If you were on Twitter on June 7th, at around 5pm, you might have noticed a hashtag trending.
That was us. That was HNW’s conference, Creative North presents The Future of Content.
And like all good conferences, it deserves a blog post focusing on the takeaways, talking points and things we’ve learned.
This one’s a little different. I missed chunks of most of the talks, so I won’t be recapping what the speakers said. Especially not after Al Dickie did that so well on Monday.
Instead, I’m going to share my takeaways. The things I learned from behind the scenes, from the stage, and from a perch in the third tier of the theatre clutching my ninth cup of black coffee of the day.
One. Take risks. It’s worth it.
Putting on a conference with no event management experience? That’s a risk.
Doing it the same year you’re launching a new message-led marketing agency? That’s a risk.
When one of your hosts might leave at a moment’s notice because his wife’s nine months pregnant, when another is so uncomfortable on stage it makes your teeth hurt, and when the third needs 200 pairs of sunglasses as props to do his opening comments?
Risk, risk, risk.
Everything about Creative North was a risk. But it paid off. The event was a success. Not because we’re more talented and more driven and more intelligent than anyone else. But because we mitigated that risk as much as we could.
By being sensible - setting an initial break even figure of 120 tickets, when it would have been easy to get carried away and imagine 400 attendees (In the event, we got 200-ish, and our break even figure rose to almost meet it).
By looking for experts - the best venue we could afford would obviously have the best staff, the best speakers we could afford would deliver the best value.
We might not have known what we were doing. But we insisted on working with people who did.
Two. Things you think matter, won’t.
If you’d been inside the Royal Exchange Theatre ten minutes before the doors opened, you’d have seen a tall man shouting at a plug socket as he tried to get a badge printer to work.
I hated that badge printer. Hated it. We’d paid a decent amount to a professional printing company to provide us with some amazing delegate name badges. But they’d had to print them a week before, and we still hadn’t finalised the delegate name lists. We still needed to print 20 or so sticky labels to slap on the blanks.
As the man holding the printer, I’d decided anyone with a sticky label on their badge would instantly think we were a fly-by-night operation populated by chancers who didn’t know what they were doing.
Nobody cared. Nobody was buying a ticket because they wanted a snazzy badge. Those that got them, liked them. Those that didn’t, didn’t seem to care. At least not enough to comment.
All that stress focused on a tiny detail that didn’t matter to the project as a whole.
Three. Things you don’t think matter, will.
March 2019. A Skype chat.
“What catering package should we get?”
“Does it matter?”
“Nah, but get the deluxe one. That way we won’t run short. It’s only an extra fiver a head.”
A shrug of a conversation. Who cares about the spread at a conference?
June 2019. The feedback surveys.
“Fab food… a nice touch with the free drink afterwards.”
“The food was amazing - thank you!”
“Catering was AMAZING! Hands down the best gluten-free event food I’ve ever had!”
“The croissants were banging, and them sausage rolls were class.”
The food didn’t matter, compared to the location, the speakers, the price, the date, the theme… But it was so easy (for us, not the caterers, who worked really hard) to go the extra mile on something that delivered that little piece of additional value.
Four. People will let you down. It won’t be their fault, and it’ll be OK.
Four months before the event, one of our rapid fire speakers had to drop out. We replaced them.
Two weeks before the event another had to drop out. We replaced them.
The evening before, another speaker had to drop out. Then a second the morning of. We didn’t have time to replace them. Both had valid reasons. Both did the right thing not speaking. I’d love to have them both next year.
But we went into the day two rapid-fire speakers and roughly 20 minutes of content light.
By 10am, we were 10 minutes behind schedule. By the time our third rapid-fire speaker should’ve been on, we were 22 minutes and counting behind.
Would it’ve been worth burning a bridge when someone had to pull out of a commitment through no fault of their own?
Especially when a little bit of distance shows that it wasn’t a problem at all.
Five. People will come through. And it’ll be wonderful.
The evening before the event. We’re due at PLY for the #copywritersunite meet-up in 20 minutes.
Martin’s at the theatre waiting for the last minute delivery of stage assets and brochures. I’m stood on Blackfriars street, waiting for Ben to appear with the conference tote bags and lanyards that had been delivered a day late.
We’re faced with a choice.
Do we skip the meet-up, let our delegates down, or do we try and fill 200 goody bags, set up the signage and lay out all the lanyards at 7am, fail, and let our delegates down?
Enter Lindsey Russell, Jasmine Barrow, Nate Scally and Alastair Dickie. All of whom volunteered when the call went out. Who, at 7am on a Friday morning, were stuffing bags, putting up banners, wrangling video and AV producers, sorting lanyards and stopping me from throwing a badge printer through a window.
People will help you. When you need them. Always be grateful.
Six. You’re your own biggest critic.
A split-second whispered conversation.
“Sorry, fucked it.”
Thankfully, Tom Cheesewright’s lapel mic hadn’t picked up the beginnings of my self-flagellation after what I thought was a botched intro. But I was kicking myself about it well into the afternoon.
Nobody else was. Nobody else cared. For starters, nobody was there to see me, they were there to see Tom, and secondly I’d not done that badly.
When you’re feeling the pressure, it’s easy to think your role is more important than it is, or your mistakes more costly.
Before you start the inquest, it’s always worth taking a little time, and focusing on what’s important to the project - not your ego.
Seven. You can’t please all the people. But you can really, really please some of the people.
As I write this, the ratings for Creative North from delegates are as follows:
Five stars: 60.98%
Four stars: 26.83%
Three stars: 9.76%
Two stars: 2.44%
One star: 0.00%
The Godfather has more one star reviews than Creative North. So does Breaking Bad.
On the face of it, the vast majority of people had a really good or an excellent time at Creative North. Those that didn’t tend to be in similar roles and industries. Our event didn’t really do it for them.
And we’re sorry about that.
But you really can’t be all things for all people. So if there’s one thing we need to do with Creative North, it’s focus on the core audience of people who did enjoy it. Keep those five star reviewers five star happy. And bump those four star reviewers up.
It’s like with any business. If your audience is everyone who wants anything, you can’t produce anything of quality.
You need to find your target audience, focus in on them, give them exactly what they want, and gently let the others down so they can find a better fit.
If there’s one thing you take away from Creative North, make it that. Find your audience, and make sure you give them exactly what they need.