taken a chance to take what’s quite a big business and give it to somebody that has never run an events company before,” he smirks.
“Some people might think that’s mad, yet others could argue that the fact that I haven’t run an events company is hugely beneficial, because I’m not conditioned by all of the thinking that’s been here before.”
Like Philip Thomas, chief executive, and Duncan Painter, CEO (who hired him), some in the firm are now trying to not only break the mould, but also break the cycle of recycling people.
“Some of what I will do is try and continue to break that cycle, so that to work here, you don’t have to have X number of years of events experience in your background, because you can learn these things. Having the right attitude, the right application and being driven – these are far more important than whether or not you’ve done a show, in my opinion,” says Johnston. "What with 16 weeks’ worth of experience in the industry, I’d like to think that what I’ll bring will be an acceptance that understanding the value that we deliver to customers can be done better than it is right now.”
Born and brought up in Glasgow, Johnston first moved down to London in 2000 with the intention of only staying for one year, but hasn’t managed to leave.
“At the time I was working for a technology company and had joined the management team. I’d started there in the late ’90s for a relatively small company but had a choice to make about my career, which was either to continue in Scotland, where there wasn’t much opportunity, or come down to HQ in London.”
He spent 14 years with Experian’s technology and data business QAS, having started as an account manager and was ultimately appointed their managing director. Johnston also sat on Experian’s Marketing Services Board and was appointed in 2010 to the Experian Global Management Team.
Following his success at the data and tech firm, he joined Sky to run their external advertising effectiveness business, Sky IQ, in 2010, for two reasons.
“There was a phenomenally interesting proposition that was being described that I could be right at the beginning of. The other reason was that in my time, around about the mid-2000s I met up with Duncan Painter who had just sold his business to Experian – just a year or so after the company I was in had been bought by them. In 2009-2010 he left to start up BSkyB and he got in touch asking if I fancied being part of this.”
It was a business that was all about understanding the impact of TV consumption for the benefit of advertisers, podcasters and also content makers, Johnston explains.
“The concepts that exist inside digital advertising, and really bringing them to life, had never really been done before.
“So they built me this proposition and we brought in a data business to see how we could take the insight off TV consumption and use it to improve media planning and media buying.”
In Johnston’s first year at Sky, Painter left the business and became the chief executive of Emap. Almost five years later, the two are working together again as Johnston takes up his role at Ascential.
“Duncan got in touch with me and said ‘I think there may be something here that could be of interest to you’.”
And so his adventure of events began.
Between analysing customer intelligence and data insight, Johnston travels to and from London and Glasgow, visiting family and friends, while also finding time to see the mighty Glasgow Rangers play.
“I met my wife at work and got married three years ago for the first time – I was a bit late on that front. My son is 20 months old, and like me, a season ticket holder at Ibrox, since he was nine days old.
“I also have a 19-year old daughter in Glasgow, and spend three weekends out of four to see her. I’ll fly up on a Friday night with the family and fly back down on Sunday night.”
Where your friends and family are is most important, he says. From family to customer values, Johnston says because he used to spend a lot of money on events during his time at Sky and also at Experian, so he knows what it’s like to be a customer.
“My experience at Sky was all about how do we make marketing money work harder, how do we better understand attribution and the value of this, because TV as a medium was under pressure from digital for advertising spend.
“My time at Experian was about understanding how effective marketing could be, simply by getting the data quality right. So there are parallels in the events industry in that it’s about how do we promote this as a marketing medium that people should spend their money on? To do that, you probably should think about how strong your proposition is, that this is an industry that hasn’t really been disrupted.”
Part of his challenge, he says, is to understand how digital technology can help evolve events and make them better. How do they complement them? How do they interplay so that customers can get more value out of events and how can they make them better? These are some of the questions he’ll be facing in his new role.
“What I’ve seen thus far is that when people spend a lot of money with us to come to an event, for them to properly understand the value of the investment they’ve made for us, I think that would be really helpful – it’s never going to be a precise science, but we can help them along that way. And if we can do that, it’ll encourage more people to use us as a channel.”
It’s one thing to be able to better understand attribution, but being able to speed up the interplay between physical and digital is something Johnston says still needs developing.
“Right now, the extent of your digital experience is registering online, and sometimes not an awful lot more than that. I think that digital has a bigger part to play, to complement that physical experience, so that’s something which is absolutely on my mind."
THE ’OTHER’ CATEGORY
Before taking on the role, Johnston says he spoke to colleagues, friends and old customers about their exposure to the events industry and where they thought it was.
“It is really almost a secret, quite frankly. Before I really looked into this properly, it’s not something that ever found its way into my conversations beyond somebody selling me something,” he says. "During my time at Sky, when I was looking at marketing money, events were almost pitted into the ‘other’ category. Events don’t get a lot of airplay, and therefore it’s quite easy to assume it’s because it’s not very big, not very popular, or worse, that it’s gone out of fashion in some way.”
