Thoughts from Cuckoo HQ
29
Jun 17

Inside Cuckoo: Mark Breen

This is the second of a four-part series called 'Inside Cuckoo'. Here we speak to Mark Breen, Director of Cuckoo Events and our sister company Safe Events, about his career to date and his advice for aspiring event professionals.

What was your first full-time job?

My first full-time job was with MediaCom in Dublin, planning and buying advertising campaigns. That was after my post-grad; that's full-time now though. I had loads of jobs long before that, but that was my first full-time job. I was doing the post grad in PR and Event Management in the Fitzwilliam. 

I had decided that instead of work placement I would try get a full-time job instead, and I checked with Fitzwilliam to see if that’d count towards course completion. They said it would so I went looking for jobs as well as a work placement. They arranged some interviews for everyone and I took a few of them. I went for this job in MediaCom. Maureen was the CEO at the time and she was lovely, and I got that job, so that was the first full-time job, and that started as soon as the taught part of the course I was in finished.

So what age were you then?

Jesus lads… I must have been about 25 or 26? It was in 2006 I think. I loved that job. I spent at least three nights, days / nights, a week, out on the beer or in Lillie’s and elsewhere. I’ve been going to Lillie’s long before Martin thinks he introduced me to Lillie’s. haha

We were in there one night with the company, and we used to do a lot of media buying with one of the big radio stations. Back then, you were just wined and dined. We controlled the clients’ budgets, so when a client campaign came in, we were going “this much on TV, this much on radio”, or whatever, so they were wining and dining us all the time.

My first night in Lillie’s, they moved Bono, Ali and a couple of friends from our table and I thought “oh, this is the fucking life”. They moved right beside us, their bodyguards and everything helped them move and we had a great night chatting, but I remember walking in and thinking “they're moving Bono so we can have that table, what the fuck am I after landing into?”.

The deal was when clients or suppliers insisted on bringing people for lunch or whatever, it was always a boozy lunch, but the deal always was one of us out of about 5 had to get back in the office. Because Susan was pregnant at the time, she was like “ah sure I'm going back lads, ye work away”, so two or three times a week we were out.

The work was good, we enjoyed it. The people were good to work for. When I went for my next job and I got it, I had to go in and tell Maureen that I was leaving she immediately pulled the head guy for the group who was around that day into the room and went “Yeah this is me putting you on the spot Mark, what are they paying you in the new job?”. I was like “Ehhh I’m not here to try and get more money”. She said “What are they paying you?” and I told her and they went “Get out for about ten minutes”.

They talked and I went back in and they went “look we can't match that right now but here's what we can do. Plus, within a year you’ll be on that money.” and I went “That’s not why I'm here but thank you very much. The other job really does suit me better. It's what I really want to do.”.

That was the job in DIT Students’ Union. Now maybe it was different in the recession but that was the business, I loved that life, and I was living in town. You lived your life on spreadsheets and on the phone. Actually for me one of the best parts was that you got free everything. So all the magazines that you might book ads with, they'd send you in copies of the magazines and everything. I must have saved a fortune on magazines.

Do you buy loads of magazines?

Yes. Big time. I’m always buying magazines. It's the colourdy-ness and the design and everything. They catch my eye on the shelves.

So Mark, how did you get into event management then?

When I was studying in UL, I was doing a lot of event stuff part-time. I had been doing security at home when I was 17 in a nightclub in town, so when I went to Limerick to study I thought “Maybe I'll get a job here. It’ll save me going home at the weekends.”

Limerick, for reasons that became apparent, was paying very good money for door staff at the time. I had just started doing some work in town and we’d bought tickets for every gig in Rag Week in my first year. There was a Frames gig that was amazing in the courtyard. People were falling over during the gig. Myself and a couple of friends just started lifting people up.

There were people falling over and they were spilling my beer, so we started lifting everyone up and there was a guy working security on the gig who just called the three of us who was like “You're working now!” so we worked the rest of that gig for them.

We went into the office afterwards and Keith, who's a friend of mine now, goes, “Right, you're working now so what's the deal?” and I told him, ‘I’m not working, I've bought tickets for every gig’ and he goes, “Oh we’ll give you money back for the tickets and we'll pay you to be at the gigs” and I thought, “Okay, then you're gonna pay me to be at the gigs … perfect”. 

