Technology continues to change the way we do business

Paul McErlean

I DON'T remember exactly when I started using email, but when I did, it fundamentally changing my working life. Nobody under the age of 35 in my office believes me when I tell them that, in the old days, we would get a professional photograph taken for the newspapers and magazines, get seven or eight prints sent round to our office by courier from the photographer and at that point, we would type up a caption and then Sellotape it on to the back of the print. These were again given to the courier, who was usually on a motorbike, to bring around to the offices of the various publications, including The Irish News, to be hopefully printed in the following day's newspaper.

Meanwhile, the press release to accompany the photograph would have been typed up and printed off and sent by that museum piece of technology, the fax machine, to the newsrooms around Belfast. Before fax machines, the press releases were sent the same way as the photos - by bike or on foot. It was handy in those days that the three main newspapers in Belfast were within 100 yards of each other. Only The Irish News remains in that corner of the city centre still.

The beginning of email also brought the ability to electronically attach photos and that meant a pretty large loss of business for courier companies around the world. The photographers lost some business too because no prints were needed any more. Email fundamentally changed how we communicate with the media and that has continued to evolve as the media has changed also - printed editions are just one part of how news organisations deliver to their audiences now.

Websites and social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are all being used now and that means the PR industry is delivering far more video, graphics, animation and much more varied photography in comparison to the big cheque and the handshake shots of before, the ‘grip and grin' shot as it was not-so-affectionately known. I was reminded of this speed of change on Friday past when we had one of our ‘Innovation' sessions at our office.

Innovation is one of those buzz words in business which gets thrown around a lot. I almost fear its use, though it doesn't leave me as cold as when I hear somebody describe themselves as an entrepreneur. Lucky for us, we had a proper innovator and entrepreneur in the office for the session, though he is far too grounded and self-effacing to describe himself that way. Wisely, Gareth Murphy leaves it to others to do that, which is the way it should be.

Gareth and his wife Lorna founded leisure and adventure brand We Are Vertigo and developed it into an outstanding business. They also created Vertigo indoor skydiving park, another first on the island that once again, has been a brilliant success. We Are Vertigo's trampoline venue was the first of its kind but some of you may not know this, it is now closed and completely dismantled.

As I write this, a whole new concept is being built – We Are Vertigo's new Inflata Park – an inflatable action park, ready for launch this coming Thursday on the site of the trampoline park in Newtownbreda. A new Ninja Warrior Master Course will open next week alongside the sky-diving centre in Titanic Quarter. No other city in the UK or Ireland will have all those attractions together following this £1m plus investment.

We started these sessions in our company because we recognise the constant need to innovate in our business - communications is changing so rapidly that if we don't have a culture of innovation and get inspired by and learn from people like Gareth and Lorna, then we know we will be left behind.

What struck me about Gareth's talk was his ability to recognise a future trend and jump into it. His first business job, though he no doubt learned many lessons in his early years as a ski instructor, was with Phones4U. That was a business founded by John Caudwell, who had a car sales business until he recognised that putting phones in cars was far more lucrative.Caudwell eventually sold Phones4U for £1.6bn.

Inspired by Caudwell and then later with Cable & Wireless, Gareth went up the ranks very quickly, but he wanted to come home and he and Lorna agreed there were two principles they needed to abide by to be really successful: to go big and to be first.

We Are Vertigo was first with its indoor adventure, climbing, soft play and ski centre, combined with a spa. Then they took on the huge warehouse next door formerly used as a karting track and turned it into Ireland's first trampoline park. Everybody wants to get into trampolines now. Gareth and Lorna are out of it. That's what innovation and entrepreneurship looks like. Gareth's descriptions of their adventures and the company's total commitment to customer service and experience, through an almost incredible level of detail in how they manage and motivate their staff, was really inspirational.

So, in a week when we might have a general election called and/or a no-deal Brexit, let's also celebrate what true innovation looks like in the shape of what Gareth and Lorna Murphy are doing. They look at trends and find ways to get them here first; they build it, promote it and deliver on it, and at the same time, their heads are up looking at what's coming next.

Technology changed our business over a decade ago and it continues to change it. Technology may also be part of the Brexit solution on this island very soon. I learned a few things from Gareth on Friday, but maybe the most important was to keep looking up and ahead; spotting emerging trends and moving quickly to get into them is crucial for success. In Gareth's own words: “The roads are littered with the bodies of indecisive frogs”.

:: Paul McErlean ( is managing director of MCE Public Relations

Next week: Richard Ramsey

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