Techdept Co-Founder & CEO Dan Kirby talks us through the birth and growth of his agency’s marketing initiative which built the agency’s fame on a global scale.
For a 15 person Sheffield based digital agency, this is no mean feat, and, it turns out, was more a stroke of midlife crisis induced rebellion and creativity than strategic planning.
TFF: Where did the original idea for running events to raise the profile of Techdept come from?
DK: Our PR agency said we should do an event. They said it’s good for PR and good for new business, and they really lobbied us to do it. And at the time we’d never done anything like that and felt very intimidated by the idea.
4 years in, you could look at me and think Christ, he’s rock solid at putting on events, and a very confident at speaking and putting on a show. I can tell you now, that was not me 4 years ago.
I’ve learnt through these experiences that we’ve got capabilities we don’t know exist. On a personal level it’s been pretty incredible.
TFF: The concept of the Tech Off events is a series of very short 5 minute expert talks and debates right?
DK: We discussed ideas, and how we’d work with industry experts, and we just looked and it and thought, this is fucking boring. So we decided, let’s do something different.
What I didn’t want to do was a standard agency insights event: CEO stands up. Talks about his agency. Someone talks for 20 minutes. The first 10 minutes is boring. Then they say something interesting. And then the outro.
We thought, why don’t we drop the intro and outro, and just do the interesting bit. And I don’t want to talk about my agency, I don’t want to be that guy. So we decided to do short talks, the crowd chose the winner, you get a prize at the end. We chose a wrestling belt as the prize, and I genuinely can’t remember why, because I’m not into WWE or anything, it was just an idea.
TFF: What does the name mean?
DK: The term Tech Off was a term we’d used for years when we’d meet with antagonistic tech people, we’d have a tech off. It was a joke.
We did the first event in the basement of a pub in Soho, so it was a bit like going into a Rocky or Fight Club scenario.
We had maybe 30 people there, of which 20 were directly employed by us – staff, PR agency, and then old mates and clients.
There were 3 or 4 speakers.
Just before it started someone said, who’s going to introduce the speakers? It’s my agency so I reluctantly did it. There was no plan!
It was such a buzz. The format worked, and until that point I was convinced it would be a catastrophe. It was more like a spasm of activity rather than a strategic investment. The CTO of Songkick was the winner of that first event.
TFF: How did the events get to the scale and madness of those I’ve witnessed?
DK: Each time we did another event, we pushed the concept a bit further. It became like a dare. How much can you get away with? What can you wear, say, do… Where’s the line? We’ve never found the line! It’s been quite an amazing experiment. It blurred the line for me in terms of personal and professionalism. It was partly my midlife crisis being channelled into something creative and rebellious.
TFF: Before long your midlife crisis was on stage at Eurobest!
DK: Soon after our first event our PR agency got us an intro to Eurobest who asked us to run the Tech Off in Helsinki. So Rick, myself and 3 great speakers went out, one of whom had just come back from Mexico City and he’d brought back all this Mexican wrestling gear, just for fun, and I said yeah bring it along since we’ve got a bit of a wrestling theme! And since we’re going to Helsinki, I should make a special effort, and maybe dress up as Rocky in a grey tracksuit.
Cut to Helsinki. It’s lunchtime. In a theatre with 350 people. Sober. I’m dressed as Rocky. With 3 industry leaders in Mexican wrestling masks. This was a funny idea when we were in England, but now it was all a bit too real. I started really freaking out. I remember thinking, this is it, I’ve found the end of my career. And then it started, and we walked through the crowd to a video of Rocky running up the stairs and the music full blast. It got a good response!
TFF: Where was the biggest or best Tech Off?
DK: The biggest event was with Glug, with an audience of 600. It was packed, shoulder to shoulder. Night club volume Rocky, sweat, noise – a visceral experience. So it was truly crazy, but also fundamentally very good, because you got a lot of information, quickly.
TFF: Can you attribute any new business wins to the event?
DK: Yes, in the first year we made £150k gross profit from wins directly attributable to the events.
Subsequent years have become more hazy. It’s definitely an unbelievable brand building and networking device. In some ways, the more chaotic and successful it became, the less good it was for networking, because on the night its mad and noisy and you can’t talk to people.
It certainly changed perceptions of us. I’d bring a Marketing Director client to Cargo nightclub in London to see our event, and they’d see a queue of 200 people lining the pavement waiting to get in, as if we were some sort of cultural phenomenon.
TFF: Was it the right perception for the agency you wanted to grow?
DK: Being professional is overrated. Nobody cares. In fact the converse is true. You stand out more being outrageous. People think: this guy is swearing on stage, with a team of wrestlers and bodyguards, for lols, he must be so self confident and his company must be amazing, otherwise why would he do this? It’s insane.
TFF: You were invited to SXSW, Retail Week Innovation conference, Festival of Marketing, Cannes Lions, DMX Dublin, Leeds International Festival and more.
Why do you think it was SO successful?
DK: Because my sense of humour trumps my sense of responsibility?
Those conferences knew what we were doing, It was different. Not boring. Everyone else looks the same, sounds the same and does the same thing, while talking about innovation, disruption and creativity. The irony is not lost on me. And doing something genuinely different (by accident) worked!
TFF: Where next??
DK: We’ve actually done the last Tech Off event!
I’m passionate about workplace wellbeing and mental health, and last year we launched a concept called Getahead Festival. It’s a 24 hour, not for profit event, which had 1000 people attend in June. We’ve made a 25 year commitment and aim to help a billion people learn how to get ahead without burning out (no, really). We are back on Friday 14th June 2019 during London Tech Week.
But I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing this had I not gained the confidence in running events that came through running the Tech Offs.
Learn more about getahead festival at www.getahead.life