Oliver Merlin, Managing Director at IFA Berlin, sat down with Dealerscope to discuss his new role, his previous experience in the industry, his hopes for this year’s event and what he envisions for the future.
Dealerscope: Could you explain your role as Managing Director at IFA and all that it involves?
Oliver Merlin: So look, I think if it was a kind of a steady state roll, it’d be a relatively normal managing director role. But I think there’s nothing about IFA which is steady state. Number one, it’s such a huge show and a complex show. And two, it’s got such historical significance. It’s been in Berlin or in and around Berlin for 100 years almost, next year will be the 100th year. Not exactly the 100th edition because it’s been biannual for a while and a few other years missed. But it’s a show of almost incomparable size and scale, there are very few trade shows of this size and scale. And that means there’s very few places to do it, other than somewhere like the Messe Berlin, which is a great and fantastic venue, and which has such an attachment to Berliners and, in fact, all Germans. Every German that I have met seems to have been taken by the hand to the show when they were kids, and they feel a strong emotional attachment.
If you then add that layer on the fact that actually IFA Management GmbH, created together with gfu Consumer & Home Electronics and Clarion, is only two months old as an organization, then in the MD role I’m really heading up a startup. It’s sort of a multi-million-pound startup with a very fixed deadline that you can’t miss, which is now only six, seven months away. So, there’s the kind of steady state aspects of it, which is the face of the business and running the business and making sure we hit our numbers. And in this particular instance, there’s the setting up and recruiting and building of a team and really the starting of a new company. So, it’s everything that all of that encompasses; recruitment, building a company, setting a budget, getting sales going and talking to lots of customers, talking to all the other stakeholders, such as the press and media, such as the retailers, the buying group, so it’s a little bit of everything, but it’s fascinating and great fun.
Dealerscope: Yeah, it’s a big job. So, what has your previous experience been in this industry?
Oliver Merlin: So, my background is as a management consultant. I worked for Accenture for about five or six years after university. Then in about 2010, I started working in the events industry. I was working for a management consultancy at the time, and they were doing some work with EMAP, who is a big publishing house in the UK, and they had an events arm and I joined EMAP Connect, which was their events division as the transformation director in 2010. And I have then worked for most of the major organizers in the UK and also globally as a transformation director or change director. Then lastly, probably the last five or six years or so, as the managing director. And so now obviously with Clarion.
Dealerscope: So, I went to IFA last year and it was huge and overwhelming and marvelous. What are your hopes for this year? What are you hoping to do or accomplish?
Oliver Merlin: Two things really, which we’ve got to balance, and you’ll hear me use this word balance a lot. So one is, we know what IFA is and IFA has a super strength, which is we think the best trade show for consumer electronics and home appliances in the world because we have such a vast array. You said it was overwhelming. It’s so huge. We gather an amazing array of designers, manufacturers of fantastic products in the world and we also manage to attract the right retailers, traders, buyers and so on and so forth. And then this attracts consumers and press and media. So, we want to keep all that. In fact, we’re really grateful that we’ve got that as this heritage. I say that because we’ve got a long-term vision for what the show can and will be. Also, because time has compressed this year – the show is only six, seven months away – we will slowly add other bits of what I like to call magic. I also have this praise of the three I’s, inspiration, innovation and imagination, where people can also see things that aren’t necessarily related to a trade show, content experiences, learning, fun, all sorts of different types of things where we gradually slightly shift the perception of what IFA is and people understand it’s not only a trade show, but it’s somewhere you can also come and see the future and be inspired and frankly, have fun and network.
Dealerscope: Exactly, what’s the point of being in person if you can’t have a little fun?
Oliver Merlin: You know, we’re in an industry where these products really delight people. It’s not a deep engineering show or pharmaceuticals, where it’s a very serious kind of healthcare issue or something like that. Those shows are all fantastic and clearly potentially more important to humanity than us. But just about everybody in the entire world has an interest in consumer electronics, right? And hopefully the products that we bring together make people smile, make people have fun and are actually vital communication tools and, you know, other tools like cooking and refrigerating, things like that. So, I think there’s no need for us to be dour about it. It does need to be a fun show and make people smile.
Dealerscope: What are you hoping to change and what are you planning on keeping the same?
Oliver Merlin: I think that question merges with a little bit of what I said before. I think we need to absolutely not lose sight of what is our super strength, which is maintaining what we think is our preeminent position as the world’s best tradeshow for consumer electronics and appliances. Whilst times have changed a little bit and you maybe don’t see people doing such order taking at the show, there’s no doubt that buyers and sellers come together to shake hands and to form human relationships. And maybe ordering takes place a few months later, or even a few weeks before, but it gets cemented at the show. And then added to that, a little bit more of the innovation, the inspiration, the imagination, a lot of the stuff you see at some of our competitors shows, frankly, there might be a couple of areas where we’ve missed the boat a little bit. We’re going to try and address that. We’re also making a big investment this year in IFA Next, which is our innovation zone and where a lot of our startups are, really grow in scale and scope and ambition.
Dealerscope: What is your vision for the future? Say, 5 to 10 years down the road for IFA?
Oliver Merlin: I think it’s important for us to say probably at this point, but that is maybe even more important than 2023. 2023 is hugely important because we have to get back in the market, reassure everybody, we have to be better than 2022 and reassure everyone that IFA is on the right track under this new ownership and that’s crucially important. It’s just as important for us to work on that long term vision, right? And so, I think that in, if you asked me, let’s say, by 2025, 2028, and 2030, the things that I’ve been describing before I would like to almost see like a little bit of a rebalance, with super strong home appliances at the moment and some elements of consumer electronics. But some of the areas that I’ve talked about where I think this year will probably lead with content activations, maybe like in gaming or digital health or wearables or mobility. I’d really like the expo to also reflect that by five or 10 years’ time, so that we are super strong in some of those areas, and we have a really balanced expo side. And then the content side is really flourishing, we have world renowned speakers in the latest trends and innovations in technology attending and people see IFA as a place to really come and see the latest innovations and get inspired and see what the future is really going to hold. So, a real full service of the whole industry. Almost for people to be unable to pigeonhole IFA, as much as you kind of can a little bit now. A fully internationalized show as the world recovers from COVID and a full show with not only the trade show aspect, but also innovation and where the inspiration thrives and has an important place.
Dealerscope: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Oliver Merlin: There’s one aspect that we’re also working on which I would like to touch on, which is the civic attachment to Berlin that IFA has. It’s not strictly related to the show, but I think it’s important. In that first week of September, when so many people come to Berlin and ideally they come to Berlin because of IFA, but we know that’s not only the case, right? People come to Berlin for other reasons. We’d really like for Berlin to seem like IFA , and IFA to feel like Berlin. We’re going to do a lot of activities around the city to try to really cement that connection. We’re coming up with this phrase of Berlin Tech Week. We’re doing a lot of work with Visit Berlin and Berlin Partners and the Economic Senator of Berlin to try to make that happen. So, during the day, we’ll have a fantastic show at Messe Berlin, nine to five or nine to six, and then we don’t want to just lose people off into the night. Now of course, people will have their own plans and want to do things, but we really also want to set up a number of other kinds of activities. Be it meals, be it talks, be it meetings at hotels that are IFA branded. We’ll work with other partners as well to really create that vibe of a Berlin Tech week kind of thing. So, I think that’s important as well, and it’s important for us and me as the MD for IFA to be seen to be giving back to the city and have that really good connection with the city.