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Clockenflap: Turning Cultural Collateral into an International Event podcast

Eight years ago, Clockenflap was a small gathering of music and art lovers. Now the festival is one of the major events on the Hong Kong cultural calendar, with plans to export the formula abroad. Martin Haigh, Chief Sales Officer of Magnetic Asia, the festival's parent company, explains how the event came about and how to create a cultural happening that appeals to all of Hong Kong's diverse population.

Photo: Clockenflap: Hong Kong’s all-embracing music and arts festival.
Clockenflap: Hong Kong's all-embracing music and arts festival.
Photo: Clockenflap: Hong Kong’s all-embracing music and arts festival.
Clockenflap: Hong Kong's all-embracing music and arts festival.

HKTDC: Let's start with Clockenflap, its origins and aspirations…

Martin Haigh (MH): Clockenflap started life eight years ago. It was founded by three protagonists [Jay Forster, Mike Hill and Justin Sweeting] and they came together because they realised that Hong Kong lacked a music and arts festival. They wanted to create an event here that was all embracing and they saw a clear gap in the market.

Initially, they created something down in Cyberport. It was really just 2,000 friends, and friends of friends. There were DJs, a couple of local bands, a craft market and there were some graffiti artists. It was a small-scale music and arts festival. Two of the founders were in a group called Robot, a DJ group, and they also performed. Then the word started to spread.

HKTDC: You have spoken in the past about the social aspect of Clockenflap and wanting to create something quite different…

MH: Yes, there had never been a music and arts festival in Hong Kong before. In other countries, though, music festivals tend to be quite grungy – that's changing and you've now got some wonderful festivals in many parts of the world. For Clockenflap, though, the idea was to create something that the whole community could embrace.

While it was realised that, in some ways, Westerners are quite distinct from the local community, it was also felt that there was a number of crossover areas, particularly when having a good time at a musical and artistic event. Overall, the plan was to create a music and arts festival that could welcome a broad demographic – families, children, adults, older people, Westerners, locals… If this could be achieved, it was felt that it would give Hong Kong something quite unique.

HKTDC: Why do you think Clockenflap succeeded when so many of its predecessors fell by the wayside?

MH: Well, I think it's a case of 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. The founders of Clockenflap just worked extremely hard to make sure it happened. This determination has been one of the main factors in its success. At the time, there were no other large music and arts festivals here. Typically, any large outdoor events were run by the government, so there was no roadmap as to how a private concern could put one on.

HKTDC: You have spoken in the past about the social aspect of Clockenflap and wanting to create something quite different…

MH: Yes, there had never been a music and arts festival in Hong Kong before. In other countries, though, music festivals tend to be quite grungy – that's changing and you've now got some wonderful festivals in many parts of the world. For Clockenflap, though, the idea was to create something that the whole community could embrace.

While it was realised that, in some ways, Westerners are quite distinct from the local community, it was also felt that there was a number of crossover areas, particularly when having a good time at a musical and artistic event. Overall, the plan was to create a music and arts festival that could welcome a broad demographic – families, children, adults, older people, Westerners, locals… If this could be achieved, it was felt that it would give Hong Kong something quite unique.

HKTDC: Why do you think Clockenflap succeeded when so many of its predecessors fell by the wayside?

MH: Well, I think it's a case of 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. The founders of Clockenflap just worked extremely hard to make sure it happened. This determination has been one of the main factors in its success. At the time, there were no other large music and arts festivals here. Typically, any large outdoor events were run by the government, so there was no roadmap as to how a private concern could put one on.

While there were a lot of unknown unknowns out there, the team took a very pragmatic approach. This saw them very much working with the authorities, rather than against. They worked within the boundaries of what was possible, while reaching out to all of these different communities. A huge number of people wanted this kind of festival. The arts community really liked it and a number of charities wanted to support it. Really, though, at the end of the day, it was just belligerence and determination that got us through.

