Fishersfile M&IT March: 25TH ANNIVERSARY
John Fisher was working in the financial services industry as an ‘incentives officer’ in 1987. His own ’25 year journey’ mirrors the growth of incentives and events from cottage industry to the major below the line marketing services discipline of today
I started my business career, after university, in a direct mail agency but soon got bored and just a tiny bit suspicious that every marketing problem could be miraculously solved by…guess what?… ‘direct marketing’. So I joined an insurance company on the marketing side to get broader business experience and became involved in devising ‘promotions’ for the 800-strong, commission-only sales force. I was only supposed to be doing the advertising but promotions and incentives were much more fun. They also did an annual incentive travel trip which at the time was handled by Limo. So I got that job too. Madrid and Marbella. My agency contact, because travel was far too hard for a corporate to organise back then, was a bearded, East-end Mr Fixit called Gerry York. I had no idea back then that incentives or conferences were even an industry. Insurance Mail , my industry sector magazine, used to do the occasional editorial piece about the latest travel event for Hambro Life which was then the largest direct sales force in the country. So I contributed a few articles to them about incentives from a corporate perspective. At the time I was only aware of two agencies that specialised in travel incentives, E F Macdonald…Graham Burt was my contact… and Limo. Most corporates ran their own schemes themselves and only really big players, like automotive manufacturers, used external agencies. It was 1987, some 25 years ago.
Page & Moy Motivation, 1989
In 1989 I met Tony Moy in a bar, as you do, and he explained to me that he ran big travel programmes but he was losing out in pitches to a competitor called Maritz who were able to write promotional brochures and even compile league tables of top performers so participants could see who was in the running to win. So I joined Page & Moy in Leicester to set up Page & Moy Motivation as a co-director. In our first week we confirmed Volvo and Commercial Union (now Aviva) so we were up and running. I hired Linda Piggott straight from university as an Account Executive for non-travel projects. I met Gerry York at an ITMA seminar and persuaded him to join the new business running events. Sally McGarvey was our most experienced events manager. John Sylvester joined from GRG to head up the motivation and computer services side. It wasn’t long before Tony realised that profit margins on non-travel were much higher than on travel so we expanded the promotional side of the business, hired Kevin Ingram as our sales director, invented Free Holiday Spending Money (a travel discount prize which involved giving half of our agents’ commission back to the holiday customer) and took on 12 new staff. In 1991 I started to write for a new trade magazine, Meetings and Incentive Travel. My first article, some 20 years ago, comprised 10 tips to beat the 1990/91 recession…does that sound familiar? Over the next nine years we grew to 125 staff expanding the client offer to encompass conference production, corporate hospitality, consumer sales promotion, computerised data management services and dedicated teams under strict contract to manage all the events for one major automotive. We bought Brevis in Watford and Air Foyle in Luton, acquiring Freddie Guilmard into the bargain. Our biggest clients were in financial services. It was the age of the full service performance improvement agency.
By 1998 we were making some £800,000 a year pbt. But Tony and I began to tire of presiding over management committee meetings about ISO 9001, appraisal systems, new computer systems, ordering stationery and the inevitable intricacies of accounting so we sold it to the management team, even providing the link to Lloyds VC to help them do the deal. The Internet was just beginning to be used by corporates for communication and information exchange so any agency that could master the new techniques would do well. Just doing events was no longer enough to survive as a big player. In time the company listed on AIM and became Motivcom. Tony went off to start yet another package holiday company and I became a ‘consultant’.
The Motivation Consultancy, 1998
Since the early days I had always had my own side company called The Motivation Consultancy to handle any fees for articles, books, seminars etc which were nothing to do with my main job. So it became the perfect vehicle for my consultancy business now that I was precluded from acting as an ‘agent’ for two years as part of the MBO deal to PMM. During this period I wrote five books, acted as a company broker for various agencies in the business, spoke at seminars, started doing a non-exec director role for John Denham at Vantage Point…which still continues to this day… and did incentives research for various corporates. While all this was going on I met John Walker, Oxford International, and eventually twigged that he was based in Oxford…not obvious is it from the company name? And so was I, at the time. So I started to do a few days consultancy there in 2003. It wasn’t long before I was doing a full time job there and bought into the business as a shareholding director. In time it became obvious that the ‘performance improvement’ side of the business should be a separate entity as both the money and the manner of business were very different from an events company, so Oxford Motivation was born.
Oxford Motivation, 2005
We pootled along for a few years but it was clear that to get the bigger PI projects we would have to overcome the ever-increasing demands of client procurement departments and, quite frankly, be a lot bigger. At the time we only had 5 people which included Tony Moy as chairman, just in case we needed a wise head to consult with. A white knight arrived in the shape of The Indeprod People Company who had about 70 staff. So we sold out to them in 2007, became employees once more and moved to Buckinghamshire, near Thame. Then, just as things were going swimmingly, Indeprod collapsed!
Fisher Moy International, 2009
You may recall the dreadful Autumn of 2009 when events and incentives just stopped dead at the end of September. Indeprod lost three big clients within the space of a few weeks and the then main and only shareholder pulled the plug and the receivers were called in. Fortunately Oxford Motivation Limited had remained a separate legal entity and so we simply ‘carried on’, buying ourselves back from the receiver and persuading some of our old Indeprod colleagues to join us. It is now 2012 and we have about 25 people if you include our part stake in a design company. Our main clients are in the electronics sector and we have repositioned ourselves as ‘brand engagement specialists’ which is what we really do now. Of course we do events, doesn’t everyone, but the conversation normally starts with the brand not the bash.
Summing up the last 25 years? In 1987 it was okay to just do events. By 1997 you really had to be offering data and delegate management to retain the bigger projects with the Internet looming large. After the recession of 1999/2000 procurement came into its own so you also had to know your way around corporate approval systems to build a sustainable business. The recession of 2009 was a body blow for events-only businesses…you simply need to have saved cash to survive. By 2011, if you needed cash no-one was lending anyone anything, including the big banks.
What I learned from the last 25 years was to watch the market very closely, at least every month, and change the offer to suit the market, keep your access to cash clear at all times and match your staff to the 30-something profile of the main buyers. Despite what some posh agencies would have you believe, the successful ones simply mirror their clients, anticipate their problems and give them what they want, when they want it, at a reasonable price.
John Fisher is a director of FMI Group