We look for people who can make stuff happen

Deborah Armstrong, CEO of Strong & Co. creative studio

With a passion for creating meaningful and memorable experiences, Debs has become a unique and prominent figure in the events industry, having founded five influential creative companies over the last 15 years. She first made her mark as the Producer of Lost Vagueness (2002-2006), turning it into a ACE funded, touring theatre company, before founding Strong & Co. in 2006 to enable her to produce exceptional ephemeral events for forward-thinking clients. An installation artist at heart and event producer by trade, in 2008 Deborah created the legendary Shangri La at the Glastonbury Festival of which she was MD and Creative Director until 2014. Recently voted the third most influential person in the UK Events Industry she is a visionary with the rare ability to both see and inspire others to see the big picture.

Describe your personal career journey: where it started and how you got to founding Strong & Co.      

I began by studying Fine Art from 1993-1997 at Central St Martins, specialising in immersive installations. This was how I initially got into the events industry, before quickly realising that the whole event could be treated as an immersive installation. It was 2002 when I became the Producer of Lost Vagueness at Glastonbury Festival, turning it into a ACE funded, touring theatre company, which I stayed with for four years. Lost Vagueness was one of the first ever Live Experiential Events, the first to both articulate and deliver notions of storytelling and the dissolution of audience performer boundaries. It was a huge success and inspired many contemporary success stories such as Secret Cinema.

After that, I founded my own company Strong & Co. in 2006 to enable me to produce exceptional, ephemeral events for forward-thinking clients. In 2008 Lost Vagueness was disbanded and in it’s place I founded Shangri-La, of which I became MD and Creative Director. Over my five years there I oversaw its development into an experiential event the size of a small town, described as “legendary” by NME Magazine. During this time I also developed the Arts Council funded Contemporary Art at Festivals tour in 2010, in order to increase the quality of Visual Art at festivals and find new audiences for the arts, impacting on Festival Arts Offers throughout the UK.   

After passing on the Shangri-La baton last year, our current project at Strong & Co. is Summerland, a hyper-real tropical paradise designed to bring us a bit of warmth to London’s winter.

What would you say was your main motivation for starting Strong & Co.? 

To have a vehicle to create my art through.

My main inspiration was to build something in which I could create my own work, from my own ideas, and bring them to life with really nice people.

Although I started completely on my own, I’m lucky enough to be part of a large family of friends and connections, which was how I came to discover the people I’m lucky enough to work with now. Some were friends, some came from writing to me years ago wanting to intern, and others I’ve recruited from the wide variety of talented people I’ve met along my career journey. One of our first clients was The Guardian working on the re-launch of their Berliner format, and another was creating a 25th anniversary event for Channel 4, so straight away we began with highly experiential, immersive events for big clients.

You head up Strong & Co. as Creative Director, tell us a bit about a typical day (if there is such a thing!) for you.

 I don’t really have a completely typical day, it depends how far along in a project we are. I always start with a big to do list, and then if I’m developing a new project I might be brainstorming or researching.  In the middle of a project we may just be working through the pre-production timelines, or if we’re onsite there’ll be no-one in the office at all. Regardless of how far into something we are though, a large part of my day will always be admin and emailing.

What character attributes and/or specific experience do you look for when recruiting new staff?

I’ve become very good at picking up on what people are particularly skilled at, and so I’ve grown to have a completely unique set team who all bring their own individual flair and talents. But character wise, as a rule, people just won’t last if they don’t have a sense of humour and they’re not kind.

Talent to me would be someone that really stands out with a fresh approach, someone who can remain focused.

For events students, the extra-curricular stuff is what’s impressive - they could have set up their own club night, or their own video channel or their own record label. Truthfully, I don’t care about a degree. No-one senior in the events industry ever had one so I don’t think it’s actually that relevant. Sometimes it can even be a bit like ‘oh god, more event management students’. Because the first event degree was only ten to fifteen years ago, but before that nobody ever had one, and so how you ever got anywhere was through your personality skills. Whether you get a high first or a 2.1 in your degree isn’t going to make a bit of difference. If you’ve set up your own business in your spare time, that will. We look for people who can make stuff happen.

What has been the most challenging brief you have ever worked on?