So, that started us doing the security stuff. Within a year, I was running that safety and security team. That was a team of students, who worked student gigs, so that was the safety and security side of things. I was running that the whole way through my time in college.

Over the years, I got more and more involved with the actual management of the events part-time, just anything to avoid lectures I suppose, but saw how the thing worked saw the pros and cons. The job then was a real promotions thing, the same as my job in DIT for years, that is, tickets have to sell.

I hate that, that's not me. Some people live for that, they love when it goes well, and they love getting past the breakeven point, but I prefer what we do now. I don't want to be losing sleep over whether tickets sell or not.

So, that's where I started off doing event stuff, so then I wanted to be out of Limerick and I wanted to do events professionally and decided to do the post-grad up here. At that stage I thought I'd go into PR but with the events experience, PR and Event Management sounded perfect. There were about 45 of us in that class, and only five guys.

It was amazing, so I definitely thought I’d go into PR then! Then, a mate of mine rang me and went, “Did you see this job in DIT?” and I went, “What job?” and he said “It’s marketing, which you studied,” (that’s what I did in UL) “and it’s events. It’s literally everything you do.” Now the salary was double what I was on in MediaCom, and I was on a decent salary in MediaCom. I never thought I’d get the job, but I went for the interview and got the job and then moved to DIT.

Tell us about the toughest event you've ever organised.

Well it just depends on what you mean by tough. The one Martin and I always go back to is Arthur's Day which was in the Market Bar. We had just started as Cuckoo. We didn't fully organise this but one but they needed a good team of people to run certain venues.

Myself, Martin and Boggler got in that day and there was a crowd from the UK technically running everything. Nice people actually. Joe Clarke was always stuck in the middle of everything so he brought us in. We had to source some other staff for them too.

That one for lots of reasons was tough. We’ve run gigs start to finish since that have been a lot of work and a lot of stress and a lot of heartache or whatever, but that's always the one that comes to mind because we had pretty much 24 hours for load-in literally. That’s where we met Boggler and realised how amazing he is. I learned so much about production. It was a baptism of fire for me. Martin was in his element.

That photo (above) was taken on my phone at the time.  I was there with Martin, and that's that moment in a gig where you smile and go “it’s all worth it”.

The day I don’t have that moment, I'll move on to something else, but we had to work damn hard to make that gig work because there was a load of things we weren't in control of, we were thrown in the deep end. We made it work. We weren't the full decision makers, if that was one of our own gigs it would have been so much easier.  

That was probably still the toughest for loads of reasons, but we’ve done bigger and we’ve done more expensive and whatever but it was amazing and I think we’re lucky it happened so early.

I always thought Martin was a good business partner, I wouldn't have been in business with him otherwise, but it was a real gut feeling thing. Watching him at that, him and Boggler just talking a different language and making shit work. Keeping Mika and the gospel choir and everyone happy.

It was just such a good gig. I’d no interest in Mika, so he was up there with the gospel choir who weren't supposed to be there, didn't fit on the stage. Why didn't someone tell us they were coming? 

Everyone was drinking Guinness and they weren't even clued in to the fact that we barely opened on time. There was a huge queue outside because it was first come first served. It was an experience alright.

Do you think there are any areas in the industry that need attention from policy makers?

Yeah loads of things. We have a licensing regime, but not one that works or not one that's of any use. That's actually my standard answer. I’ve come to think there needs to be a decision made somewhere high enough up the chain that says “We want events, we want to facilitate them, they need to happen”.

Now it’s never gonna happen county-wide but in Dublin, someone at the top of the tree needs to send a memo to every department and either say “We want events to happen, it’s part of our plan for our city for the next twelve years or whatever. We need them facilitated, do everything you can to let them happen.” or, “Fuck events, they're too messy they're clogging up the roads. Wait ‘til the luas is finished”. It needs to go one way or the other.

There are some amazing people, in DCC, An Garda Siochana, the HSE, Dublin Fire Brigade and loads of other places, making events in this city happen. Without a small number of people, nothing would happen.

