The 1-2-1 series by Event Industry News interviews influencers, leaders and champions within the UK exhibition market. We ask them to deconstruct their views on the current market, disclose the drivers within their own businesses and understand their own personal motivations.
This series is brought to you by exhibition specialist and blogger, Jim Curry.
Parry Malm Interview; Talking AI and Exhibitions
AI is shaping up to hit the world of exhibitions. We are already witnessing numerous launches by organisers seeking to serve the emerging tech sector which will then be followed by the slow realisation that AI could help organisers and suppliers deliver smoother, faster and more efficient events.
There are very few people in the world with in depth knowledge of exhibitions and AI but Parry Malm heads that list.
Parry, a former UBM marketer, is a man who moves ahead of the curve and is now truly ensconced in AI with his own start up, Phrasee.
Formed only two years ago, with business partners Victoria Peppiatt and Neil Yager, Phrasee uses AI to generate and optimise marketing language – it’s awesome stuff.
In this interview, we talked about AI, exhibitions, email, bullshit sales brochures and why organisers ruin their own content and miss the mark with speakers.
We also talked about a Canadian hero, Terry Fox, and a Britney Spears slot machine.
With a recent £1m funding round for your company Phrasee, you are at the heart of the AI revolution. In layman’s terms, what is AI?
If you Google the phrase ‘artificial intelligence’ right now you’ll see 1,000,001 blog posts explaining what it is and you’ll know even less afterwards. It’s a phrase that doesn’t mean very much. The way I term it is this: AI uses algorithms to complete fundamentally human tasks more effectively than humans.
The media is hyping it as a bit of a job-killer…
That’s not true. It was the same when the first industrial revolution hit and businesses were artisanal. That revolution created more jobs in the history of humankind. That’s what happening now too: AI and advanced cognitive computing will kill off a bunch of jobs but it’s going to create even more jobs; they’re just going to be different jobs than what you have now.
So is AI the same as machine learning?
Machine learning is one school of AI, but AI itself encompasses numerous things. You also have other types of AI, for example, natural language generation, which is the area in which Phrasee operates, as well as things like machine vision and deep learning. There’s a whole bunch more – it’s an exciting arena.
AI is receiving the hype that went with big data and 3D printing a few years ago.
I think there’s a lot of companies out there who say that they do AI and they probably do but in very small amounts of their tech stack. Three years ago they were ‘big data’ companies, and now they’re ‘artificial intelligence’. They jump on an impending growth trajectory which devalues the real work of true AI companies like Phrasee.
I track exhibitions and it looks like the industry is jumping the AI trajectory with imminent launches from several organisers. Does that help or hinder the AI sector?
The launches indicate that AI is a growth market and for the AI industry itself it is probably a good thing. But a lot of the launches will be catch-all AI events which lack a lot of focus. The thing is if you’re Amazon, your uses for AI are going to be very different than if you’re Pfizer. A generalist event where people walk around aimlessly and waste time doesn’t produce a good visitor experience.
What do you believe to be true about AI that nobody else does?
A lot of people think that AI is going to fundamentally change everything we do, but I don’t believe that’s the case. I believe that there are very limited yet very powerful uses for AI in enterprise settings right now. A lot of companies are going to waste a lot of money on solutions that don’t actually bring value because they aren’t going to benchmark it against humans.
Phrasee is a serious bit of kit. I have seen it in action and was impressed with the subject line output.
It’s crazy right? Effectively we’ve built a programming language for language and our chief scientist Neil who’s based in Vancouver reckons it’s world leading. We built it totally organically, we never planned it to be as robust as it is but it allows us to generate human language at scale that’s more effective than what humans write. It’s pretty nuts!
Back in 2014, I saw the Phrasee prototype laid out on a spreadsheet. I guess its changed, right?
That was a pre-alpha prototype. What Phrasee does now is juiced up on steroids. It’s incredibly powerful.
How has the Phrasee platform evolved?
We went to market with a really toned down product and then we made changes based on customer feedback and that’s how we got to where we are now. We didn’t make changes for intellectual curiosity’s sake, we made changes because customers actually needed those changes.
Could exhibition organisers or suppliers use Phrasee?
The main challenge is that we deal with large retailers who have continuous sales, whereas exhibition organisers have discrete products (i.e. there’s a final deadline) so you can’t really replicate learnings from one campaign to the next. There are different points of a show cycle, whereas retailers have continuous sales products whereby you can actually replicate success campaign on campaign.
How would you advise the exhibition industry in its adoption of AI?
Before you embark upon AI solutions you need to clearly define a problem statement. This is something that I’ve learned with Phrasee. We defined the problem that people were using ineffective language in their email marketing campaigns so we used AI to find a solution.
Propose a problem/solution statement for the exhibition industry.
I’m just hypothesising but you could use chatbots to understand what the visitor is trying to learn and achieve from a show and then use natural language processing to predict a good timetable for them. That would be quite interesting. I think there’s a lot of stuff around machine vision, cameras and people flow that could also be used.
