From Hong Kong to New York, the mastermind behind some of the world’s most innovative consumer events tells his story of how he brings brands to life.
If you walked into Tim Etchells’ office today and said that you’d lost him a £20k deal, he’d say “OK, let’s move on”. But, if you walked in and said you’d fallen out with someone he’s known for more than 20 years, he’d be very upset.
The managing director of SME London, Etchells has carved himself a serious career over more than 35 years as an event organiser and a serial launcher. He is a man who holds relationships close to his heart.
He says it’s all about trust. This is a classic lesson from someone who has been in the industry for more than three decades, and whose expertise is in creating new events.
“I don’t know whether it’s part of my character or upbringing but relationships matter to me probably more than anything,” Etchells tells EN. “Clearly if you don’t get on with someone you shouldn’t try too hard, however if I do get on with a person and see something there, then I’ll really work to keep that relationship strong.”
During his career, he has been responsible for more than 50 new events, including The British International Motorshow, Art Hong Kong and Brides The Show, and is currently involved in the development of many more to come. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing for this industry pioneer.
“My story, as it were, started when I left school at 15 – my father had gone bust and I was thrown out of school because we didn’t pay the fees.
“The first job I had was a trainee machine operator and presser in a drycleaners. It was a disaster,” he says. “In those days they used to do four-hour cleaning and when my manager went on holiday and left me in charge, the four-hour jobs turned into four-day jobs. I am pleased to say that it’s the only job in my life I’ve ever been fired from.”
It was a good lesson at an early age, Etchells explains, because it made him realise that it wasn’t what he should be doing. He had a succession of jobs over the next 10 years working in breweries, working on production lines, BHS – you name it, he did it.
“One day I just happened to pop into a recruiter’s and by coincidence, Sandy Angus had had dinner with the recruiter the night before, looking for someone to go into Montgomery and sell one of their shows at the time which was struggling.”
At the first meeting with Sandy, Etchells told the chairman of Montgomery he had O-Levels and A-Levels coming out of his ears. “I had no qualifications, so of course I lied about them.
“I started selling on Interbuild and worked my way up in Montgomery over a seven-year period and ended up running shows for him, from Indonesia to New York. Unfortunately I wasn’t earning enough money so one day I had a meeting with Sandy and Brian Montgomery, who owned the business, and explained that I was earning £20k a year and had a £20k overdraft. It didn’t add up so I told them I’d soon be moving on to make some better money.”
Within three or four months, Etchells joined another industry pioneer, Richard Copley-Smith, who gave him a £20k salary but, more importantly, 80 per cent of the business in 1985.
“We really built the business together and 18 months later we sold it for £6.2m. That really got me going and made me realise I just wanted to do my own thing and my forte was coming up with ideas for shows. I seemed to have a knack for identifying opportunities and really trying to make them work,” he explains.
From launching a niche trade show for the television industry to ending up on the main board of the UK Independent Television Association for 10 years, one of Etchells’ many lessons is to engage in the industry you have a show in. Be part of it and from that, all sorts of opportunities will come about.
“The British Fashion Council soon hired me to help consult on London Fashion Week, which was going through a really difficult time. And so over the years, again I got totally engrossed in another world and we ended up running London Fashion Week in its entirety for about a 15-year period. We also created a consumer event off the back of that called London Fashion Weekend,” he reflects.
A similar time, 25 ago, Etchells started the BBC Good Food Show with the help of friends he’d made – including Rick Stein and Gary Rhodes – through events like the Restaurant Show.
“I also got to know Jamie Oliver really well when he was working at the River Café. I made it my business running the Good Food Show to get to know all the chefs because the idea was that they took to the stage, which became the centrepiece of the show that attracted the audience.
“In getting engrossed in the food industry and shows, Jamie became a good mate. He went to Australia to do his first book tour and rang me up the day he got back, suggesting we take the UK model of the food shows out there and that he’d come with us.
“He kept to his word and there were 40,000 people queuing round the block. It was huge. At that stage, no one had that kind of format out there. I wanted to do my own thing, rather than have a partnership, so I created Single Market Events with the idea of also doing the Affordable Art Fair internationally.”
Working with the BBC on events like the Good Food Show led to a close and engaging relationship with the Corporation. He soon began developing Top Gear Live in Australia with Beeb.
“I was the first person to bring Clark and Hammond to Australia and I had the idea of doing a big arena show, which they had never done before in exhibition centres. I put it in the Olympic Park in Sydney and we sold more than 80,000 tickets and held the most successful Top Gear that they had ever had.”
Eighteen months ago the BBC came to Etchells completely out of the blue and asked if they could have a conversation about something that would turn in to one of the biggest projects he’s worked on in years, Countryfile.
“Eight million people viewing the TV show a week, 50 weeks a year – just look at the ratings, there’s such an opportunity to create something around that brand.
“I came up with the idea of doing something big and bold, I went to see Blenheim Palace and booked it. I thought the idea of putting those two brands together would be good. We are creating an amazing event here. You’ve always got to remember that events are visitor-led.”
