Belief in live experience at heart of The fresh Group’s 2020 vision

Driving global events and communications agency The fresh Group forward in 2020 will be investor and business transformation expert Lee Harris. We caught up with him to find out about turnover targets, investing in people – and why Manchester is the place to be…

The fresh Group has appointed Lee Harris as its new CEO as part of its growth strategy and continued development.

After working closely with the group as chairman and non-executive director for the last four years, Harris has agreed to take a more active role in driving the Manchester-based agency forward and setting the strategic vision for the years ahead.

“It’s a very exciting time at fresh, we’ve got an amazing year ahead,” Harris told M&IT. “We’re already going to have a record year in terms of turnover. For the next two to three years we’re really going to focus on what we’re amazing at – the live environment.

“I do want to grow the business, but we’re not looking to be the biggest agency. It’s glib to say we’re looking to be the best. We’re looking to plough our own way.”

Harris added that any expansion is more likely to be in the US than any further UK offices.

“I’ve got connections on the West Coast of the States. There’s absolutely a need for a UK-centric creative within the locality. It’s not on the roadmap but it would be a nice happy circumstance for many reasons.

Thriving Manchester

“We’re not going to open any other offices in the UK. We don’t need them. There’s a thriving creative scene in Manchester, we’re seeing amazing talent coming through. If you asked me where would I be based if we were starting from scratch, I would be based here. If that’s an issue for clients, maybe they’re not the right clients for us.

“The London-centric nature of the industry helps keep us sharp and focused, you need that level of motivation. I don’t believe we’re the underdog. I believe we can overtake the London economy and skillset.”

The fresh Group has a strong client portfolio across retail, automotive, tech and financial industries. And Harris warned against the pitfalls of trying to be all things to all clients.

“Stick to what you’re good at,” he said. “I’ve seen with a lot of agencies they all start offering different things, like a digital offering, and if you don’t keep a firm hand on the tiller you can find yourself selling those separately. We started to get briefs in for periphery services, they should only be unlocked if the client is using our main services. Once you’ve started using us it unlocks that, you can’t skip stages. I’ve turned down sizeable pieces of work on that basis.

Information overload

“We’re never going to compete on price. We’re an expensive beast – but you get what you pay for. The quality of the people here at Fresh is one of the key reasons I was willing to make a deep dive into a business for the first time in 11 years. We’ve got amazing talent.”

Harris added that the information-heavy modern age holds many opportunities for the live events industry.

“With this level of information overload that we’re seeing, what we do is more and more important,” he said. “You can never get over the power of that live experience. The industry has a very important task ahead. Live experiences are still the best way of communicating a message. You’ll never replace a live experience.”

“You don’t build a business – you build people. A good percentage of our people have been here 10 years, some since the beginning. I’m not as blinkered as to believe they’re all going to be here forever, but I want their time at fresh to always be memorable in their career, and help them grow as much as they can.”

Continued development

The agency underwent a management buyout in 2014, backed by a £5.7m investment by NVM Private Equity. The latest accounts filed at Companies House show that the agency turned over £12.2 million in the year ending 31 December 2018 and made a pre-tax profit of £232k. The fresh Group has also just developed and launched its own client and peer publication exclusively for clients and partners, In The Know.

Many of the group’s latest projects are for clients undergoing large business transformations. This isn’t surprising, says Harris, as companies are forced to adapt much faster to keep ahead and need communication partners to providing creative ways to continue employee engagement as well as measure it.

The tech sector is also a large focus for fresh and will continue to grow further under Harris’s leadership.

“I am really proud of the team at fresh so far in response to our continued development,” he said. “Especially of our teams on the front line who make amazing things happen for our clients day in and day out. As our client portfolio continues to grow with the direction we are taking, I am tremendously excited about the opportunities that these new partnerships will bring.”