Some people don't know what they're talking about. Without one person in the cops, maybe two, without, the fire officer we work with most often, without John Downey, without the event team in DCC, things wouldn’t happen. There are four or five people and legitimately no one ever sees them but nothing would happen without them. Whether it’s us running it or anyone else running it, someone needs to decide as a policy, “Events are important, they are good for the city.’’ Other big cities have strategies for this kinda thing.

You’ll meet a man and he’ll say “I read a thing, you need 300 toilets”. I’ll say “I don't need 300 toilets, go away”.  So you’ll have people who know better, working alongside him, going round the table like “ignore him, nod and smile, and we’ll make it work”.

Now, I don't like lying to people and I don't like nodding and smiling at people. I’m not telling him we’ll have 300 toilets if we won’t, because he could walk in and that's my reputation shot with him. So, I would much prefer if there was a policy saying we want to facilitate events provided people are running them properly, and then make sure we’re running them properly.

Some people in different departments don't really know whether they’re supposed to help you or how to make sure you’re doing your job right. The man reading something on the internet that says you need 300 toilets because you have X amount of people. Where does that tally with us having done this exact event last year and everyone has accepted we’ll have the same capacity and we had plenty of toilets last year. 

How does that knowledge and experience in the real world, tally with something on the internet, or some guidance? And we don't have guidance so we look at foreign guidance. Someone needs to decide we want events or we don't, then make sure we run them properly, and fix licensing.

What’s the best advice you’d give to someone thinking of getting in the industry?

You'd think I’d be able to answer this seeing as I answer it about 12 times a day with people emailing me. I think the best advice is… get experience. But that can be a catch 22, so there's a load of other advice that follows that but you have to get experience.

You don't deserve a job in events. You are not automatically entitled to one. You have to think about what you’re asking for when you want ‘5 minutes of my time’.  I’m probably not meeting you for coffee. You're the 5th person today that asked me to meet them for coffee. I don’t know you. I don’t know if you’re a nice person, or if you’d be any good in events. I’m trying to run a business, so people need to do what you two (Sinead and Charlotte in here) did and, somehow, get your foot in the door.

If you genuinely want to work in events, you have to be able to get your foot in the door. If you’re up for it and you’re good at it, you’ll find work. It may take longer than you want. It may happen quicker. The trick is get your foot in the door. Legitimately, there are days I have 10 or 12 emails from people looking for work, for free.  

The only people who don’t get the standard response are people who somehow stand out in their email. I had one yesterday, she got a completely different response. I don't know what she’s thinking but sometimes if the email grabs me, I literally fire back some questions off the top of my head going “How many other people have you sent the email to? Why did you pick us? Why do you actually think you’d be suited to events?” It might be four questions, that's all. She could go “You’re being a dick”, but I guarantee loads of people she sent it to won’t even reply.

Depending on how she responds, I may call her in and I might talk to her and try to find something for her. You know that’s the way it works. You have to try and do that first bit and be picky about it. We’re not all the same. In 20 years’ time, the two of you could have amazing events careers and you could be looking back going, “Cuckoo was an amazing place to start or a bad place to start because of where I am now.”, but you've gotten in somewhere versus hundreds, literally, every month looking to do the same.

That’s the trick, you have to stand out somewhere, that's the most practical piece of advice. There’s loads of airy fairy shit but literally, based on the volume of requests we get to take internships and placements, you have to stand out, and that's not an easy thing to do, but you have to do it. I’m always saying it doesn't matter how you stand out. It doesn't matter if it's cheesy. It doesn't matter if it's ridiculous. It doesn't matter if I think it's cheesy, for me. You've stood out. Siobhan (who left us to go an a great American life adventure) brought us cupcakes, and she came in here and we gave her a job.

You have to do something, if you're not doing something you're completely wasting your time. The shite some people write in emails, 9/10 of them are 100% wasting their time. I’d love to follow some of them, and just see where they end up. You'll find something if you're good, genuinely, of course you will. I’ve still never met a good career guidance person in the colleges. They don't know what the world is like and they don't know what we’re looking for. They shouldn't be telling people keep a CV to two pages.

