Networking has an image problem. Speak to the younger generation across London, and they will often recall horror stories of awkward conversations punctuated only by cheap wine and dodgy canapes.
It’s a real issue. If junior and mid-level communications professionals don’t have the experience or desire to go out and speak with the world, it will eventually prevent them from making the most of new business and marketing opportunities when they get to more senior levels in the organisation.
When my colleague Riku and I sat down in early 2017, we wanted to work out what caused that reputation among our peers. Why did people consider networking events to be a bit of a drag? And what could we do to help the junior ranks enjoy getting out of the office more?
It transpired that a lot of misconceptions came from broader changes in how we work. Even in communications, the days of long leisurely lunches with clients and contacts are fading fast. More often than not, client relationships are conducted almost exclusively by phone, or more commonly email.
Throw cross-border work into the mix, and increasingly you get communications professionals working together on a daily basis but only meeting face-to-face once a year (or less).
The result is that it now feels easier and more convenient to manage relationships through email or social media. LinkedIn has built its profile on being a place to develop your “professional network”, and some apps are even wading into the market, operating on the now ubiquitous “swipe-to-like” model.
But it doesn’t reduce the importance of face-to-face business conversations. And we felt that even those events we were attending weren’t quite hitting the spot. They would often comprise a hundred people brought together in a room, given a brief talk and left to their own devices. Big groups would often stick in a huddle, and the tone would often be focused on one particular industry or sector.
Overall we came to the conclusion that there was a gap in the market at our own level. There was no clear informal forum for junior and mid-level teams to break out of the echo chamber and engage with their peers from across different industries.
Given it is our contemporaries at these levels that will be writing the briefs, leading the deals and controlling the purse-strings in the near future, it seemed like we were missing an opportunity.
After some discussion, we decided the best way to do it would be to give it a go ourselves. The City Social concept was born. At the heart of it were three key objectives: Make it informal, make it relevant and – most importantly – make it about the guests.
Making it informal
Our plan was simple. Build that forum – but do it differently.
The overall aim would be to build something where people would want to attend out of enjoyment, rather than professional obligation.
And we got the impression that hosting events in grand cavernous surroundings would often invite pressure and take people too far out of their comfort zone to enjoy themselves.
So instead of speakers, we sought out activities. Instead of ancient City institutions, we sought out venues at low-key pubs and bars. And instead of exclusively communications professionals, we sought out a range of guests from across different industries.
Making it relevant
Networking events are always a balancing act. While it is interesting to have a diverse set of attendees, there needs to be a strand of relevance and mutual interest.
That’s where we come in. Kekst CNC supports clients across a range of disciplines, sectors and geographies. Our stakeholder base is extremely broad, and there are not too many limits on where potential contacts and clients can come from.
And it’s why we settled on the City Social moniker. The event would act as a forum for anyone who may find it useful to know the Kekst CNC name, without specifically forcing onto them who we are or what we do.
The result has always been a fascinating cross-section of City life. From advertising to accountancy, start-ups to stockbroking, the City Social has introduced both our team and their guests to a range of people and industries who they may never have come across otherwise.
Making it about the guests
From a size perspective, the challenge was to have enough people in attendance to provide a range of views and experience, but to avoid having so many in the room that conversations would feel rushed and brief.
We decided on an ideal number of 40-50. A key component of this would be the Kekst CNC: Guest ratio. We had both been to many events where the number of hosts matched the number of guests one to one. We tried to keep this down to about one to four.
And while we would hold the event under our branding, the company would take back seat to conversation. That meant neither a forced introductory presentation, nor any laboured speeches by one of the hosts.
Fast forward 18 months, and we have hosted four successful evenings. We’ve done activities ranging from gin-tasting to shuffleboard and have met some genuinely interesting people.
Now it’s time to take the next step. As part of the re-brand, Kekst CNC will be in a stronger position to build networks and relationships across the globe. As part of the joint organisation, we want to make sure that everyone at junior and mid-level is given the opportunity to build and nurture their networks in an enjoyable and informal manner.
Back in London, plans are afoot for our next City Social event in early November, so watch this space.