Meet the 'super connector' behind Leeds Digital Festival

Stuart Clarke, director at Leeds Digital Festival, is known as a super connector in tech circles. He speaks to Ismail Mulla about the festival that’s hoping for two bites of the cherry.

Stuart Clarke at Avenue HQ in Leeds.

A term that is often used to describe Stuart Clarke when it comes to his role in the region’s tech sector is ‘super connector’.

The director of the Leeds Digital Festival is one of a small handful of go-to people that have a natural knack for connecting businesses with the relevant people.

Sign up to our Business newsletter

Sign up to our Business newsletter

Mr Clarke says a big reason for that is that he is “nosy” and always wants to know what’s going on.

“There’s a number of people in the city,” Mr Clarke said. “You can’t talk about connectors without mentioning Colin Glass. He’s the connector who we all look up to.”

This willingness to connect and help people comes from an innate generosity that seems to exist in Leeds.

“People in Leeds, more than anywhere else, are very generous with their connections. They are very generous when it comes to putting people in touch with each other,” Mr Clarke says.

The director of Leeds Digital Festival is particularly in his element when it comes to helping and championing tech start-ups.

Mr Clarke said: “One thing that I’ve particularly enjoyed over the last few years has been working with start-ups and helping them by introducing them to people who would be of more use to them than myself.

“I introduce them to good accountants, good lawyers and angel investors. It’s often easier for someone like me to have that network than someone who has just come out of university.”

With all the work that he puts in for the digital festival, it’s easy to forget that Mr Clarke’s main job is running his own PR and marketing business.

The two go hand-in-hand and in fact Mr Clarke’s involvement in the tech sector comes from the work he did with financial services firms.

Finance was one of the earlier adopters of tech but there was a lack of digital knowledge and Mr Clarke saw an opportunity to be a go-between between the tech world and financial services sector.

Since then he has broadened out and in fact does very little work with financial services firms. Instead, using his skills mainly in pure tech working with the likes of The Data Shed, Crisp and Synap.

The concept of Leeds Digital Festival came about like many other good ideas, a meeting at the pub.

Mr Clarke said: “Going back to July 2015, Leeds City Council had a digital summit and a bunch of us decided then to say ‘what can we do?’ It’s not just down to the council, the Government and the LEP.

“A dozen of us met in the pub to see what we could do. The idea for the festival came from there.”

Mr Clarke would take the lead in helping shape a festival that other cities around the country are looking to mimic.

“I was the only one there without a proper job so it fell into my lap and here we are five years later,” he says with a chuckle.

The fifth edition of Leeds Digital Festival was due to take place between April 20 and May 1. However, due to the coronavirus outbreak, the festival has now been divided into two parts.

Events will still take place between April 20 and May 1 but they will be online. Organisers then hope to host the physical events over two weeks starting on September 21.

Mr Clarke said: “It looks like we’ll get two bites of the cherry this year. We’ll have the online festival on the original dates of April 20 to May 1. We’re expecting around 50 to 60 online events during the festival.

“Then we’ll come back in September and we’ll have the physical events there.”

Mr Clarke admits that it has been a “real challenge” changing and adapting the festival, as it was just about to launch a full programme with 240 events when Covid-19 hit. “It was disappointing that we had to postpone the physical events,” Mr Clarke added, “but we turned it around really quickly.”

He added: “We’ve had amazing support from the tech sector in the City Region. Everybody understands the reasons. As many people as possible are trying to change their events into online events. We’ll see some really interesting ones coming through but the key thing is the tech sector pulling together. The festival has become an important part of the calendar. People want it to continue.

“We’ve had so much support from our sponsors. Not a single sponsor has asked to cancel their sponsorship or asked for any money back. They are really supportive of the festival and the entire tech sector.”

The move to online events was a natural transition for the festival. As one of the other festival directors, Paul Berwin, pointed out to Mr Clarke: “If we can’t put on an online festival then who can?”

Mr Clarke said: “Some of the events that we have at the festival are relatively easy to put online. Others need to be a face-to-face physical event. Most of us are stuck at home on our own. It’s still really important to bring people together. To connect, network and celebrate.

“Online is not as necessarily effective as face-to-face but it still brings the sector, the entrepreneurs and the start-ups together over 50 to 60 events.

“When we get through all of this, in September we’ll probably have 200 to 250 physical events. I think we’ll have an amazing, fantastic festival.”

Other cities are now looking to replicate Leeds Digital Festival’s success. Greater Manchester metro mayor, Andy Burnham, said it could become Britain’s South By Southwest. However, he might be better looking a bit closer to home for inspiration.

“If anything, I think Manchester’s Digital City Festival should be aiming to become Lancashire’s version of the Leeds Digital Festival not South By Southwest,” says Mr Clarke.

The success of Leeds Digital Festival in bringing people together suggests that the description of ‘super connector’ is more than apt for Mr Clarke.

Platform that’s open to everyone

A key feature of Leeds Digital Festival is its open platform format, which means anyone can put their own events on.

Stuart Clarke said: “We were clear from the start that it had to be a ground up, collaborative effort, everybody can be involved. There’s no curation.

“If you want to put something on, whether you’re the newest start-up or the biggest tech firm, we will help you put something on.”

Physical events that have had to be postponed are expected to still go ahead in September.

Organisers are still open to more events being put on.

For the full list of events https://leedsdigitalfestival.org/events/