As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Attila Keskin.
Attila is the founder and CEO of DesignScene and has always had a passion for discovering how things work. Targeting a career in product design, he studied Mechatronics at the University of Leeds. While studying, Keskin got into the college’s live entertainment scene; he led the events technical department, sat on the stage management committee and produced a range of theatrical productions. Having caught the live entertainment bug, he set up his first business in music and event production before graduating in 1996.
With 28 years experience in live event production, Keskin has activated at hundreds of unique venues with A-list talent and business leaders around the world. Building DesignScene from the ground up, Keskin started the agency in 2005 from a spare room at home. It has since grown into an international operation with offices in London, New York, Los Angeles and Singapore, specializing in activating global brands. As a lighting designer, production and 3D designer, Keskin still plays an active role in many of DesignScene’s more complex projects, particularly around the integration of technology and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I always had a burning passion for wanting to know how things worked. I originally wanted to be an architect or a product designer (you should’ve seen my Lego models back in the day — masterpieces!), but I ended up getting a degree in Mechatronics, which is mechanical and electronic engineering, from Leeds University. In my first semester I got involved with the technical management of the student unions’ theater spaces, and I quickly got hooked on lighting design and never looked back. Leeds University was an awesome place to be, as they offered many opportunities in theater, concerts and clubs. I was doing everything from lighting visiting bands, like Radiohead, to putting on productions at the Edinburgh Festival. I found that I really enjoyed doing something creative that made people instantly happy — it was really rewarding. I set up my first production company as a student with a sound engineer friend of mine, and after graduating I moved on down to London and freelanced as a lighting designer whilst building up my full-service production skills. This led to the start of DesignScene in 2006. I have been lucky enough throughout my career to work with some of the best musicians in the world, such as Elton John, Stevie Wonder and more. I feel very grateful to have been given the opportunity to do this, and am both inspired and excited to see what my next chapters will hold.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
It’s not a story from when I started, and to be fair it’s not really my mistake, but it is a funny one that gets wheeled out to industry friends sometimes. I was working at an event on an island in Puerto Rico. We should have known it would be “one of those jobs” when on the first day, the barge that had to transport all of our production supplies to the small island broke down and was never to be seen again. It was a tough, but very successful event. On the last night the crew were unloading an artist’s flight cases onto the jetty — completely exhausted — and getting ready to load onto the truck. I noticed that a crew member had lined up an artist’s audio equipment to be loaded onto the boat. The flight cases were now slipping and sliding into the sea! No one had noticed, as everyone was so tired, so I dove into the sea to try and get the flight cases. I was then followed by a couple of other horrified colleagues. We saved them all! The lesson here is be careful when leaving flight cases on the jetty when you are tired!
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I read a lot of trade and business news on the regular. One of the books that I have found most helpful and influential throughout my time is Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey. It’s practical, clear and pretty simple to understand and put into action. It helps you see what you want and explains how to be proactive in achieving it.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
DesignScene’s purpose has always been to craft events and experiential campaigns for brands worldwide. I have always had that burning desire to create strong and carefully considered design-led productions. Creativity and pushing boundaries have been the key driving forces in what we do since day one. I’ve always felt that experiences fuel peoples’ purposes — whether that experience be traveling, watching a show or movie, or attending a brand’s event — we are products of our experiences, and these things shape our perceptions of the world. Traveling and working in new markets has always been a passion of mine, so I strive to bring more crazy, unique and purpose-filled projects to the world through DesignScene’s work.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