We were also in the fortunate position that, whilst we didn't have ridiculously deep pockets, we were able to fund ourselves through a few loss-making years. This meant we could afford to keep going, whereas it has been game over for many other festivals or large events in Hong Kong when they didn't make a profit in year one. It's very difficult to instantly make money and be a success here, so many people falter because they haven't the determination or the money.

HKTDC: What were the key challenges that you faced along the way?

MH: There were many. Hong Kong has quite a conservative culture, with people far more inclined to say "No" than "Yes". This means that it can be quite difficult to get permits for things. People didn't understand what we were doing, so there was a lot of education to be done. People didn't necessarily get what we were trying to achieve and why it wasn't going to be a risk for the city as a whole – and for the people who had said "yes" in particular.

We had to align many, many groups that had never really been aligned in that way before. That was tough. Then there was also the small matter of getting thousands of people to go to one particular place and that can be somewhat difficult, especially when you are dealing with an extremely broad demographic.

We wanted the event to appeal to the young, the old, Westerners, locals…basically, we were trying to reach out to everyone and that's extremely difficult. By comparison, if you are trying to stage a tattoo convention, for instance, then you have a very narrow band of people you are trying to reach. We were trying to reach out to an extremely broad range of people, which meant that we had potentially thousands who could come. How, though, do you find those people? How do you market to them? How do you persuade them to come to something that they've never been to before? That was really quite difficult.

HKTDC: How did you manage to evolve such a disparate group of people behind Clockenflap?

MH: Essentially, we are a digital company. There are lots of companies in Hong Kong that do ticketing and marketing in a traditional way, but that would have been impossible for us. We would never have got the word out if we had stuck to the traditional ways.

Ultimately, we embraced Google Adwords, Facebook, remarketing, lookalike marketing, lots of the buzzwords used in digital marketing. We also had to try and find interest groups that were, if not tiny, then certainly not massive. We had to target them and encourage them to come to the festival. We spent a lot of time on the marketing strategy.

HKTDC: How much of the success was down to digital marketing, and how much to conventional media?

Photo: Haigh: “It was just belligerence and determination that got us through.”
Haigh: "It was just belligerence and determination that got us through."
Photo: Haigh: “It was just belligerence and determination that got us through.”
Haigh: "It was just belligerence and determination that got us through."

MH: The two were really hand-in-hand. I couldn't give you a percentage. One of the key things was our sponsors – they helped put the word out beautifully. We have had many sponsors year after year, and they have been wonderful. They have used a mixture of traditional in-store marketing and print. Ultimately, it has been digital that has helped us the most amount.

If we hadn't embraced the digital approach, I'm sure we would have had less than half of the amount of attendees we've had. Originally, we outsourced our digital marketing but, as we've grown, that's been one of the skills we've brought in-house.

We've built our own internal digital marketing agency and we've also invested in our own digital ticketing company, Ticketflap. We needed to have that in-house and we needed to run that ourselves, largely because we couldn't find those services externally.

HKTDC: In terms of digital marketing, are there any restrictions about what you can and can't do, especially in terms of your existing databases?

MH: We have Chinese walls. It's like in investment banking, where the brokers aren't allowed to know what the finance people are up to. So, if a large music festival came to me and asked to use the EDM [email direct marketing] related to Clockenflap attendees, I would refuse.

Similarly, if Clockenflap came to me – we have distinct reporting lines in our business – and said they would like to use the Clockenflap EDM for another music festival that was using us for ticketing, I would also refuse. What we do have, though, is a segregated EDM list of all the people who have bought any music, comedy tickets, sports, business or charity. This segregated list can be targetted, but not one for a specific event.

HKTDC: How important is it that you now have all these different components to the business?

MH: Initially, if we could have found all these different components in Hong Kong, we would probably have been happy to outsource them. Ultimately, though, we found it very difficult to find people with the skill sets we needed, at the price we needed. It was then that we decided to build it internally and that's been great for us. We can concentrate on our events 100% and that has reaped massive dividends.

