Smaller challenger brands can offer a unique experience for employees: a close-knit team, an entrepreneurial spirit, and the ability to move quickly and do things differently. But how do you maintain that ethos when your business grows and becomes a market leader?

Michael Gietzen, Managing Director, and Sam Southon, Sales & Marketing Director, spoke with O2 recently about how Identity kept their company culture during a period of rapid growth.

Can you tell us about Identity and the recent changes to the business?

Michael: Identity is probably the fastest growing events agency in the UK at the moment.

We started off in the design and build of exhibition stands but we had a belief that we could do more. Five years ago, we made the change to become a full service agency and have grown stratospherically since then.

We now deliver summits, events, exhibitions and conferences for some of the world’s biggest brands, such as Google, ITV and NATO. We’ve featured in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 league table twice, and we won the Queen’s Award for international trade. It feels like we’ve gone from zero to hero in the last few years.

What propelled that growth?

Michael: We’re in quite a traditional industry, a lot of the major players have been here for many decades. We’re a genuine challenger brand with fresh impetus, and a very ambitious team focused on both the experience of a person at an event and how we service our clients.

In 2018, Janet Dodd, our Director of Live Events, joined the business. She’s incredibly talented and when she joined, we started to attract many other great people. We’ve gone from being a team of 20 to 150.

People might be surprised to hear that an events company grew during the pandemic. How did you do it?

Sam: Covid was a changing point for a lot of events agencies. They had to react quickly in April / May last year and pivot to virtual events. But we’d already created virtual experiences for our brands. So, when clients needed that type of experience later on, we were ahead of the game. That allowed us to take on more work, new clients and really pull away from competitors.

Michael: Even back in 2018, 2019, our digital team had been thinking about how we could enhance and amplify audience experiences. When the pandemic came around, our ability to interact with major brands and explain how they could manage the situation put us front and centre of everything.

We also took on some big government projects at that time. To support the haulier industry through the EU transition, we mobilised a network of 150 sites across service stations and ferry ports to make sure lorry drivers had the right documentation. In two weeks, we scaled a team of 1500 freelancers across the UK and Europe.

Flexibility, agility, being able to react quickly to the demands of customers is essential to any business. It’s where working with O2 has been a great partnership. They’re able to flex with us.

How did you maintain your company culture during this period of growth?

Sam: We’ve tried to keep the culture the same as it was three or four years ago. And it feels like it is, despite the different type of work we’re doing and the growth that we’ve had.

We have a set of core values that are tracked: teamwork, responsibility, ambition, creative and caring.

It’s important that everyone adopts these values, and that’s done through meeting different parts of the senior management team, social activities etc.

Michael: The events industry is like a powder keg – really pressurised with deadlines, and no matter what happens the show must always go on. Your ability to work together as a tight team is so important. We’ve done a lot to maintain that.

Sam: There’s certainly been a lot of wine tasting. I think I’ve tasted more wine in the last year than I’ve tasted for the last 28 years of my life. There’s been cheese tasting, cycle rides – lots of social events.

Particularly for the new starters who joined the business during the pandemic – having that regular facetime and making them feel part of Identity from the minute they start has been really important.

Whether it be virtually or in person, we make sure that everyone has that human experience.

You’ve gone from being a small agency to a market leader in the UK, how do you achieve that and keep your challenger ethos?

Michael: We’ve got a team that are hungry to learn and develop. We put a huge emphasis on innovation and training. We have innovation labs and learning areas so that our team are always ahead of the curve.

As a challenger brand, one of our ambitions is to be the most sustainable events agency in the UK, if not the world. Our ambition is to set ourselves apart from others, so embedding sustainability into our culture is key.

Sam: We have a robust onboarding process.

Everyone who joins the business meets all the senior managers. They understand what they’re doing, the vision, the mission and the purpose of the business. Particularly with sustainability, we all go through the same learning journey.

Can you tell us more about your sustainability vision?

Michael: I think notoriously the events industry has struggled with waste management. Particularly as global brands want to outdo one another with their events. It’s important to work with brands to educate them on the purpose of what they’re doing.

We often talk to clients about ‘reduce first’. That’s the first thing you can do to mitigate your carbon footprint, and then think about the reuse and the legacy of the work that you’re delivering. Where it can go afterwards and what can be recycled. Those things are imperative to every project we deliver.

We were chosen to be the production company for COP26, the United Nation’s climate change conference. As part of the Prime Minister’s quest to build back better, this is the platform for world delegates to plan post-pandemic recovery but in a sustainable way. We’re chuffed to be the production company; it’s such an important landmark event for the world.

What else have you been focusing on when it comes to company culture?

Michael: Diversity and inclusion is the single most important thing at Identity. The pandemic has been a great opportunity for us to increase our geographical footprint, and we’re proud to be associated with so many different causes and efforts that help make the events industry more accessible to everyone.

We want the best people from all walks of life.

What’s next for Identity?

Sam: We want to continue working with great brands on great projects. And as Michael said, lead the sustainability charge in the industry.

Michael: We love what we’re doing, we love working on projects where we’re making a difference to humanity and world policy, like COP26. We want to continue working with our corporate clients to drive a real change in events. Our industry has been doing what it’s doing for so long. As a challenger agency now at the top of their game, this is the most exciting couple of years we’re ever going to have.

This first appeared on the O2 Business Blog, October 18, 2021.