For me, the main principle is about being proactive and adaptable. You need to constantly assess what works in your business, and adapt as you need to. It’s certainly challenging right now, and my team and I are just not content with sitting back and waiting for the world to open up again. The live event industry has certainly taken a hit, but we’re using this to fuel some of our most innovative and creative ideas yet.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My mother and sister are both essential workers and have still been going to work everyday. My mother is over 70 years old, so I have been concerned about her wellbeing. So far, they have both kept well. They don’t live close by, so it’s been hard to physically support them. All I can really do is call them and let them know I’m there for them as much as I can. The biggest personal impact is the massive amount of stress that comes with trying to keep the business going and keep looking after the team in the ever-changing landscape of constant uncertainty. My wife works in the business also, so we are finding that it’s all rather intense with the level of work and stress. I try to switch off as much as possible on Saturdays, and then spend Sunday doing strategy and planning for the week ahead. Like most businesses, we are making big strategic decisions and planning decisions almost daily, which does take its toll on the emotions. Humans have a limit to the number of quality decisions we can make each day so it’s important to get time to reset each week.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The massive downturn in live events and the obvious financial impact on the people in the business has been really hard. We have had to let people go, furlough them and reduce hours. It’s horrible and stressful telling people bad news. It was particularly hard at the very beginning, as there was so much uncertainty and the government support was unclear. We’ve just been trying to over-communicate and be extra patient and kind with ourselves and one another. We are all in a bit of a limbo stage right now, and the best thing we can do is be there to support eachother.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
It is certainly a weird world we are living in at the moment. We are doing what many people are at present, using Zoom, Hangouts, FaceTime and WhatsApp to try and keep in touch. We did an international “fancy dress” Zoom birthday party for my wife last week, complete with silly games and quizzes, which entertained all our friends. I think it’s important to understand that there is no blanket solution or remedy to the things we’re all feeling right now — what works for me, may not work for you but there is beauty in sharing. I like to offer myself as ears to listen and a shoulder to lean on for my family and loved ones. I can’t promise I can make them feel better, but the least I can do is be a soundboard for them to get things off their chests and out of their minds — and in that vulnerability, there is power to heal. I also suggest everyone takes this time to embrace the outdoors (while practicing safe social distancing guidelines, of course). I’ve found comfort and peace in spending more time in my garden and walking my dog outside. Fresh air can do wonders for a stale brain or mood.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I think there’s a big opportunity for the advancement of cutting-edge technology. The amount of creativity and development that is going into delivering virtual events will be with us for good, even when free movement is back. We have opportunities to marry the digital format and live face-to-face events more seamlessly in the future, whether that be at the actual event, or as part of an engagement teaser. Furthermore, there will be an opportunity for brands to be more vulnerable and human in order to connect with their audience on a deeper level — which gives agencies like DesignScene the opportunity to utilize new technologies to support connection in ways we may have never experienced before.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I hope that we are all a little kinder to each other and the environment, in particular. It’s been fascinating and heartening to see the reports of the globe healing as we all stay home! I think the pandemic has definitely accelerated the work-from-home practices for many businesses and I’m sure many will want to continue this, as the need for large office set ups is then negated. At DesignScene, we were already a business that can easily work remotely, but that said, we do all miss the social side of things like team drinks after work and lunch hour chats.
I think empathy and transparency will be qualities that are freshly championed and encouraged throughout the workplace, social media and both our professional and personal lives. And truthfully, I think people overall will be a bit more consciously hygienic now that we are all thoroughly conditioned to actually wash our hands for 20 seconds!
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We have already been proactive and developed some innovative digital event options for both existing clients and potential clients, which have garnered a positive response. The team has really pulled together and embraced learning new skills and adapting approaches for events in a virtual world. This is the new reality until we can do large scale events, which is clearly our first love, but it’s about how we can bring the live skills into the digital experience and leverage for the future.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Don’t go dark unless you have absolutely no option. Be proactive and see what else you can use the skills of your team for. We all have to adapt in order to survive, and you never know, maybe things will be even better in the long run.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One plan is no plan. I think I have probably bored every team member with this one — ha! The universe can be unforgiving and you cannot assume that everything will go according to plan one hundred percent of the time. Especially in the events industry, things go wrong last minute when you’re counting the seconds to showtime, and if you don’t have a solid back-up plan you will doom yourself.
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