It’s got to be for Shangri-La for Glastonbury, to keep the festival fresh and cutting edge on what is a quite limited budget. There’d always be things that we had to compromise, and the tricky thing was once you set a budget, you had to work with that same budget for the next five years. Aside from the strains of budget and general resources, on site the biggest battle is the weather and the fact you can never really know if things are going to arrive when they’re planned to. So the plan had to include a lot of flex and grey areas. When it’s hammering down with rain and you’ve got 40ft steel containers floating away in genuine rivers of mud, it can be truly hideous. You wouldn’t believe what people go through there, it’s the most arduous and ridiculous ordeal ever, and things happen there that could never happen anywhere else. But at the same time, it is an incredible experience. And the banter keeps you going. The people there are so funny, so kind and just willing to help each other that you always pull through it in the end. 

The sort of people who work at Glastonbury are the people who went and helped the refugees all winter - they are the people who can deal with working in those mental conditions. So that is by far and away the most amazing thing about the whole experience, the people. So while I could say Shangri-La is the biggest success of my career, it’s also the biggest success of everyone else’s too, because it takes 1500 people to do it every year. My job is just uniting those people under one vision.

How do you measure success in the events you create?

When I’m working for clients we always try and set specific measures for success, but as they’re usually quite ethereal events, it often just comes down to if the CEO has his socks blown off and there was a load of Twitter traffic. So whether through online or in person, our most important form of measurement is always the social feedback. How memorable and powerful our experience resonated with people is our measure of success.

Do think in the future there will be more quantitative measures for success?

I think it’ll always depend on the client and what type of culture that company is operating from. For example if they’re a really data driven company and with their next event they have to prove X, Y, Z , it can be a really powerful and motivating tool. Personally I’d like to have that more. I’d like to have more of my clients to want that, because it’s incredibly useful. But at the end of the day, I’ve had more clients than not just wanting the social feedback.

Sometimes we do design events around achieving a specific result. An installation I did recently for a new horror movie was designed specifically to capture the audience’s feedback of being scared. So we created a live, walk-through experience with a number of scares in, which the participants could then share through social media. In that instance the specific result was really important. We only had two weeks to pre-produce it, two days to build it and half a day to rehearse it, and because of the nature of the performance, for maximum effect it had to be really tight. It was a really challenge because of the time and budget constraints, but we knew to really hit the mark and for peak social engagement, we had to produce a really intricate and immersive experience with light cues, sound cues and actor cues. And it really paid off - it was a huge success.    

Which brands do you feel are currently demonstrating big brand thinking, and are there any common strategic thoughts that you feel are central to successful brands?

Twitter! To be honest, I’m loving all my clients at the moment; Twitter, Google, Warner Brothers - they’re all people who are really thinking about how to create powerful live experiences and recognizing that the live experience is so valuable in the digital age. We’ve just finished ‘Twitter Live’ which was a real stunner of a show. It was very technically complex as you can imagine - incorporating Twitter’s API, live feeds, a lot of real time data and data being visualized, - but it came out beautifully. We had a combination of the high tech stuff and authentic experience such as an artist illustrating tweets, a mind-controlled beer pouring robot and a gif studio. Lots of little funny engaging things alongside the big flashy stuff.

As a successful marketer what do you consider the key elements of brand growth, and which brands do you consider have got this right?

At the end of the day, everything always comes down to the audience, how you connect with them, and therefore how valuable the audience consider you to be. No matter where you are in marketing, that’s the core and heart of it. For example, why do I, and so many others, always buy Apple products? Because they’ve connected with me on a design and functionality level, but also by the way they speak and represent themselves, I’m now convinced that in order to have the right the product, I need to buy Apple. And I find myself loyal, even defending it to people who don’t believe the hype. Another example is Secret Cinema’s ‘Tell no-one.’ It’s all about a brand’s ability to clearly define what they’re about so people are familiar with the standard to expect, but also about how to connect to your audience and deliver what you promise.

What do you predict will be the impact of technology on the events industry?

On one hand I think this industry will take a massive leap with Virtual Reality, but on the other hand I think we’ll see a big shift toward the more authentic, credible experience. These two things don’t usually don’t coexist, but they can, it’s just the people with the big budgets for the VR and so forth are on a different operating plain to the people who are like making authentic experiences out of bicycle lights and buckets, that end up being really meaningful. I think increasing dependence on technology will create a split, but something which can work harmoniously too. These are the kind of events we’re beginning to create for clients and it’s all very exciting.

What does the future look like for Strong & Co.?

…Strong.

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