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The secret of their success

The secret of their success

Martin Fullard chats to Spencer Green, chairman of GDS Group, about virtual events’ place in the wider industry.

Spencer Green is the chairman of GDS Group, a Bristol-based agency with an interesting story. Green founded GDS in January 1994, borrowing from the bank to launch the business into the world of B2B technology magazines.

The business’s first year yielded a turnover of £1m, which set a course on a remarkable journey. Before the pandemic struck, GDS was posting revenue figures of £30m, employing 250 staff, and had expanded beyond Bristol to open offices in New York and Miami.

But along came the pandemic, and when many businesses struggled or experimented, GDS Group threw itself into digital. The numbers speak for themselves: the business has grown 170% in the past 18 months, and now employs 650 people.

What about the future? Green’s – and GDS Group’s – expertise in the wider technology sector, married with the clear success story of its ‘pandemic journey’, makes him an ideal interviewee to scope out how event buying and delivery habits will change.

We spoke over Zoom.

Overview of GDS

Martin Fullard: Tell me about the beginnings of GDS. What has your journey been like and can you provide a picture of your financial growth?

Spencer Green: I founded GDS in January 1994. I borrowed £15,000 from the bank and we went into industry B2B technology magazines. We were quite successful and turned over £1m in revenue in the first year and then grew from there. Pre-pandemic, we got to £30m revenue, 250 staff, and had head offices in Bristol, New York and Miami.

Over the past 10 years, we have moved from our technology magazines, which were mainly for the US market, all about technology implementation in certain sectors, to what we call Summits, which are mainly based on technology transformation in given sectors. We were moving along happily and then Covid-19 hit.

The virtual world

MF: Did the pandemic necessitate a switch to virtual events for you or the wider industry? Were we already going in that direction?

SG: We already had a digital offering, which was contributing about 25% of our resources. We were working with our big enterprise partners. They were really engaged in what our digital offering was, a Meet the Boss product. Approximately 75% of our revenues were physical.

I think every business must deal with legacies and be able to innovate and move forward. That’s not always easy to do. There are two different views: what the business wants to do, and what’s good for the market. The pandemic has accelerated the requirement of what’s good for the market.

We already had a vision about what digital could be. To us, live and digital both play a huge role. But in a world that needs to be connected, Covid-19 just accelerated that. When Covid-19 hit, we thought much less about product, and much more about in-house, and went back to the outcomes. What were we trying to achieve for our partners, what did they want?

We then transformed. We invested in studios and technology, and we partnered up with Zoom. We got our 250 staff members together and built a digital vision. It involved transforming and reskilling a huge amount of our workforce and colleagues.

Meet the Boss, our digital product, had exploded; it had gone from 25% of our revenues to increasing at a rate of 100%.

Within about four months, we came to the market with next-generation digital technology, all based on outcomes. Within six months, we built a next-generation portfolio of digital summits and events. From there, our business exploded. We have grown 170% in the past 18 months; we have gone from staff numbers of 250 to 650. It’s been an incredible journey. 

MF: How has the education in your clients changed now that digital elements are a stronger part of event strategy?

SG: We were fortunate. It’s not the priority for us as we go to the market. We spent a huge amount of time with our key enterprise clients, and because those conversations were about their outcomes, the product was not something that we needed to convince them of. We needed to prove how we could continue to deliver or accelerate delivery in their outcomes.

We were huge advocates of the physical and of the digital. I’d discuss what benefits them better via outcomes. The analytics in digital are incredibly good. The engagement, the senior leadership team joining those events and making an impact with those events, staying connected with those, has transformed. So, the conversation for us was never about, is it digital? Or is it physical? It was about how can we better serve their outcomes, and what are the products we can deliver that drive those.

It’s become incredibly apparent that the emotional attachment to physical should remain for all of us. There are some things that physical will do better, like having a drink with your friends and networking. The modern world is about delivering a digital experience that’s better, and you’ve got to have analytics in it.

Once we could, to ourselves and our clients, illustrate the digital offering, then we tried to remove the question: is it better than physical. In fact, it’s a progression in many ways in what it can offer.

MF: There’s a lack of education about virtual event providers in the event buying sphere. What’s your take on that?

SG: Firstly, as humans, we want to get back to physical. Secondly, I think there’s disparity in consistency of delivery over the past two years, certainly in a virtual and digital event environment. That trust must be earned to a degree.

There’s been a huge amount of innovation, but maybe not strategic thinking, in that maybe the digital providers saw an opportunity and were opportunistic, rather than strategic.

There are some learnings for us all to do with what good looks like going forward. For instance, networking at an event: there’s always going to be a place for that. It will be less and less, but the beacons within the field will still win, the outstanding products
will still win.

For us, we’ve had incredible engagement and trust. We tried to make sure our billing was clear, and value-based. The most important component was making sure that executives are comfortable with technology.

I think the whole sector must review itself. I think it will have to look at itself and say, how’s that going to work going forward? Is there still enthusiasm for the digital world? Will we work with executives that are in transformation?

All of us in a digital event space need to be authentic and credible. Some parts of the sector were opportunistic in their delivery and their billing.

We deal with weekly conversations about if we want to go physical, because there’s still a place for it. Hopefully there’s space in the world for both, I think the physical event industry will come back.

But again, that doesn’t worry me or scare me if I’m in that sector. It’s all about the fittest needs to shine, and the events that weren’t strong will fall away and I think that’s okay.

ROI

MF: Has there been a mindset shift as well among your clients to understand that there is an ROI to be had for virtual installations and activations? 

SG: Whether it’s physical or digital, you need to understand outcomes, understand ROI, and deliver on those in a trackable, viewable way.

Why would we want any clients to spend their hard-earned money with us, and not be able to deliver trackable value?

We love to deliver, doing digital has enabled us to track delivery in quantifiable methods that are not clicks. We do summarised, quantifiable metrics delivered to the outcomes.

I feel like for 90% of the sector, what can digital not do better? Within the sector you must make choices about what does good delivery look like? What are outcomes, and how’s your event shaped?

I think a lot of people mapped it into a direct replica of what the physical environment was, but just not as well.

There’s always going to be a place in all sectors for the physical environment. Engagement is a human thing, but that balance must be there.

Product launch

MF: Tell me about your SaaS product.

SG: Over the past 12 months, GDS have been investing in a SaaS internal events platform, which is all about really helping businesses engage with their teams.

The ‘great resignation’ move developed a SaaS product, which is a cutting edge, game play environment through AWS, enabling your department to get together in a real environment.

I think Teams and Zoom do a great job, but what we really need to do now, as a workforce, is improve the engagement, improve the alignment, and improve the connection.

We have developed a tool that can allow you to be in an environment that’s real. You can present and you can bring people up from the audience.

Our SaaS product is launching in early April. We have a team of developers in Leeds, and we have a big budget, too. There are multiple uses for the product because also you can use it as an external pursuit product, but we are labelling it as the complete internal meeting and events platform.