My Event World - Ian Agnew

Ian Agnew, chief executive of Digital Outreach, on working on 3,500 community events as part of Digital UK's £6.5m programme and running a charity that supports farmers in developing countries.

My Event World - Ian Agnew
My Event World - Ian Agnew

I got into the events industry because I wanted to make a positive difference to people’s lives. Working with community organisations to create events is such an effective way of reaching people. Older and vulnerable groups might not trust a TV advert or letter but speak to them face to face at an event and you'll have their full attention.

I have worked here since 2007, when we founded Digital Outreach. It all started with just one person (me) and we now have a team of sixteen. We also fund dozens of project staff who work in voluntary organisations, coordinating thousands of local events.

I was attracted to this particular role because it brought together a lot of the best experiences I’ve enjoyed such as working with the charity sector, community engagement and delivering socially beneficial events. We’ve created a really innovative event outreach model and I’m proud of the fact that we plough up to 70% of the value of our contracts back in to local charities.

Not many people know that Digital Outreach even exists. That might sound strange when we’ve worked on over 3,500 community events as part of Digital UK’s £6.5m programme to raise awareness of digital TV switchover. But one of the ways we achieve such an impact is not pushing our own brand; we use trusted voluntary organisations instead. This approach has been really successful, but it’s a double-edged sword – it’s harder for us to promote ourselves to new partners and customers.

My worst experience at an event was when we were training volunteers to give advice on how to retune a television to pick up a digital signal. We didn’t realise the venue, a hotel in Torquay, was having its own aerial system upgraded that day. When we got to the bit in the event where people could practise retuning the TV equipment we discovered the engineer had cut the aerial cable. Bad timing.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt it’s how amazing voluntary groups are at encouraging behaviour change at events. They know their communities like no one else.

The best event I’ve been involved in was one of our Get Connected, Get Online events, which teaches older people how to use the internet.

If I could do it all over again I would not call the company Digital Outreach. It was right when we first set up but now it sends a message that we only work on digital programmes or that we do digital marketing, neither of which is true. We are currently re-branding so watch this space.

The one thing I can’t stand is seeing waste and unnecessary spend, particularly in this current climate.

Outside of work I spend my time with my two children. With my wife I also run a small international development charity. I’m passionate about trade justice and the charity supports farmers in developing countries.

If money were no object I would set up a network of social enterprises that support refugees and young people in the UK. Running a small organisation I’ve learned how to get results with not much cash – you get more creative and learn how to beg, borrow and persuade.

The one event I will never miss is the last switchover event in 2012. It will mark the end of a five-year advice campaign that saw us running thousands of events and reaching over a million older and vulnerable people.

The recession has meant that many of the voluntary organisations we partner with to deliver events might struggle as they are actively involved in delivering public services.

The next 12 months will be our busiest so far. Whilst the national switchover programme is half way through in terms of geographic coverage, it’s only one quarter of the way through in population terms. We may end up with more events in this one year than in the last two combined.

If I could switch places with anyone else in the industry it would be no one, actually. I know it’s a cliché, but I love my job and I love what we achieve. It’s not particularly glamorous but I’ve never been good at glam so this suits me down to the ground.

If I ruled the event industry I’d want to know that every event put on in the name of a good cause actually made a difference or added some real value to society.

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