The combination of digital marketing and digital ticketing has been hugely beneficial. It has allowed us to branch out into things like RFID [radio-frequency identification], which is a bit like an Octopus card, allowing you to do cashless payments and access control and brand activation. It has given us a kind of "Farm to Fork" approach. Now, if someone wants to put on an event with us we can do everything – the production, the staging, the lighting, the security…

Ultimately, the success of Clockenflap has meant that many people are now coming to us and saying: "Can you do an event for us?" Others are just asking if we can do the digital marketing, the ticketing or supply them with RFID facilities.

Last year, for instance, AIA Carnival asked us to do their ticketing and we also did their tokens management. In the case of the Rugby Sevens, the Hong Kong Rugby Union used our RFID access control.

We are now in talks with the organisers of some very large Hong Kong events who want us to do their digital marketing. The success of Clockenflap has meant that many other companies want to use our products and services as they have seen how well they have worked for us.

HKTDC: How did you decide what to outsource and what to develop yourselves in-house?

MH: Ticketing was a natural thing that grew out of Clockenflap when we moved to West Kowloon, as we really needed a ticketing company. We looked at the offerings available in Hong Kong and decided the ticketing companies that existed couldn't do the things we wanted to do, particularly in the digital arena. A number of people within Magnetic Asia, our holding company, had built payment gateways and e-commerce platforms for other people in the past, so we had all the prerequisite skills.

It was an extremely natural evolution that just fell into place. Since then other things have followed suit. In the future our expansion will be very much on a cost-benefit basis – how much does it cost to build it ourselves versus how much it would cost us to outsource it. Then there are also the issues of how much of a benefit it would be to us, whether it could be successfully integrated, and does it form part of our core strategy.

HKTDC: You have digital marketing, you have the event management, the staging and the ticketing. Are there any other sides to the business?

MH: We can do production, ticketing and digital marketing. We also have event technology, things like Wi-Fi and an RFID cashless payments system. Those would be the main things. Ultimately, if you went to a large event in Hong Kong we would probably be doing something, somewhere within the mix.

HKTDC: You also do recruitment?

MH: Yes. We grow significantly when an event is about to take place, so we go to lots of different groups and try and get temporary staff. Inevitably, we find that some people are excellent and others are awful, but they are difficult to vet from the outset. We found that there were many people that were just not up to par and that we wouldn't want to use again. So, this year, we again hired a huge number of people and did a lot of vetting beforehand. In all, we interviewed more than a thousand people. In the end, we used about 300 people and still not all of them came up to scratch.

We did, however, rate them throughout the whole process. So now we have people who are good at customer service, people who are good at handling cash, people who are good at waiting tables… If you are a large events organiser and you need staff, we can now supply them.

The other day, for example, Edipresse stage a very large event with James Suckling, the renowned American wine and cigar critic. They needed 50 staff and they only came to us the day before. Amazingly, we found them their 50 staff. I am not sure they expected us to be able to find them, but we did, and they were very happy with the people we sourced.

Photo: Branding for Clockenflap 2015, the event’s biggest outing to date.
Branding for Clockenflap 2015, the event's biggest outing to date.
Photo: Branding for Clockenflap 2015, the event’s biggest outing to date.
Branding for Clockenflap 2015, the event's biggest outing to date.

We will be extending into that area, then, largely because the events industry needs good staff and, at the moment, it's a bit of a lottery in terms of recruiting temporary people. If we can improve the odds for event organisers, then you will have good people, ensuring the event is better run and more successful.

We have found that a lot of other event producers, even though they are in competition with us in some ways, are happy to use this service. If their event is better run, then they are going to be more efficient and make more money.

Tony Murray, Research Editor, HKTDC

For part two of this two-part interview, see "Clockenflap: Building the Dream and Exporting the Brand", 26 February 2016.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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