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What I learned… as a Christmas tree grower, DJ and filmmaker, with DRPG’s Dale Parmenter

DRPG's Dale Parmenter on his early days as a rower, gardener, DJ and (finally) filmmaker / Image courtesy of Dale Parmenter

Dale Parmenter has been chief exec at creative communications agency DRPG for over 40 years. What you won’t see on his Linkedin profile are his formative years that took him from gardening to the DJ booth and filmmaking. Here, as part of our What I Learned… series, he tells us how he was shaped by that early experimentalism.

Hi, Dale! We all know you from DRPG, but I understand your early entrepreneurial ventures weren’t in communications…

Since the age of around 12, I’ve been obsessed with running my own business. There were no specifics back then – I didn’t know what to do or how I was going to make it happen – but I knew that’s what I wanted. But those early years built the foundations and taught me some simple lessons I still use to this day.

The first came when a mate and I became coxswains at our local rowing club in my hometown. This was great, being given permission to shout and ball at grown men! The cox of a rowing crew is basically in charge, so in some way I’m sure it was feeding my ambitions.

And you ended up rowing yourself?

Yes – as I grew older, I wanted to have a go at rowing myself and was determined to be a single sculler. I became the youngest member of my club to compete, and I remember my mum and dad driving me to my first regatta. They tried to prepare me for any eventuality, saying, ‘don’t worry if you lose, there’s a funfair!’. I was not going to go on the funfair. I was going to win.

Racing against a rower who seemed like a giant and moving neck and neck for what seemed like an eternity, I only became more determined. They had to carry me out the boat in the end, I was so exhausted. But I won.

I soon learned the power of the team through rowing – I carry that with me today. Plus, the determination I found on the water back then has pushed me on to bigger and better things.

How did that link into your early forays into the world of work?

Around the time I won that race, I decided the time had come to start a business. I had green fingers and my parents had a large back garden they didn’t really use, so my plan was to grow anything I could and sell it. I planted vegetables and one hundred Christmas trees. Within a few years, I’d covered the garden in greenhouses and was supplying local businesses.

What I didn’t anticipate was how long the Christmas trees took to grow! So when I had the chance to help out a DJ at 15, I leapt at the opportunity. Unlike the gardening venture, income was instant, and the risks were lower, but I did hate working weekends.

And from the DJ booth you moved into filmmaking?

I knew that combination of gardening DJ wasn’t going to be forever. Then one day I saw an advert for the BBC’s ‘Young Film Maker of the Year’ competition. I knew very little about filmmaking, other than my dad had a Super8 cine camera.

Still, I applied, wrote a script and set about making my film. I involved loads of local people, organised some pre-CGI effects, entered the film and made the final. It was creative, technical, took me out into the world and relied on a strong team around me. Now, I thought, this is something I could do as a business!

How do all those early experiences inform your work at DRPG today?

What sits behind the ‘anything’s possible’ culture at DRPG is a determination to make it happen and prove it can be done. After the success of the BBC film, I decided filmmaking would be my business so I set about buying up equipment to fill a gap I’d identified in the market for corporate film.

I visited my local bank and was ushered upstairs to meet the bank manager. At just 20, that alone was a bit terrifying. I explained the opportunity and how video would be the next big thing. After a pause, the bank manager smiled and said, “You will never make any money from video” and refused the loan.

I was furious. Even angrier than the day my dad had tried to reassure me that I could always visit the funfair. ‘I’ll show you,’ was my first thought. And I did, because anything’s possible.

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