With this particular project, Etchells says he’s had to almost clear the decks of some of the other activities he has been involved in so that he can personally spend every day on the show, which takes place on 4-7 August 2016.
“There isn’t a day that doesn’t go by, even weekends, that I don’t do something on Countryfile Live.
As times change, so does the exhibitions industry. With his desk laden with magazines and old books, and his office walls covered with movie and event posters, it’s not hard to see that he’s awash with ideas.
“It’s about regularly meeting with people. Ideas spring out of nowhere. I say to people that my door is always open; you can come into my office at any time,” he says.
“You can come and talk to me about anything you want, any problem you’ve got, or anything you need help with. You can even come and talk to me about a bank robbery or murder. If there’s a problem, I will try and help you, because nothing is insurmountable.”
Offering advice to organisers looking to launch new events, Etchells stresses that you need to make sure that you’re properly funded.
“If you’ve got venture capitalists or people funding you, they need to really understand the risks involved and that they don’t bottle. I often get invited to invest in businesses and if I get asked to put in something like £100k, I think to myself that I need to have another £100k spare in case they ask for more. You always need to have more on reserve because the first amount you’re asked for is never enough.
“It’s about being totally honest, because if you’ve got partners and you’re struggling a bit, don’t bullsh*t them, tell them.
Be totally honest and really committed to it,” he explains.
“You need to make sure that you have a really good team. They need to communicate with each other, you need to make sure they’re passionate about the project they’re on.”
A serial launcher Etchells may be, but the infamous title and experience doesn’t come without its failures. Happy to admit those from over the years – both expensive and painful – Etchells says the biggest and most memorable failure was when he did a deal with Cosmopolitan magazine.
“About 16 to 17 years ago, I launched Cosmopolitan Live in Earls Court as a direct competitor to the Clothes Show because I saw other people going to Birmingham every year and thought ‘Why can’t we do something in London?’ We knew that sector well, with the designers and putting on catwalk shows.
But, he says, it was an unmitigated disaster.
“The publishers will tell you that the readership is in their early twenties with a disposable income, yet the audience we delivered was totally wrong; aged 14 to 15, with absolutely no money. So we had sold the exhibitors another audience, and we didn’t quite get the numbers because the magazine hadn’t delivered the numbers.
“I had invested heavily into the event and I lost £502,000 in one weekend.”
The interesting thing, Etchells mentions, is that you have to make a brave call. In this industry, we’ve all seen shows that have an ’ok’ first edition, but the question is, do you chase it and run it again?
“I decided in the end that I’d walk away with that colossal loss knowing I’m never going to get that money back, but I never lost any more on that.
“The publisher decided that they were going to run it themselves after I walked away, because they thought I was wrong. It ran for another three to four years and lost hundreds of thousands of pounds – it never worked. It was painful to lose that money but I had got the judgement right. What can I say, I’m a gambler.”
The gambling mentality is what you need in this business, he explains. It’s about never being frightened of the scale of things.
“The worst that happens when you take a risk is that you just frighten yourself. It’s the same in business – as long as you’re not completely stupid. Even when you frighten yourself, it’s not the end of the world, because you learn. That’s what we do.”
One of the things Etchells learned very early on is that in his line of work, it’s important that you focus on the product.
“Focus on the product before you focus on the profit. You do obviously need to make money because otherwise why do it, but if you get the product right, you’ll get the profits. That’s really important.”
When approached with an event concept, he always asks: ‘Is there an audience for this event?’ and ‘Would they come to this event?’
“Often you bullsh*t yourself that there is something in it but really deep down you should have an inkling at how it’ll do. With Countryfile Live as a good example, you can see that there are eight million people out there who love the countryside, and if even only one per cent came, that’s 80,000 people.
“You have to be audience-driven and think about how to communicate that message to the audience.”
An industry pioneer
In 2015, he received two lifetime achievement awards for his contribution to the events industry; one from the Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO) and the other, the prestigious EN Pioneer Award.
“It’s always nice to be recognised by your peers in the industry who think that you’re doing a good job and they respect you for it. I’d a liar if I didn’t say to people, ‘You know that I won two awards last year.’ You have to throw it into conversations, it makes you feel good.
“I’d love to see people that I have worked with win an award like that over the coming years. I have huge admiration for Simon Kimble. I think in our industry, if you have a business, you need to have a good understanding of selling, marketing and budgets galore. You need to be multi-skilled. Simon can really do that.”
As glorious as it is to have your awards on display, some may think it’s also an expiry date on the shelf. Etchells says he has often sat in meetings and wondered what they’re thinking of him.
“Are they thinking, ‘This guy’s 62, how much longer is he going to keep going on for?’ Lifetime achievement awards are great but they might suggest that you’re not going to go on for much longer. My answer to that is that I’m going to go on for as long as I can. I have no desire to quit now.”
With no plans of slowing down, EN can only imagine what other opportunities are out there for Etchells.
What brands can be brought to life? Who knows…but one thing is for sure, this serial launcher has big things on the horizon.