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Big Interview: Jenny Jenkins

In a no-holds-barred interview, former EVCOM CEO Jenny Jenkins shares with Martin Fullard her concerns about agency margins, freelancer exploitation, and ineffective leadership

The end of June saw Jenny Jenkins complete her two-year term as EVCOM CEO, the trade association for live events, film production, and digital. With the events industry moving as fast as it does, who better to ask for an overview of how things have changed over the last few years than Jenkins herself?

How would you summarise your two-year tenure at the helm of EVCOM?

Being CEO at EVCOM has been an eye-opener for me. To see the breadth and depth of creative talent housed in agencies from the very small to the more substantial up and down the country has been a real privilege. While coming from a B2B agency background myself, I’ve found the introduction to the production companies that make up the old IVCA membership truly educational (IVCA and EVENTIA came together in 2013 to create EVCOM). I’ve learned a lot from them.

That EVCOM member agencies are world-leading became clearer to me. That the future belongs to those agencies who serve the integrated communications client-need became clearer too. However, I do believe there will always be a place for niche suppliers; I think I always knew that. 

There’s a suggestion that many agencies are not operating within their means. Have you seen examples of this? 

I see agencies operating on declining – almost perilous – margins and that is not sustainable. There are even those operating with a continued over-reliance on one main client. That isn’t sustainable either. So desperate for work are they, some are being driven to accept unworkable T&Cs. One example I know of is 90-day payment terms, enforced by clients, yet who know, again, it isn’t sustainable. I worry how much longer the current agency model will be able to endure.   

That said, I have seen some remarkable work. I don’t think people realise how remarkable that work is. 

That UK agencies are delivering for leading global brands in all aspects of their internal and external communications needs greater recognition.

Is the industry ‘over-managed’ by too many trade associations? It sometimes seems very confusing.

I see an urgent need for a clear, unified voice for the industry. We celebrate all that makes us different, rarely what makes us the same. Like any other industry sector, we need to have, on occasion, a powerful campaigning and lobbying voice.  

The argument about differing disciplines needing many trade associations has gone very stale. It is no longer relevant and, frankly, it’s boring.  

Other industry sectors – with arguably more diverse disciplines – can speak with a single voice, so why can’t we?   

The trade association model is changing (as some are struggling to survive) and we need to consolidate. As an industry, we present a bewildering array of possible affiliations to those entering the industry and corral them into certain, narrow disciplines way too soon. 

As a sector we are homeless (with no SIC code), and are therefore assigned to the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) and much of the government-led conversations happen in the context of business tourism rather than live events and experiences.  

Do you have any frustrations about the events industry and how it handles itself sometimes? I hear a lot of lip service paid to things like mental health and sustainability but see little action.

I get frustrated that we don’t talk about business; global markets versus local markets; imports and exports; digital   transformation. It’s admirable that we have meaningful conversations about mental health and sustainability, but not in the absence of the wider business context. So yes, I get frustrated that we don’t always have a business voice. And I do get frustrated when non-experts present an ‘expert view’. It’s a privilege to be given a platform for such a thing, yet it’s often given to the wrong people. There is a lot of bandwagoning going on here.

The number of competing platforms, through awards, accreditations, memberships, education sessions; it drives me to distraction. For the publishing houses, education is a means to an end, a monetary end. I question who is setting the standards. Consolidation across trade associations and membership bodies is needed, clearly. Not least because we are not learning from other disciplines or specialities in the industry and that is a crying shame.  

It is confusing and exhausting for agencies and members. And for suppliers – the same suppliers – who we turn to again and again for commercial support and sponsorship.  

Do we rely too much on the freelance model; what are the pros and cons?

We don’t know how much we rely on the freelance model because I think it is relatively covert. I think that the industry will always benefit from the shared use of unique talent and skills. But the freelance model is being used to keep employment costs down and margins up. And, as a necessity, to keep employment contracts in-line with short lead times and longer payment terms. Clients have a responsibility here, too.

I am genuinely saddened to see a generation of event professionals being disenfranchised in the sense of permanent roles – paid holiday, paid-training, sick-leave and other employee benefits including maternity pay and cover. The industry has never been unionised, and this practice is marginal but, in my view, it requires a union-like response. I don’t think employers can bemoan the lack of talent without being able to offer secure employment. That doesn’t stack up for me.

I’m more concerned about how the freelance model leads to unsupported working from home. Events have always been about teamwork and, for new industry entrants, learning from others on-the-job. Working from home, when you have a dedicated room in your home that you can use as an office is pretty cool. Working from home when you share a two-bedroom flat with three other people or working sitting on the edge of your bed or a communal kitchen table is not so cool.

It’s great to see the government give the tourism (and business events) sector a deal. Is this a sign that people are waking up to the industry’s value?

The only way that people will wake up to the industry’s value is when we can measure it accurately. For that we need a unique industry SIC code. The Department for International Trade (DIT) is working on this.  

But let’s be really careful about adopting a tourism (and business events sector) tag. The events industry encompasses – and will more so in the future in my view – all aspects of the integrated communications mix across live, film and digital disciplines.  

The tourism definition is too simplistic and leaves the most important and unique driver of the industry – our creative legacy – completely out in the cold.  

The events industry is a creative industries sector discipline that belongs with the Creative Industries Sector Deal as well as the Tourism Industries Sector Deal. And just because we don’t fit easily into one or the other category, doesn’t mean we should be squished into a single one. That is to commoditise and reduce the value of what we do and that’s not clever.