Simon Burton started his career in the 90s in marketing and trade-shows before founding Exposure Communications in the year 2000. Through its development, the company grew to combine almost all aspects that are important for creating events — PR and consulting, social media and networking as well as being a thinktank for ideas to feed the British event flock. Having a strong belief in the power of networks, he has also established Citizen Event, one of the most peculiar of its kind that event professionals can attend. In the 2010s Simon co-founded the notable Football Business Awards and the Great British Entrepreneur Awards, celebrating both business entrepreneurship. The title of one his most recent projects, the World Street Soccer Championship, says it all; though, be aware, this is the high street in all senses. In this interview Simon Burton — quite the amusing conversationalist — discusses himself and his projects, stresses the importance of being connected, and digs as deep as Napoleonic Wars.
Name and title
Simon Burton, CEO at Exposure Communications
What facts of your biography have changed your life?
Attending Oxford University, falling into the trade-show industry, setting up Exposure Communications and the Great British Entreprenuer Awards.
What is your most vivid memory?
Taking my mum and dad to the Yosemite National Park. It is my favourite place in the world.
If you had to choose a profession again, what would it be?
It would be something in music, football or pop-culture — probably, computer-gaming.
What do you want most?
What do you fear most?
Wasting my time.
Which traits would you like your children to inherit from you?
I don’t have children. If I had them, then the trait will be not having children. But if you want to ask about my best traits — I am generous, funny and clever.
What is something you could never give up?
There are lots of things you think you could never give up, but you could. Let me say something I have never been able to give up: Arsenal F.C.
You are involved in a great variety of projects and organisations, be it marketing, entrepreneurship, networking or organising awards. Why have you decided to take on that much instead of concentrating on something more straightforward?
Firstly, because I am an idiot. People who are able to focus frequently achieve success, but I get bored very easily, and I love the moment of invention and developing a new idea then helping that idea take shape in new relationships and networks.
Still, Exposure Communications is your most long-term project, being founded in 2000. What aims did you aspire to then with Exposure? Are these goals the same now?
The core mission of Exposure Communications is to work with organisations and companies inside the event industry to help them to communicate their message more effectively. Sometimes that’s venues, sometimes that’s suppliers... I just love the whole event family, it’s full of interesting and passionate people. Exposure Communications’ real function is to help them articulate their messages to their audiences. We started as a PR business, but I hate that term. Now, I think, we are much more an ideas business, and working in particular with social media. Exposure is about trying to create moments. And those moments are opportunities to cut through the noise and create a more profound dialogue between people. I guess I’ve stuck with it for so long because it is a pretty good expression of who I am. It allows me to be independent and to do all the other things I want to do, whilst staying true to that core of how to help people effectively articulate their message.
The reason that everything is called “event” is because it is one of those terms,that we generally understand what it means, even if we can’t describe it.
The event industry was a kind of a growing thing when you established Exposure. How did it evolve, in your view?
That’s true. In the year 2000 the trade-show industry, specifically in the UK and US, was very entrepreneurial. People were very adept to spotting and creating new opportunities. I think the big trend that happened in the intervening 16 years has been driven by two factors that were separate, though operating at the same time. The first is the emergence of this thing called the “event industry” — people were breaking out of their silos. Previously those silos might have been meeting, conferences, consumer shows, sporting events, and music festivals. These types of face-to-face expressions all existed in clearly demarked and defined silos. I think that one of the things the event industry has done reasonably well was to show how effective face-to-face communication is and to start seeing more or less the shared voice of all the communities across these disciplines. The distinctions still exist, and they are still important, but there is more of the sense of “We are working in this thing called the event industry”. If I had to make a prediction, then we will start to see an increasing distinction between different kinds of events. You’ll start seeing people not saying just “We work in events”, but defining more clearly the specific events they are organising and creating.
The second factor is the technology that drove that process in a number of ways. Of course, the internet and digitalisation have reduced the power of traditionally strong media. TV, radio and, particularly, print have been significantly reduced. You can see the world in which the digital articulation of an idea and the face-to-face articulation became very important. I often talk about events being the “social media” even before Facebook or Twitter came along. But now the synergy between social media and events is very powerful. And one more thing that contributed to that dynamic is that the technology itself has, in fact, obtained the ability to enhance and create the events. You got that micro and macro issue about technology.
What might be your definition of the word “event” for today then?
The reason that everything is called “event” is because it is one of those terms,that we generally understand what it means, even if we can’t describe it. It is gathering together in the real world to interact — to see one others’ faces, expressions, and gestures. It is a fundamental part of being human in a world where the digital landscape means so much. It is easy to sit behind your computer and not connect, even if you have 2500 contacts. You need to connect socially in a real physical world, and now more importantly than ever. So, I think the event is self-defining. It must have face-to-face contact as a component. That’s not to say that the digital connection is unimportant - there are spaces for that. But there must be human contact, there is a newfound subtlety to this and it drives the process.
I am instinctively uncomfortable with the world “organiser” around events. This suggests someone who is obsessed with spreadsheets and the colour of the carpet and arranging the graphics to turn up on time. If we want to take events truly to their full potential, we need to think about communication tools. It does not take the “organiser”, but producers and creators. Then we place our priority more on the idea and the message and less on the process.
Citizen Event, which you were doing for the last year-and-a half, appears to be a club version of all the above mentioned…
Citizen Event is a kind of a networking club for event professionals. They are increasingly interconnected and sharing their ideas across their communities. One of the drawbacks of the modern world is the fact that we are just drowning in content. There are seminars, there are webinars, there are conferences, exhibitions — all of these are content. But the content that people really want is connection with other people, so Citizen Event is just that. It is our networking flock. It is free to attend, always on the same day — the last Friday of the month — always at the same place, which is a restaurant in London’s West End, and all of the marketing flows through social media. It is just event professionals having coffee and sharing ideas. It is a very powerful concept.
