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At the Epicentre of the “Never Normal”

We spoke with Marc Coleman, the CEO of UNLEASH, about his company’s successful 2020 pivot from a leading events company to an expanding digital media firm.

Most professional business developers say that the structure of the economy is completely changing. What goes through your mind when you hear sentences like this?

They’re right. I think it’s a faster economy now; we’re living in a real-time world with real-time communications teams that are working in a completely different way to before; there are fewer distractions, people are working harder, and I expect the world will see a good number of vaccinations/herd immunity by April-May, and we should hear the roar of the new economy. I know one CTO of a 20 billion USD software company turned to his CEO and begged him not to bring back the workforce to the office because productivity was up 27% and the cost of doing business was significantly down. So, I think whoever’s made that statement is spot on.

How has your opinion about 2020 shifted over time?

I’ve personally seen how people react in these situations. In some cases, you see panic. In some places, you see resilience. And then, there are people who see the whole crisis as an opportunity. I have been surprised by our industry – media and events. When the crisis came, I was on Zoom calls with our biggest competitors because we all enjoyed a common fight. We’ve seen the worst and best behaviours from venues and industry suppliers that we work with, and the law of the jungle has been ever-present. Where we paid bills, we were left with no product or service. A lot of people, even in the industry, won’t be aware of this fight that goes on behind the scenes with government bodies and big law firms. So, we worked together with some of our biggest competitors, as an industry, to fight back and stop being bullied. My opinion definitely changed with respect to my competitors. With one exception, I call them our friends now. It’s old but true, when you face a crisis, you know who your true friends are.

I know your company had a large pivot in the last year. Can you describe that for me?

Well, the first five months was very anxious because, as you can imagine, our whole world was turned upside down and in one fell swoop, gone! So, the first part was dealing with suppliers and legal counsel. And that had to be solved. But about two months into that, we started our own internal pivot because you’re trying to see what’s happening in the marketplace. It was a big guessing game.

Pivot 1.0 was when we just sat the leadership down and decided: OK, we’re going digital. For some, their interpretation of digital was “we are going to do webinars, or maybe we’ll do a couple of Zoom roundtables”. The thinking was shallow and one dimensional. No big picture. It was difficult, really difficult, because more than half of the business was thinking “Marc doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing here”. When you’re pivoting a business or a digital transformation, you need everyone 100% behind you. It’s not like we’re entertaining Marc for the next few months and live events will come back (because that was most of the thinking inside the business). It’s very cruel when you’re taking out people from your business who were essential to our success. When we looked at February 2020, we were 25% ahead of the year before with 70% of our bookings still to come in. So commercially, we were on scale again and deservedly so, that team had worked hard on the back of a massive restructuring the year before. And it was a really good journey for all of us. When we talk pivot, you’re really becoming a startup again. And when you’re trying to do that with 30+ people in many different countries, it’s really, really difficult. And you’ve got to remember that we were pivoting a events professionals to digital media professionals, people who had little or no experience of the industry. There’s no magic wand: you can’t give them four years of education and three years of work experience necessary to the job.

We’ve seen that type of pivoting quite a bit in 2020, but not all companies were so successful. Many people were disappointed in their CEO’s actions during COVID. How did you fight that while you were making critical decisions last year?

In the early days, it was getting one-on-one with everyone and as much as I could. But honestly, as a CEO, you have to be selfish with your time. I didn’t come from a digital media background; my speciality was technology and transformation, so I know the path and the fight that’s needed for success. I’ve started six businesses successfully, and I’ve consulted hundreds more from startup stage. However, I’ve never taken a business and completely pivoted back into startup land again. I can understand why CEOs get beaten up for that reason. It’s very difficult to sit in the CEO seat when you come from a completely different background, which is 23 years of working across the global events industry – music, sport, business, learning, etc. Despite needing a wide skillset that can be applied across most businesses, in certain sectors, you need to earn that seat and industry know-how.

For many CEOs out there, sometimes it’s a thankless job and a really tough place to be. What I saw is no matter how much emotional intelligence you put into it, you’re still going to be the bad guy. You have to make really, really difficult business decisions. So, for the second restructure, we brought in people to hold our hands through the process, who came from a background of pivoting businesses and scaling media businesses. And I think that’s been the difference. It’s kept us honest through all the chaos.

So, the vaccines are being deployed, countries will start opening back up eventually, and when they have a significant portion of their population vaccinated, events will happen again. What are your expectations for this reopening period?

To get back to face to face, I think we’ve got to see the travel industry get up and running again first. This is the thing with humans. We get back to normal very, very quickly. I know we’re all talking about the new normal, we’ve presented the new normal for the last ten years on our main stage. And then there was the next normal, and I would suggest that we are at the “never normal” now. So, I’m quite excited. I think for us, if we see smaller events at the back end of the year, that’s a reality. I think for companies that are doing large events, if they think their events are going to switch on and be what they were before, I think they’re deluded. People have to remember that it will have been two years since there was the same event in the marketplace. That’s a long time ago. It’s not just that, but we also don’t know budget cycles. We’re moving into this whole new world. We are going to have to face up to the “never normal”.

We know that you are very passionate about tech adoption and innovation. Tell me a little bit more about this passion of yours.

The piece I love the most about tech is it’s “how do we make tech work for us?” A lot of people are worried about AI/machines stealing their jobs. And it’s very true. However, I think there’s a massive disconnect between how people are being educated and finding themselves in the land of work. There’s so much waste in the technology industry as well because big companies are buying software for tens of millions, and yet more than half of the employees are not using the software properly, and you will find additional numbers on the “disengaged” pandemic experience in the workplace and remote working. Enterprise tech adoption is the holy grail of economic principle and globalisation in that better, faster, cheaper win the day. Importantly, decision science is born out of these HR technologies, which should give you the performance data and predictive insight about employee happiness, wellbeing, learning, productivity, etc.

If you’re using tech as the enabler, then it frees up people to do to become that knowledge economy. Workers need to focus on lifelong learning now, skills which bring purpose and meaning and a career. Because we’ve seen this, right? We spent more time with our families this year. But normally we spend more time with our workers, our fellow colleagues, than we do with our families. This is my passion and why I work so hard, so we can bring more lifework balance to our lives and lifelong learning to the masses.

What were some of UNLEASH’s biggest wins over the last year?

The biggest win is that despite pivoting from events to digital media, we have kept and grown our customer base. We realised the currency that we had with our customers was a strong history together. A few customers said to me, “a world without UNLEASH in the industry is going to be a very boring industry”. So, you know, that was heartfelt. We were humbled by that when we heard it a few times across markets. Some people thought we were dead. Some people thought that events companies could not survive this. Yet, we’ve put ourselves in a more powerful position because we can do exponentially more digitally than we could live. So now, UNLEASH is at the epicentre of all of the work revolution, and HR is the superhero. I love it, there’s no better place to be.

My final question for you: what advice or recommendations do you have for managers/company leaders around the world for 2021?

Understanding what learning and development they need in the never normal – what are the competencies that will help them thrive in the roaring ’20s? Help them find what learning experiences they need to upskill. The future of work is lifelong learning. Make sure you’ve got the right kind of tools, KPIs and prioritisation going into the year, acknowledging the fact that it’s going to be a bit of a bumpier year and there is light at the end of the tunnel. Try answering the question – when are we going to come out of our bunkers? There is going to be one big party, so get ready!

That would be great. Thanks for speaking with us today, Marc!

You can learn more about UNLEASH on their website, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Marc’s Twitter.