I don’t care if it takes 20 pages for me to think you're amazing, and I understand people going “Oh they're very busy, they’re tired they won't read over two pages” but if it’s good stuff I’ll read 42 pages, that's the important point. Don't write 42 pages of waffle, but if you've done a load of work and you've produced things for a film festival for example, and you have loads of shit you need to show me, to show you're amazing, that takes as many pages as it takes, or it takes just walking in the door, or it takes just sending in a video, or whatever.

Keeping it to two pages of ‘Dear sir/madam’, if they were tracking how many people got jobs out of this shit, that'd be helpful, but sure they're not, no one cares, so you have to stand out and understand what the event industry is.

What does it take to be a good event manager?

I think it takes a few things. I know a load of good event managers and I could tell you why each person is really good individually.

I think you need to be organised. You need to be a people person, and some people don't even come across as a people person but when you hear them interact with clients, they are. It’s not a people person in the sense that…. Like you might have a group of mates but you're not really social, it’s a different type of thing, it’s forming quick relationships with people.

That's one of the reasons I think we do okay, because the team we have all operate in different ways. The way I interact with people, the way Martin does, the way Mags does, I mean that doesn't happen by accident. Martin and I are completely different, Mags is completely different again, we all deal with certain clients ourselves.

From a team perspective, it takes a lot of different types of people, but you need to be a good people person. You also need to be organised to a high degree. You need to be open minded, in that, you can't think you know it all. I come across like I think I know it all, all the time, but I don’t and I’m surrounded by people who know more than me about loads of things and that's why the company works.

It is important from a company point of view, I think you need to know what you don't know, because you'll be rolled over in this industry if you act like a complete and utter know it all, and you can't afford to. There will be people reading this thinking that's an ironic thing for me to say too! 

Reputation is everything in this game. You need to be a team player and to know where you fit in the team because on certain days, at certain events, with certain suppliers, you’re king of the mountain and it’s you they want and it’s you they like and it could be Elaine’s gig. Like the position you guys are in where you're seeing loads of different types of events and types of people, that opportunity I think is great because you’ll start to see it.

What are your event essentials?

A Sharpie. I have to have a Sharpie and I have to have some cable ties. A sharpie, cable ties, your own earpiece even though I forgot mine recently and people are still slagging me, for me, highlighters, and a four colour pen… and PRODUCTION SOCKS!

On long days, who knows what you're working on, whether you'll get to change your clothes and have a shower, or anything.

People talk about wet wipes or water wipes and all that, that's all great if you get a layers of clothes off and wipe yourself and all but the one single thing, I don't know if the two of you have done this yet, but test the theory, halfway through the day change your socks.

Shit socks. Socks that you get 10 pairs of for a fiver. They don't have to be good socks. It’s not about the sock. It's about the change of sock. Your feet don't have to be sore, your feet don't have to be smelly, you don't even know your feet need some love, just change your socks halfway through the day - it's the most amazing thing.

Fitzy taught us that when he was in the Academy years ago. I ignored him for years but even on a short gig, on the college gigs we were doing in the Academy, I think some of them were in the day time, they're a six or eight hour gig like and he’d be telling me “Change your socks. I've socks there. Do you want socks?”. I’d be like ”‘Shoo - you fucking sock peddler, go away.”, but he's right. Production socks. Top of the list.  

If you were on a dessert island, what would be the first thing you’d eat?

First thing I’d eat??

Yes it's a dessert island.

Sure how do I know what I’d eat, I don’t know what's there?

It’s anything you want.

Dessert or deserted?

Dessert.

Do you mean dessert?

Yeah.

Profiteroles. Seriously, every night out on holidays I tested the island’s profiteroles. I just love profiteroles. I like them but they can go so wrong. You could really fuck up a profiterole, in fairness, if they're not fresh.

And if you were on a desert island?

I would bring my phone, specifically for Readly App, which is €9.99 a month, and, just loads of magazines. I read them all cover to cover. So a tenner, for literally 12 magazines I’d likely buy anyway. I still buy some as well, but if I had that magazine app, I’d just read.

You wouldn't try to get off the island?

No. I’d be happy on a desert island. That’d be fucking heaven because all that stuff would occupy my brain. What am I supposed to say, bring a boat so I can get away?

Yeah a raft.

I wouldn't say a raft, I’d say a luxury yacht! Like if I were allowed floating things, I’d get something with comfort.

 
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