2020 has been unexpected. Tough. Relentless. It’s thrown up challenges for businesses everywhere. But that might also make it the perfect time to have a conversation about good business.
Just before Covid, we launched a brand.
We’d won the contract to ‘refresh and revitalise’ the International Business Festival. Liverpool had hosted the event three times – in 2014, 2016 and 2018 – following its creation by then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. It was part of the Northern Powerhouse – ‘levelling up’ as it’s known today – and the city was chosen because of the Liverpool Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, deemed the most ambitious and creative.
But we thought it needed more than refreshing and revitalising.
We know, from our work with FTSE100 and FTSE200 companies, that if you’re not starting to talk about purpose and societal impact in business, you’re off the pace. Everybody we were working with was talking about it – and yet the International Business Festival wasn’t addressing those kind of issues.
We believe the biggest aspect of the biggest growth area is purpose.
Liverpool has always been a bit different when it comes to looking at life – and looking at business and purpose seemed to fit. It’s a city that recognises social value. People in Liverpool know what’s right; they’ve got it ingrained in them. They know what’s good and they have a sense of fairness and social justice that you don’t get everywhere.
It was one of five UK cities to participate in the Inclusive Cities Project; the social economy here numbers some 1,400 organisations, includes 45,000 employees and accounts for £3bn in annual income, and pro-social is part of the outlook of many for-profit businesses, too.
We also wanted to create a festival in the true sense of the word – an experience of Liverpool, a festival city. The idea of coming to Liverpool and staying inside a conference centre was underutilising the assets of a city that is full of culture, full of excitement.
Culture is at the forefront of everything here and we were acutely aware that Liverpool went from the 15th to the fifth most visited city in the UK – an unprecedented leap.
Our research about events around the world on business and purpose showed us that there were a myriad of them. But they were small, mainly preaching to the converted – with a similar set of participants, speakers and brands. Our ambition was to create something on a scale that was going to have an impact worldwide; to help change people’s minds and reaffirm to skeptics that this is the road they should be going down. This festival is about everybody and if we if we don’t have the conversation with them, nobody will.
We wanted to create more than a B2B festival. The changes that businesses are making are not just coming from suddenly-enlightened boards, they’re coming from public demand. It’s being driven by new generations who’re demanding more; thinking more about provenance, what a company means to them and society.
We wanted people to wander through Liverpool One and get off the train at Lime Street and think. To be thrown into this global conversation about change and responsibility and doing business better.
It’s too easy for events and conferences to become talking shops, where people pat each other on the back, but nothing changes. We didn’t just want a series of talks, but discussions and conversations between people with diverse views. That’s what we were aiming for from day one. Covid 19 hasn’t allowed us to achieve this with Act I, but we will.
We wanted to have Green Party leader Caroline Lucas in conversation with BP’s Bernard Looney. Ultimately, BP pulled away. But that doesn’t mean that the door’s closed. We want to talk to them. That would have been the ultimate demonstration of what a good business festival is all about: bringing people together who may, in the past, have been at opposite ends of the spectrum. Not to have a great fight, but to exchange views.
If Brexit has taught us anything, it’s how destructive ‘divisive’ can be. It split generations; split families, and there has been nothing like it in this lifetime. That adversarial attitude is hasn’t got us anywhere – but one of the good reasons for having the Good Business Festival in Britain is because we’ve been through the worst of it. In fact, Covid-19 means we’re still going through the worst of times.
Our ambition is to do things differently. We want people to commit and say ‘I’m going to do this’. Our ‘Action Klaxon’ marks the pledges our speakers will be making, followed up via the Good Business Journal.
And we don’t want people on stage spouting a lot of crap that they can’t back up. So that’s why we got Ipsos Mori involved. Think tanks and foundations are at The Good Business Festival’s heart, with facts and figures researched and validated.
So we set up the original festival plan – for a five day festival, a journal to continue the conversation and open source ideas, solutions and a diverse, challenging conversation.
That was the plan.
Then Covid came along. We talked about postponing the event, and it felt like a crazy overreaction. About a week later, we decided to postpone it. In the space of four or five days everything changed.
It became clear that there was no way we could run an international festival, with people travelling from around the world. It was clear that October had to be different.
While we were all embracing working from home, the world was moving into something that was going to dominate for a long time. So we decided to look at business through that lens: accepting that everything we were going to do couldn’t be done in October. Covid-19 had overtaken everything and we had to respect and respond to that.
We set out, determined to show leadership and continuity during this global challenge. Day by day, it had become increasingly apparent that systematic change is urgently needed. Covid-19
offered a renewed foundation for the conversations we want to facilitate, strengthening the action we were aiming to inspire and amplifying the call for business to take the lead role in tackling global societal issues.
And we realised that this might be the tipping point for the Good Business Festival, that makes it absolutely the right time: the right place and the right thinking. Business had to respond positively. And our conversations with businesses, large and small, suddenly became more vital.
Everywhere, business had to pull in its horns; financial pressures hit our collaborators, sponsors and supporters. But we are in this for the long run; we want to build something massive.
Our first pivot – or pirouette – saw us split the festival into two acts – in October, and March 2021. We hoped that, by March, we’d be able to stage something more akin to our original thinking.
New and different working routines were exciting for all of us at first – we were more flexible and worked from home and did all of those things that we should have done more of pre-Covid. But, like everything, you can have too much of a good thing. As our collective fatigue for watching faces on Zoom, Google Hangouts and MS Teams heightened – we instinctively knew we had to develop broadcast-quality channels and not create yet another Zoom-fest.
We followed the numbers: Newsnight and Question Time audiences held up well, as people sought out good quality, well-produced factual content. Working with the brilliant Liverpool city region-based Adlib, we built TV studios, developing a feel for a new type of business event. We collaborated with cultural heavyweights like Massive Attack and new voices like Little Simz. It wasn’t just a different kind of business festival, it was a bloody big difference.
And then, barely two weeks before the festival, Liverpool was put into a further stage of lockdown. The idea of a live audience was out; live panels were off the programme; guests couldn’t travel to the city and our venue couldn’t host us.
If business teaches you anything, it’s to learn from your mistakes. But these weren’t mistakes, so what were the learnings? As we pivoted again, nobody panicked. At least, not on the surface. The relentlessness of 2020 was beginning to catch up with us: you work out the logistics; you work out the finance. You relay that message to the team. Everybody goes hell for leather. And within days it changes again and you have to go back and start over. That has happened four or five times.
Luckily, there’s a humour to our team. A northern aesthetic; robust and questioning. We’ve had every response, from ‘don’t be stupid’ to ‘let’s just get on with it’, and everything in between. We listen to each other, and find a consensus. Because we’re purpose driven.
We have dozens of years’ experience managing events between us. Millions of people have attended our events. But we’ve never had to do anything like this. And still, it’s a work in progress.
The run up to Act I was frenetic and stressful but those feelings turned to pride and excitement as Act I unfolded live. From the moment our ‘WTF?’ session started, to when the evening finished in Melbourne, The Good Business Festival delivered. Intelligence, challenge, creativity and purpose shone through. The reaction throughout the day – and since – has shown us that what we set out to do is welcomed by businesses, public sector organisations of all sizes and from across sectors. What’s more, we got a wonderful response from the public.
We’re more confident that ever that businesses with purpose will really come out of 2020 strongly. And that’s something that’s emerged in the last six months. So here we are now, ready. For now. Let’s see what another six months of change brings.