Interview with co-founder Alastair Scott
Published by Kirsty Dorsey on The Scotsman website on 31 December 2016
With a career spanning everything from theatre and fashion shows to sports production and glitzy corporate events in the Middle East, it sounds a bit odd to hear Alastair Scott describe himself as a “dinosaur”.
Juggling the personalities, design and technical engineering required to deliver the range of services on offer at Edinburgh-based 20/20 Productions – the communications agency Scott co-founded in 1990 with Andy MacKay – definitely doesn’t seem the stuff of a prehistoric age. And though he certainly doesn’t come across as the kind of luvvie associated with film and stage, Scott has more than enough charisma to avoid any accusations of being extinct.
“My children tell me I am a dinosaur, and I am,” he insists, nevertheless. “I’m not even on Facebook.”
The irony is that the San Francisco office of 20/20, run by MacKay since 2002, has been doing an increasing amount of work with the leviathan of social media, which itself has become a popular haunt for those of Scott’s generation. Services in the main cover the production of information films for staff at Facebook, which though only viewed internally are still expected to have the sleek shine of Silicon Valley.
With an established base in the UK and high hopes for its newest office in Dubai, 20/20’s three-pronged business model appears a steady structure. But even after so many years in business, Scott remains something of a pessimist.
“I am not the most confident person,” he admits. “Every year I think, I wonder, ‘Are we going to be OK next year?’
“We are not taking over the world, but we have three solid businesses.”
Depending on the prevailing economy, the UK business turns over between £2 million and £3m annually, with net profits in the region of 10 per cent. Major clients include the likes of Heineken, Standard Life and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), with 20/20 providing a mix of event, film and digital services.
The US office brings in about £1m a year, a turnover which Dubai is expected to match and ultimately exceed, particularly with the host of events coming up in the region in the next few years.
Dubai is home to two of the 24 core employees at 20/20, whose ranks swell to 60 or more with the addition of contracted staff during major projects. Such events include the annual Gulf Petrochemicals & Chemicals Association forum in Dubai, which regularly attracts about 2,500 people over three days at the end of November.
20/20 has handled large aspects of that event – from television studio productions to gala dinners on the beach side – for the past five years. This was originally organised out of Edinburgh, but is now headed by the local office opened in 2015.
With major events in the form of the World Expo 2020 and the 2022 Fifa World Cup in nearby Doha, Scott says Dubai is a “good place to be” just now. The office is additionally pitching for a major piece of work in early 2017 which he hopes to release news about if successful.
“Dubai relies less on oil than neighbouring countries in the region, so there is more of a balance to activity,” he says. “I would hope that the office really takes off in the next year or two, but as always, it depends on getting the right people embedded in there.”
But as is his wont, Scott also highlights potential hurdles. With a VAT rate of 5 per cent due to be introduced in 2018, and talk of a potential income tax thereafter, the duty-free status that helps bolster activity in Dubai is coming under threat.
Closer to home, business in the UK ?has held up “surprisingly” well so far ?in the wake of Brexit. However, Scott notes developments of a more cyclical nature: retailing, for example, is struggling, and in the past this has been a precursor to a downturn in the events sector.
“After 26 years in business, you begin to recognise the signs of these natural movements in the market,” he says.
“I am not too worried, because we have been here before. But I am metaphorically putting up a few sandbags.”
Born in Edinburgh in 1962, Scott grew up in various locations across Yorkshire and Northern Ireland as his father, a brewer, moved about in the course of his work. He finished off school at Ashville College in North Yorkshire before joining the Royal Hall, Harrogate, in 1980 as an assistant stage manager.
He was drawn to the job by his ambition to become an actor, but soon came to realise he would never be able to make a success of it.
“As I worked with the actors I realised that they had to be so thick-skinned, and I knew I was not like that,” he recalls. “It might be OK for the very top stars, but for most who are doing it for a living, they have to continually bolster each other’s confidence.”
During his five years there, Harrogate also hosted the Eurovision Song Contest as well as dozens of events in the accompanying exhibition hall. Scott got involved in all of them, paving the way for his decision to become a freelance production manager working with companies out of London.
He amassed a number of projects on his CV, such as the British Fashion Awards, before returning to Edinburgh in 1990 where his wife, Georgina, was studying chemical engineering at Heriot-Watt University. It was then that he and his school pal MacKay – whose career path up to that point had mirrored Scott’s – decided to set up 20/20.
“There was no production company of that type outside London at that time,” says Scott, referring to the scope of activities which allows 20/20 to handle a variety of projects in-house. “There are very few companies still that keep all of those communications under one roof, which allows us to be flexible to meet clients’ needs while also keeping costs down.”
The company’s relationship with Standard Life has led to work with the Andy Murray camp as well as the Ryder Cup, both of which are sponsored by the Edinburgh-based insurer. 20/20 has also put together a series of videos and other material for the forthcoming British & Irish Lions Tour of New Zealand, where Standard Life Investments is a principal partner.
20/20 is also media partner to Edinburgh Rugby, though this has grown more out of Scott’s personal interest in the PRO12 side. “That deal definitely has a family feel to it,” he explains.
These and other contracts have fuelled the growth of the Edinburgh-based digital team, which now numbers 18. To keep a flow of fresh talent into the industry, Scott and the rest of the company are also active with local educational institutions. The firm has strong links with Edinburgh College dating back a decade, and this has grown to include activities with Napier and Queen Margaret universities. There is a direct mentoring programme with Napier in which 20/20 staff work with students from the School of Arts and Creative Industries to enhance their learning through work experience.
All told, Scott reckons 20/20 hosts 26 placement weeks per year. That level of commitment earned the company accreditation from Scotland’s Investors in Young People (IIYP) in 2016 for its role in supporting new entrants into the workplace.
Scott insists it’s not just a feel-good factor, but rather is essential for a company like his. With “dinosaurs” such as himself still roaming the landscape, bringing in those steeped in the evolving world of social media and other new channels of communication is paramount.
“The technology of what we do in many areas is very young-person based,” he says. “We are trying to sell our services to companies that have young people at the core of their customer base, so it is very important that we talk the same language as our customers of the future.”