As a tech startup how do exhibitions stack up against other channels like content, social, email, direct mail and digital advertising.?
I lump live events into one, so exhibitions and conferences together, and it’s towards the top. The difficulty is measuring the ROI from an exhibition. I rely on intuition to determine the good from the bad. One thing I’ve learned is to never believe the demographics and stuff that an exhibition sales person sends out because I’ve been the guy who has written those bullshit brochures.
Ha! And what word of warning would you give to other start-ups about exhibitions?
Exhibitions are great for second stage start-ups but if you’re pre-revenue, pre-product or if you don’t have much cash to burn it would be an awful idea because they’re an expensive risk and it’s a long-term play. As a rule, you won’t go into an exhibition and walk out of it with 100 new customers, especially when you’re an enterprise focused business like ours.
I’d agree. Having worked in the exhibition industry how do you look back on it?
I really enjoyed working in exhibitions. I got to know a lot of really awesome people. Some of my best friends are people who I met whilst working at exhibition organisers so that’s awesome. You meet a lot of great people but for 363 days of the year, the job itself is really boring. For 2 days it’s pretty fun, and I still miss the post-show piss ups…
And now as an exhibitor?
The exhibitor experience can be improved substantially. For example, connecting appropriate people at a show could be a task for AI. As an exhibitor, you tick boxes that interest you and it is quite banal information based on a finite list of generic interests. It’s not very intelligent whatsoever and organisers don’t do anything with the information anyway. What a wasted opportunity.
What is the biggest mistake you’ve made at exhibitions as an exhibitor?
Tough question. We’re a company who is quite confident in our skills to market ourselves. We stand out at exhibitions and we get a lot of traffic but in hindsight, we never used to have a robust follow-up plan. We now have improved to make sure that the relationships that we build at the exhibitions carry on.
Because we stand out and because what we do is cool, we get a lot of tyre kickers on our stands. Tyre kickers don’t add value to our business, so we’ve learnt to have a much better triage system on the stand.
You’re an engaging speaker which you use to your advantage as an exhibitor. Do speaker slots drive more business your way than a stand?
I’ve found that we use our stand activity for Phrasee brand recognition and the speaking slots for market education. I think they’re symbiotic. I know that a lot of companies buy speaking sessions and give really boring presentations about something when they are selling a fundamentally commodified product.
And that’s the worst type of exhibition content.
Yes, and it’s a waste of money. As a rule, we don’t pay for content slots at exhibitions. What we have to say, our company story and our innovation in the market is really interesting, really valuable content. If organisers don’t want that at their show it’s their loss, not ours.
Is commercialised content damaging?
It’s absolutely crazy. It’s no different to the clickbait articles online publishers use. If you start using your speaker slots for paid content you don’t get to vet the quality of it. As a rule, if you have ten people who paid for speaker slots, one of them will be good, the other nine will be boring as fuck and it devalues the only good speaker. Plus it adds nothing to the visitor experience.
Talking about content. The Phrasee content is really good and has already won awards.
We produce content like nobody else produces content. Google is loaded with clickbait content and whenever I read content like that a fairy loses her wings. It is so soul destroying.
We come at it from a different standpoint. We’re not a big company, we’ve aspirations to be a big company but right now we’re 15 people in Putney so we can’t compete with your large marketing technology companies. We can, however, create a much more noticeable and memorable brand voice with our content. By virtue of that 20% of people who get our content think we’re idiots and they’re never going to buy from us, 60% of people like our content but they’re not the right market for us (yet), and 20% love our content and buy from us. That’s a great ratio.
You’re my go-to guy when its comes to email. Do exhibition organisers overuse email?
They under use it in many ways and overdo it in other ways. They underuse it when they only send out emails every two or three weeks because they don’t want to oversaturate this audience. That’s the wrong strategy and they should be sending out emails much more frequently.
From the point that registration opens until it closes that’s the only window to get people on board. The conversion rates from email marketing for exhibitions is extremely strong. It’s the most reliable driver of traffic, the one that you can track the easiest and if you increase frequency and some people unsubscribe because they don’t want to go to your show that’s OK, there’s more people out there.
And how do they overuse it?
Too much valueless content. They try to over-egg the pudding and tend to make the email itself quite cumbersome. An email list will comprise two core markets; people who have been to your show and people who haven’t. Either way, they have signed up. You don’t need to justify your show to either of the audiences; just treat it like a straight up eCommerce transaction.
Is the email oversell demonstrating a lack of insight or segmentation?
Maybe. I think organisers in general have a very low level of understanding as to why visitors come to their shows. I think they certainly know why exhibitors sponsor it or why exhibitors buy stands but I don’t think they fully understand why people visit.
Automated emails are getting on my bones at the moment, primarily for poor implementation. Where do you sit with automated emails?
