How many more articles do we need about the future of events?

Written by Chris Doggart

I don’t know what the future of events is … and neither does anyone else! Sadly not everything was as “simple” as England V Denmark and it is time to embrace the shades of grey.

Just spend five minutes scrolling through LinkedIn and all your event production problems will be solved. You will easily find someone who will be able to tell you the future of events. There is a comfort in “knowing” and in uncertain times the desire for a reassuring sense of authority is to be expected. Sadly not everything is as binary as the result of a football match, we do not live in a binary world and it is time we were brave enough to embrace the “not knowing” and accept that the reality is not black and white but multiple shades of grey.

Recently I was lucky enough to be able to attend a government test event, the opening day of Royal Ascot. As I sat on the train, looking frankly ridiculous, I browsed LinkedIn and was struck by the number of people confidently proclaiming that they knew how the events industry would recover and more importantly what we all needed to do to produce the perfect event. One in particular, from a very experienced and respected industry sage, caught my eye as it referenced all the failings of all events of the past. It claimed that recovery from the pandemic was the moment events needed to change. Though there was much to commend about the article and the advice it proffered, it surprised me how binary a picture it painted. Old v New, Good v Bad, Right v Wrong.

As I pulled into Ascot station I wondered if we need to be more accepting of the idea of “horses for courses”. Each horse running at Ascot had previously won a race and many would surely go on to win many more in the future, but on that day and on that course there could be only one winner (if only it had been the one I had been backing!). Royal Ascot is an event that has been in existence since 1711 and much of its charm is that the format is reassuringly familiar and maintains the same format year in year out.

The Theory of the Diffusion of Innovation talks about the different stages of adoption a new idea or product goes through. It starts with the Innovators, the early adopters and the early majority before moving on to the late majority and the laggards. Changes in the way we use events to engage and communicate a message are as susceptible to this bell curve as any new tech gadget. For the survival of our species, I believe it is vital that we are all spread across this spectrum of “innovation adoption” in order that there is balance. A world made up purely of Innovators & early adopters would be as dysfunctional and doomed to fail as a world of laggards. Each group on the curve is valid and has an important role to play in ensuring we evolve effectively.

So why do we feel the need to insist every event must follow a certain path/format? Surely that can only address the needs of one group in society? Why do we find it hard to accept that there is more than one way to deliver a successful event?

Is it an agency curse that we feel the need to proclaim to clients and the wider world that there is one right answer and we are the ones who know it? Is it impossible to sell consultancy advice and guidance under the premise of embracing the “not knowing”? Are there clients who want a genuine partnership with a company happy to acknowledge the grey in an uncertain world?
I started my career working for the incredible Jackie Cooper and Robert Phillips* at Jackie Cooper PR, an agency that regularly demonstrated their value in the quantity and quality of ideas they produced rather than relying on trying to claim to know “THE” answer.

Life is full of paradoxes (another curse of the “certain” “one answer” brigade) and when it comes to suppliers/agency partners I believe it is possible to be comfortable with the paradox of being an expert capable of helping solve clients’ problems whilst proclaiming the reality of “not knowing” and the reality of the situations we face.

Recent history has shown us how dangerous a binary and polarising viewpoint can be. More and more we see that the issues we face are not as clear cut as we might like. Are we at a point yet where leaders can admit “not knowing” and focus on asking the right questions rather than feeling the need to proclaim the answer? Football and sport provide a relief from the reality of a grey world, they provide a winner and the certainty with hindsight of what was the right thing to do. In an Olympic summer, after a very difficult couple of years, we can justifiably revel in the comfort this binary world of sport provides but let’s not be fooled into thinking this is the way the world works.

As Simon Sinek mentions in his excellent podcast “a bit of optimism … Shades of Grey with Jenna Arnold” which inspired much in this article, the evolution of society “is a game without a finish line”. Humanity won’t “win”, but by embracing the grey and asking the right questions we can make positive progress.

So next time you read an article that proclaims to know “the” answer to the complex world of events which perhaps doesn’t align perfectly with your own, feel free to take it with a pinch of salt. All opinions are valid but there are many different ways to win, unless of course you are at the races, in which case any tips are gratefully received.

* Tragically Robert Phillips passed away on 13th June 2021, he was simply a legend, a tour de force and was taken from us far too young. It is testament to the man that 25 years after he employed me the lessons I learned from him still guide me.

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