IDEA: Where to from here?

When I interviewed Katherine Singson not long after she was hired by IDEA, I went away with a sense that she might encounter difficulties.

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I had a hunch that, one way or another, it was quite possible she wouldn’t be around come September this year. It’s no cause for celebration that the hunch proved correct. And this is by no means a criticism of Katherine. She applied for a job in good faith and was successful.

But while IDEA needed a tractor, they went shopping for a sports car.

Much was made of Katherine coming from a blue chip corporate background, with Microsoft among her previous employers. But that’s not the background you want for a CEO of an industry association like IDEA. Because in the corporate world, with the luxury of corporate budgets, one succeeds not by doing stuff oneself, but by devising clever plans and then choosing the best people to do that stuff for you – be it organising an event or implementing a communications program. Fine for Microsoft, but that’s not an operational model IDEA can afford, and it’s remarkable this wasn’t obvious to the people who were involved in hiring her.

– Especially Paul Curtis, who knows exactly what’s needed to deliver a big exhibition in on budget.

Having worked in the organisers office at the annual shows for nine years until 2010 – I was responsible for the exhibition of photographs which now accompany the main event – I witnessed at close hand how it all worked. He charmed (no, really!) or cajoled, played the obligatory politics and above all, wherever possible, he did stuff rather than outsource it. He wrote the press releases, he sold the space, he haggled with the exhibition hall management to extract bits of added value, he worked hand in glove with the exhibition company to get the best possible deal for exhibitors. And no doubt was well-rewarded for it.

During the year other activity was generated out of the PICA office, such as a series of weekly photo tips syndicated to a range of mostly suburban and regional newspapers, and some early lobbying work on GST-free imports. And try and keep Mr Curtis out of a TV studio or radio interview when the opportunity emerged!

None of this promotional activity has happened under Katherine’s management, yet there are more staff and, I would imagine, more invoices coming in for services rendered.

In the ‘olden days’, PICA personnel through the year consisted of Paul Curtis and Eve Phillips. A publicist was brought in during the show to get the media in, as was the photo exhibition organiser and a few go’fers.

With less of a DIY aproach, the cost of mounting the show has expanded under the new management to the point where I seriously worry whether it is going to prove sustainable. Break even isn’t good enough, as the annual show provides the revenue to keep the IDEA office running for the next year. Dipping into reserves is a short-term fix.

It was always going to be challenging for someone with little or no event management experience or contacts in the industry, and a ‘hire it in’ approach to project management to follow Paul Curtis. John Bourne operated on a similarly low-budget model during his time as show organiser, during the years when it swapped over to PMA administration.

I was particularly surprised when I interviewed Katherine that she had no objectives other than organising the annual show and maybe tweaking the IDEA website. That was obviously the brief she had been given. But really, the photo show is more a means to an end than a valid reason for IDEA to exist.

Now we seem to have an industry association which sees its role as putting on the annual show so it can make enough money to put on next years annual show.

But it’s the money that the show in past years earned the industry – and in good years this amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars – that really delivered a benefit. That’s money an industry association can use to promote photography, lobby government, educate retailers – whatever.

Getting three or four thousand punters per day along to a three-day event once a year is hardly going to shift the market. It might lift trading in Sydney or Melbourne for a week or so after the event, but the benefit to the industry nationally is marginal, if measured solely by additional sales.

That’s not to diminish the value of an annual industry event, but the real value lies elsewhere and is probably not measurable in dollar terms: The opportunity for the industry to renew friendships and exchange opinion, war stories and gossip. For retailers and pro photographers and suppliers to do some business on the exhibition floor. For a supplier’s staff from around the country to work together for a few days. The APPAs, which brings the professional photography community together. The PMA conference. The reinforcement of the sense that we are all in the same industry working together.

If we let go of our annual get-together it will both be an indicator that we are losing identity as a separate industry – the photo industry – and at the same time add to that loss of relevance and identity. It will create a vicious downward cycle.

Things started to change a few years ago, when the promotional budget for the show, needed to draw consumers along, started to suck up big chunks of IDEA’s budget. Last year I believe the advertising budget for the show was over $200,000 – or about $20 for every consumer who entered the exhibition halls!

There’s also, in my opinion, the misguided idea that our annual photo show needed to be bigger and better by opening it up to other consumer technology like TVs, home entertainment and personal computing.

But people are passionate about photography, not plasma screens. Having tried to change the nature of the show and broaden the audience over three or four years now, it’s time to give up on the idea. It’s been tried and failed. It’s the enthusiasts, semi-pros and pros, the business-to-business exhibitors and the specialist retailers who show up year after year, not the staff from Big W’s photo department or consumers with a general interest in the state of converging technology.

And on the supply side you can’t have a consumer digital technology show without Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, LG, Microsoft, Apple, et al, but they continue to decline the opportunity.

Something or someone seems to have undermined our confidence in the photography industry, so that we don’t even use the word photography in the name of the event. It’s worth noting that PMA in the US is calling its first attempt at a consumer exhibition ‘The Big Photo Show’.

The potential cost of persevering with an expensive consumer-oriented show is alarming: A financially weakened industry association without the funds to do the kind of things around the simple brief of ‘defend and promote picture-taking’ which would really add value to our industry. And given that PMA relies on an annual payment from IDEA for organising the accompanying retailers’ conference, that organisation could possibly be vulnerable as well. So the stakes are huge.

So where to now? The era of blockbuster consumer exhibitions might be coming to an end whatever IDEA chooses to do. It’s worth noting that this years Melbourne Motor Show has been cancelled, with the Sydney show possibly to follow.

On the other hand, I think that the people  who attended last years photo show  – both trade, professional and enthusiasts – didn’t attend because it was at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre, but because they were passionate about photography. Most would have attended at the showgrounds or any other second tier, lower cost venue. Most, including retailers, would even have probably paid a small entrance fee…

At a time when the investment in something like The Digital Show has become higher cost and higher risk, perhaps it’s worth looking at lower cost, and thus lower risk, alternatives.

 

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4 thoughts on “IDEA: Where to from here?

  1. Keith – seems to me that a back to basics approach might help.
    Question 1 – Do we need a TRADE SHOW? If yes, see below. If no, the do some photoshow or somwething to involve the general public in picture taking etc ( like IDEA has done in the past).
    If we, as an industry decide we want a TRADE SHOW, then we as an industry need to figure out who will run it, and who will pay for it.
    I always found the original PMA Shows to be very beneficial to us as we could see/touch/discuss new products and most importantly network with other industry people. The consumer show that it evolved into does not interest me, other than to look at what people are looking at.
    I see us at a fork in the road – which way do we want to go.
    Other comments have been made about support and help for the show (I can’t find them at present). I have always helped at the shows and am happy to do so again, but someone needs to ask for the help, and I don’t recall IDEA asking at the time.

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