I have my favourite phrase “Network is its own reward”, and I believe that as we create this network we increase its meaning as a powerful tool in itself.
It is quite interesting that while there are thousands of meticulously organised events and seminars with high-rate speakers, specialists, and their presentations, you are, in fact, swimming against the flow…
The problem with a world full of content is that it is hard to say what the good content is. And what might be good content for me, might be not so good for you or someone else. And there has been some kind of a trend of having user-generated content in events, that the very audience should take part in creating it. But I think that for most circumstances that doesn’t work either. If you look at every conference, trade show, or awards ceremony, one of the things that people put the highest value on is networking. And I just wanted to create a form where this idea is distilled: there is no agenda, no content, and the only reason you attend is to meet other people. Again, most people really like it.
How does this networking work when it comes to pure business? Coffee must be just for starters, I think?
The most people buy this for is the relationships, not any other reason. What Citizen Event does is create relationships of trust. And this is the thing that drives business. I have my favourite phrase “Network is its own reward”, and I believe that as we create this network we increase its meaning as a powerful tool in itself.
Tell us about the Football Business Awards.
Nearly all of my projects involve finding interesting partners. I’ve met a great bunch of guys and we were talking about the idea of some awards that would recognise the important business that football is. What does it mean to be a professional in its structures and how to be aware of its commercial opportunities? Premier League is a huge export for the UK and football clubs have an impact on their whole communities. There are people working in towns that are thriving because the football team run effectively and professionally. And we wanted to celebrate the idea that success on the pitch required professionalism off the pitch.
How does the football business impact fans? On the one hand there is advertising, accounting, contracts and on the other thousands and millions of people. And these two galaxies somehow should come together.
I guess they come together in two ways. Fans want to see what’s on the pitch, both live and on TV. But football is very good at recognising its corporate and social responsibilities on the whole. One of the things that struck me about people in football is their generosity towards their community and understanding of the fact that they are an important part of the town or they city where they exist. And they have a power to do something good beyond that. So, for all its flaws, football's heart is quite frequently in the right place. Our Football Business Awards is for the clubs that are run effectively, do a good job, create jobs for people around them, create jobs for local restaurants and bars around. Football clubs can be an important part in the fabric of the city, and that’s what we are about.
The World Street Soccer Championship, one of your recent enterprises, looks like it really gets right into the city…
It was an idea that I worked on for the last few years. It is also a partnership and we think there are really interesting opportunities around the way in which modern teenagers consume football and consume these street skills of “youtubers”, the YouTube generation. We thought it would be fun to celebrate the best players in the world. So, we are thinking about the really high-quality content, we have a great live engagement — people get to see these guys through huge social media audiences, their amazing trick and plays. You get to see them in competitive games - England against France, or Russia against USA at an international level. And that creates two things. First, it is brilliant PR for the cities that host it — we want to be on iconic city streets and beautiful locations. And it creates really great media and digital content. At the end of September we will be running the first ever street soccer championship in Manchester and we have conversations with some cities for the subsequent events.
I think there is just something about the British psyche going as back as Napoleonic Wars, we just like the idea of running our businesses.
Has the moment of creating the Great British Entrepreneurs Awards in 2014 also coincided with something new and important?
In the last ten years the idea of being an entrepreneur and the idea of start-ups has become a dominant business thing of our times. I was struck by the idea that many awards in that sector were all about money. How much money did you make? How successful are you with your business? How many times did you sell it? I thought that most entrepreneurs had much more interesting stories. They are defined by their failures as well as by their successes — and they can tell you where they failed and where they succeeded. So I wanted to create the awards that would reflect the entrepreneurs’ stories, not just their bank sheet. I had really good partners — it was not all my work — and we’ve found the right tone of voice exactly at the right time. We created an idea that resonated with this audience. And as there were lots of entrepreneurs, you just wanted to celebrate their stories! Also, there was another key part of the idea. It was in London after 2012, there was a new sense of pride, of what it meant to be British. It was very important. The people were proud again of being British and saying that their business was British.
Was it similar to Cool Britannia in a business way?
That’s an interesting parallel to draw. It is cultural trends that reflect in the world and help the country to have a sense of its own identity and national pride.
What makes the British entrepreneurship and event-industry different from US or other European countries then?
I think the UK is a big economy and a reasonably big population in a very small area. That means, if you want to succeed, you have to be very competitive. And we have a system that allows our competitiveness to flourish. It is easy to set your business up, it is easy to start talking to people, it is easy to network. Overall, it is easy to be a part of something. Or relatively easy. You may argue, that in areas with more space and people, and with bigger economies there are more chances for the entrepreneurship to grow. But, maybe, it is just different when people feel themselves to be entrepreneurs in a tough environment. And elsewhere they regard themselves as successful business people. Germany is a fantastic Mittelmark for business, US is full of opportunities. I think there is just something about the British psyche going as back as Napoleonic Wars, we just like the idea of running our businesses.
Shall we call Mr. Simon Burton a classical British entrepreneur and event-maker?
(Laughing) No. The people who I admire in our industry, who created amazing events and businesses, and who are genuine event entrepreneurs are much more successful and focused than I am. And I am, probably, a millennial entrepreneur, not classical. My business is a child of a digital age. We have a short attention span, we like to work in different places remotely, we are very keen on networks and building up connections as opposed to a more traditional approach. And most of my success was built in partnership with other people who are really great. It is not just me working on my own.