But, he says, when he came into the company, it wasn’t long until he was pleasantly surprised.
“This industry is really significant. The amount of money involved is enormous; for exhibitors, for people coming along. They invest not just in terms of what they pay to be there, but also what they pay to get there. All of that investment is very significant, and the fact that people keep coming back is because organisers and events companies understand it works, but not that many of them understand how much it works.
“They couldn’t put their finger on it or describe the success. That’s different from other industries. If you ask somebody who is a digital marketer on a mainstream brand how much money they get back from every pound they spend, you’ll get it to the pence. But, in this industry, people just know. Some of their understanding of how well it’s gone has been based on what it felt like. ‘It seemed busier this year’, for example.”
Things are in a good place already, he insists.
“Our position is to be the best events company in the world and to be market leading in each sector that we’re in, and I think I’m walking in on a really good platform.”
It was partly down to the people as to why he joined Ascential, which, at the time of interview, was mid-refurbishment to accompany the firm’s expanding horizon and rebrand.
“I had worked with Duncan before and that had an appeal. I like his attitude to work and I like his drive; I know what culture I can expect, so that was one thing. But parking that to the side, I looked at how this business has performed in the last few years and I looked at the scale of it now compared to say, four or five years ago, and it has grown.
“It is continuing to grow. Bett now exists as an education event in the Middle East as well as in Asia and South America. Our coil winding show started in Berlin and is now in China, the USA and Istanbul. If we look at retail, the Spring Fair takes up the whole of the NEC for five days – it’s just massive.”
It’s heart-warming to hear Johnston say how much of a real opportunity is here in the industry.
“When they asked me to get involved, it was because they wanted me to grow this further, and there are lots of things to be done for that to happen but when I looked at it, I thought there’s definitely growth here.”
The company is also full of great people, he acknowledges.
SIGNS OF GROWTH
“When I landed here, one of the things that amazed me was how kind people were. When a new guy or boss walks in, some people have a wee look and see if this guy is going to fancy himself, is he a good guy or bad guy, but people were incredibly welcoming and warm, way beyond what I was expecting. It was a breath of fresh air. That’s what it was like when I arrived and it hasn’t changed.
“There’s a shed load of ridiculously talented people here who run these shows and they’ve been doing that very well.”
What he’s really interested in is how does Ascential make these events more relevant to its customers, to more customers and how do they improve the customer experience? How will the organiser know that they’re in all of the countries complementary to their events? What about the tangential markets that they either might grow into organically or could look to acquire through the businesses?
“Part of our growth will be through acquisition. Part of my role will be through those areas, so I’m probably not going to necessarily add much value in helping people make Bett UK run in January, for example, because there’s a group of people here who are quite brilliant at that already and they probably wouldn’t be that grateful for my help,” he says cheekily.
However, looking outside of the events industry when recruiting will also be a big part to play in his new role.
“There’s a lot of people with a lot of experience, which is good but it also means that they might be conditioned to think, ‘We’ve always done it this way so we’ll continue to do so’, and I’ve got an opportunity to challenge some of that, because I’ve never ‘always done it that way’.
“It might well be that there are instances where I challenge it that I might agree with them; ‘It makes sense, that’s bang on, I would too’. But I’d like to check the reasons why things are done the way they are, beyond the reason of, ‘They’ve always been done that way’ – why? Is there a better way?”
Potentially ruffling a couple of feathers, Johnston says there’s a danger in only hiring people from within the events industry pool.
“I think that there are an awful lot of people who don’t know an awful lot else. I think that people’s ambition can get conditioned by being in a particular environment for too long. How we acquire talent is quite critical. I do think that we as an industry could be better at attracting the top talent.”
There are different types of recruitment, he explains.
“One is that some of the work that the AEO can and should do, of which I’m certainly an advocate of, flying the flag for the industry. That’s at an industry level, about why it’s a good place to work.
“At company level, there’s a responsibility. There’s a risk that if you aren’t bringing in people from new places, then you’re just recycling somebody else’s waste. There’s an onus on us as a company about being a destination employer and then treating employment as seriously as we treat customers. If the company recruits and retains and develops our staff really well, the knock-on effect of that will be that the customers will have a really good experience."
Part of bringing Johnston in was because of a need for fresh eyes and a new fresh perspective that he’ll bring to the team, he says.
“Also I’ve done a number of things reasonably well in the past that gives them some confidence that I’m not a numpty. That’s certainly part of it.
“I think the value of being a customer is not to be misunderstood, but certainly I think understanding why people buy things, understanding the importance of marketing and also the fact that this is one stream of a very competitive marketing mix set are some of the things that could be ridiculously powerful in this industry.”
With a romantic idea of going back to university after work to finally complete a degree in chemical engineering, after having “a f*cking magical time” instead of studying, Johnston is looking to leave his stamp on exhibitions with his strong values, and his direct and honest approach. EN looks forward to seeing how Johnston develops in his role and what the new kid on the block will bring to the events industry.