From Pub Cellar to Cannes Lions: how to build your agency brand

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Whenever I go to an agency event I get bored pretty quickly. There’s normally a showreel sales pitch at the start, then speakers get up with 20 minute talks containing about 2 minutes of good stuff. I start to daydream, subsequently missing the good stuff.

With this in mind we started our own agency event series, The Tech Off! Within a year it’s gone from a London pub cellar to the Cannes Lions Festival. We’ve since been invited to take it to The Festival of Marketing in London – Design Week, Marketing Week and Econsultancy all said it was a ‘must see’ event.

We get a crowd of several hundred people when we host it in London, and it’s directly helped us get over £100,000 of work. We have invitations to take it to Edinburgh, New York and even Saudi Arabia! There are offers of sponsorship, and it could feasibly become a profit centre.

So all in all, it’s working.

If you haven’t been, The Tech Off is a series of 5 minute talks where the crowd chooses the winner, who then takes away a wrestling belt. They are the invited back to defend their title. We call it a ‘fight club for geeks’. Previous winners include Salesforce.com’s Jeremy Waite, Songkick CTO Dan Crow, and Ogilvy Labs’ Gemma Milne.

We curate great speakers, who are chatting in the crowd before they get on stage – there’s no green room. They get strictly 5 minutes, and are unceremoniously booted off if they talk past the bell (we have a bell obvs). Because of the competitive element the talks are usually really good, and we find even seasoned speakers get nervous and raise their game.

What’s more, the whole thing has become more and more theatrical (building on the 80’s boxing / wrestling theme). I get dressed up in crazy outfits to MC (think a grey-track-suited Rocky, or pimped-out boxing promoter with snakeskin boots), and we ham up everything from the music, to the promotion. Our foam fingers are legendary.

We’ve found that the more we take the mickey out of ourselves, the seriousness of the industry, and even the event itself, the more people fall in love with it. I used to worry about crossing a line and ruining our credibility. I now realise there is no line.

By being truly brave – and perhaps channelling my midlife crisis – we have done something completely different, and therefore noticeable. What’s that advertising phrase about ‘zigging and zagging’?

We spend several thousand pounds per event, with a free bar, comedy wrestlers, confetti cannons and kick-ass merch. Yet we don’t jam our business down people’s throats, it’s a place to start conversations and build relationships. Attendees know who we are, they’ll find out what we do. And if they want it, we’re easy to contact.

Within all this is – somewhere – a profound insight into business to business communication. I’m not entirely sure yet what it is. But it’s something to do with making things fun, and giving genuine value – a genuine gift. This then builds genuine relationships, we’re not networking, we’re inspiring fans.

So look at how you sell your agency, how you build your brand. Maybe it’s time do things differently.

Daniel Kirby is chief executive officer of Techdept.

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