The Big Read: 2020; A crucible for innovation?

The Big Read: 2020; A crucible for innovation?

In the last Big Read of 2020 John Forkin, Managing Director of Marketing Derby, reflects on how a turbulent year may yet end in hope.

Picture the scene. 

Outside, it’s a cold, dank and dark January morning.

Inside, over 500 people gather at the warming Derby Theatre.

There is a bit of a crush – well, to be honest quite lot of crush – as people broker for positions around the coffee stations, queue for the loos and exchange many new year hugs and handshakes.

No social distancing, no hand sanitizer and certainly no masks.

Today, that scene is almost unimaginable. It would certainly be illegal.

Annual Business Event 2020
Yet, this was all played out less than a year ago as we gathered for the Marketing Derby Annual Business Event (ABE). The ABE kicks off our new year and has become a popular ‘red letter’ event – always busy, always buzzy - and for that edition, our theme was (the inevitable) ‘2020 Vision’.

2020; a year that had been anticipated for some time - baked into the visions of numerous companies, places and even countries - which of course I could not resist referencing in my opening comments from the stage, parodying the villain Karl Stromberg ‘Mr Bond, I have been expecting you’.

2020; an Olympic year no less, a theme that was the focus of the ABE Dare to Dream slot when the Derbyshire Institute of Sport paraded some of our sporting talent set to fly out later in the summer to compete in Tokyo.

Looking back, it now seems naïve. Obviously, we were unaware of the impending brutal reality that 2020 was about to unleash.

The year was to be dominated by the ruthless spread of a global Coronavirus pandemic, fusing itself into our personal and professional lives, living an existence peppered with lockdowns and lifting, followed by more lockdowns and even more lifting.

A health emergency - in which to date we have lost an astonishing 65,000 people in the UK alone -quickly morphed into an economic crisis with a collapse in the Q2 GDP of 20.4%, a shocking figure way beyond the worst-case scenario of even the most pessimistic economist. And yet, despite this trauma, as a community we coped, we adapted, we survive.


As with all companies, in late March Marketing Derby was thrown overnight into the COVID challenges - working from home, a test of our systems, our team, our processes and energies.

Our first corporate decision was to commit to enhancing our work with Bondholders and stakeholders and to contribute to the genesis of the economic recovery. We quickly decided not to use the government’s furlough scheme and avoided redundancies.

Our mantra was that this was a time to stay on the pitch, to adapt our business and become a pro-active partner in supporting Derby and Derbyshire through the crisis. Irony of ironies, as COVID rolled in, Marketing Derby was awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Innovation.

Essentially, the Queen’s Award is an MBE for business and this reinforced our determination to live our innovation credentials and so we set out to re-engineer the business in real time.

First, we created a pro-active customer relationship management programme where all team members reached out to our Bondholder community, checking in on how they were coping. Some of these conversations were incredibly difficult as bosses prepared to make their own team redundant, in some there were tears, in others bravura.

However, all our calls were received in the spirit of “It means so much that you guys remembered us”. We also moved our legendary events programme online, becoming Zoom experts, holding over 30 events during the pandemic with over 100 panellists and 3,000 attendees.

We produced a ‘Lockdown Derby’ film, aimed at capturing the empty city in the midst of a pandemic. A little leftfield for an inward investment agency - to make such an eerie film - but thankfully, people understood it and the film is now seen as a unique historical record of a time hopefully never to be repeated.

We implemented a significant step-change in our profile activity, launching a new magazine -Innovate – whilst increasing the number of eshots and upping our game on social media platforms.

To start with, we were considerate - nervous even - of getting the right tone. Did people really want to hear good news stories whilst worrying about their lives and livelihoods? We ran focus groups to test this and one phrase that stuck with me was a Bondholder who described our eshots and positive messages as a ‘godsend’ in turbulent times. This was reinforced in August, when one of our Facebook stories received over 90,000 engagements.

Our core inward investment activity continued, albeit in a different style. We were central to creating the largest inward investment since Toyota UK – the 5,000 job Smart Parc initiative now being landed by Derby City Council – as well as seeing the realisation of a number of investments in terms of businesses, jobs and capital.

We have been creative in hosting virtual site tours for investors unable to travel to the UK.

Derby Market Place

Finally, together with our Bondholders, we engaged in the emerging recovery process being led by the City and County Councils. Some of this work is short-term confidence building (the Katapult-designed Market Place Al Fresco being a perfect example) but most is medium- to long-term and the City Investment Prospectus (soon to be complemented by a County edition) was a good manifestation of this.

The saying that ‘necessity is the mother of all invention’ has never felt truer. I believe that businesses that innovated during the crisis are the ones which will thrive after the crisis. I’m aware of course that for many businesses – especially on the frontline and in production - working from home is impossible. The workers at Toyota cannot make a car every 78 seconds from their lounges.

At Marketing Derby, we evolved a hybrid model, balancing working from home with socially distanced meetings and risk assessed roundtables. Our core value is to support the local economy and so we never abandoned our Derby office and all team members come in from time to time. For us, COVID became a crucible for innovation.

The experience has clarified our USP as a pro-Derby/Derbyshire independent honest broker - attracting, supporting and engaging businesses in the shaping of place. Ours has been a 2020 journey shared by many, with highs and lows.

Joseph Wright of Derby's masterpiece 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump', at The National Gallery, London

A recently published book – lauded by the Sunday Times as one of the best art tomes of the year - portrays Joseph Wright of Derby as a painter of darkness. Traditional interpretations describe him as a painter of light. On reflection, our 2020 odyssey has taken us through a period of darkness and as the vaccine rolls out, 2021 will hopefully become a period of light and hope.

To say more would be telling. Come to our (online) ABE on 29th January 2021 to find out…

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