Automation has been a real trend in email marketing for the last two years and people think, ‘hey, I can automate it and save me a bunch of time’. That’s the wrong way to think about it. Automated emails do not save you time, especially in the exhibition space where things change a lot in the two months lead up to a show. New sponsors, new exhibitors, new features and speakers. If you set these all up on automated programmes you spend as much time fixing them to make them relevant as creating new emails when you need them.
Is there any use for automated emails in exhibitions?
Maybe as a post-show follow-up which exhibitions never do. Not continuing content post show is one thing that always wound me up. Organisers host hundreds of speakers at shows, the minority film them and then fewer still send them out in a drip feed manner after the show to create visitor stickiness. It’s absolutely crazy, you’ve got this great content asset that you do nothing with.
What was the last bit of martech that impressed, other than Phrasee obviously?
There are a lot of really cool companies out there doing interesting stuff. One company which we use and we get a lot of value from is Lead Forensics which for enterprise sales people is hugely powerful. You get real-time triggers when brands visit your site, so it is an added level of information in the sales process that didn’t exist before.
What have you changed your mind about in the last year?
I find my mind changes about stuff daily, I couldn’t pin it down to one thing. The last year has been such an absolute whirlwind with Phrasee, we’ve won all these awards and gone through all these venture capital rounds so I don’t even know if there’s one specific thing.
Any dark moments in the last two years?
Yes, lots. I still get that. I’m not sure that ever goes away. Honestly, we’ve had some severe downs. I still have days where I wake up and think, ‘what if it all just crumbles or our clients all cancel’, but those days are few and far between these days. They still happen, mind you.
What does the first 5 minutes of your day look like, in the office?
I usually come in and just catch up with my business partner Vic and just see what’s going on. I use the first part of each day to connect with her, to connect with the team and just get a general feel of the mood for the day ahead.
How is Phrasee kicking off in 2017?
In January, I am going on a roadshow of the US, I think I am going to do about 8 cities in a week visiting customers.
Who do you respect most in the exhibition industry?
I have two people – two former bosses of mine.
The first is Greg Cherry. I learnt a lot about how to manage people and get them to do what you wanted without being a dick. The second is Kieron Osmotherly. He runs a conference group called TowerXchange which is insanely profitable and is coining it in.
What exhibitions do you rate?
Spitalfield’s Market in East London at 2pm on a Saturday. Any Saturday. Cold out, hot out, rainy, sunny – it’s busy. That’s what an exhibition should feel like. Other than that, TFM. I have been every year for the last eight years.
OK switching to personal. What charities do you support?
In the UK I support The Samaritans. I think they do great work. In Canada, I support a charity called the Terry Fox Foundation. Back in 2004 I won the Terry Fox Humanitarian Award because I did a whole bunch of community work, plus I grew up in the same town as him, so I support that.
Terry Fox is quite well known in Canada, the one-legged marathon man right?
Yep, he is the only non-royal to have his image on a coin in Canada ever. A true Canadian hero.
What recent purchase under £100 had the biggest impact on your life?
I bought a brand new selection of Bjorn Borg underwear and that’s been great. But overall, I am a minimalist. I don’t buy much stuff. I don’t believe in ‘stuff’. I think stuff just goes away in the end. So to be honest my life is just pretty content as it is. I kind of don’t need more stuff. Worst answer ever.
Do you have a long memory?
I have a skill for remembering random facts about people which is actually quite useful.
Do you hold grudges?
I try not to, aside from every girl who’s ever turned me down for a date haha.
What bad habits do you have?
My worst habit is oversleeping; I quite often stay up late working and then I’ll sleep past and get into the office quite groggy.
Ha. You’re the least typical entrepreneur I know.
There are a lot of memes out there about what you’re supposed to be like if you’re a tech entrepreneur and those are often companies which get talked about in the press, get all the headlines, and then fizzle out. My dad used to say to me, ‘never let old ways of thinking tell you not to do things in a certain way’. I think this whole thing about tech start-ups having to fit stereotypes of being in the silicon roundabout and needing to have a foosball table are just boring.
Do you exercise?
I walk a lot. Seriously, I got a tracker (looks at tracker) so yesterday wasn’t good, the day before that 10,000, the day before that 20,000. I walk to work each day and I am always going around town walking to client offices, that’s my main form of exercise.
What’s your next personal adventure?
Well, I lost about a grand on a Britney Spears slot machine in Vegas recently so I need to calm down. When I was younger I used to really enjoy doing adventurous holidays. I went to all sorts of crazy places and did all sorts of crazy stuff. Now that my life is so uncertain and such a rollercoaster professionally, when I have holidays I don’t want to have any mentally taxing stuff because my life is already incredibly mentally taxing. So I just like to eat nice food, drink nice wine and do dope shit.
Are you happy at the moment?
I’m broadly quite a content and happy person but you only ever really recognise the fact that you’re happy if you have shit days and I am totally comfortable having shit days. I think maybe that’s something that separates me from other people. I haven’t killed myself yet though mate, I might do after this fucking deep interview. Forget a therapist, I got Jim Curry!