Roger Wade on his vision for Boxpark, and why experiences beat advertising

From an uninspired start as a media buyer, Roger Wade went on to make waves with streetwear brand Boxfresh before transforming retail with his Boxpark concept. The entrepreneur now has his sights set on national and international growth.

Roger Wade on his vision for Boxpark, and why experiences beat advertising

For someone who was sacked within months of starting his first three jobs in advertising, Roger Wade hasn’t let a fragmented start to his career affect him. Far from it – having successfully run a pop-up mall made out of shipping containers in Shoreditch for the past six years, launched a sister site in Croydon last year, and announced plans for a third in Wembley in 2018, Wade is on a roll. But it hasn’t been plain sailing.

After a tour of the Shoreditch site, Wade sits down with Campaign in unit 57, a small container with bare wooden walls that is part of the head office. He explains that he was fired from his role as a media buyer at Granada TV three months in… then WCRS, and then Lowe Howard Spink.

Nonetheless, he managed to land a role as a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather in New York. However, because he didn’t have an art director to work with he spent most of his time on the phone to his friends in London, who were asking him to send over the latest sports gear.

It was when this took off – his mates were selling the clothing on – that he left O&M to set up his own business, Boxfresh, selling from a London market stall "because basically I was unemployable". He was 23.

Make a good idea better

His initiative was clearly the right one, as he proved by going on to sell the streetwear brand to Pentland Group, owner of JD Sports, 20 years later. It was during this time that Wade had the idea of using shipping containers as retail units – he was sick of repeatedly setting up temporary stalls for trade shows and ripping them down again.

He bandied the idea about, but was told to stick to his day job; so a few years later, when he started seeing containers being used by more and more people, he decided to go even bigger and create a mall.

"I could just see every high street in Britain becoming the same high street," he says. "I’ve always really believed in independents. I’ve got a fundamental thing that I believe that people want to feel special, and feeling special means that ‘I don’t want to wear the same clothing as everyone else’ or ‘I don’t want to eat at the same place as everyone else’."

Adapt quickly to shifting trends

When Boxpark launched in 2011 it was just in time for the London Olympics. Wade was inundated with big brands wanting to do something in the space, from Nike launching its Fuel Band for Europe to Urbanears debuting in a retail space.

But this rush soon wore off once the Games were over, leaving Wade to "pick up the pieces". He started to notice that the food and drink offer was taking off more than the retail.

"The new independents were street food [businesses]; there was almost a whole new movement," he says. "Like all good entrepreneurs, I just went with that. I could see this casual dining revolution and I wanted to do it bigger and better."

Wade also looked into how digital could help business – he says Boxpark was one of the first in the retail space to "embrace free wifi" and developed its digital marketing database to the point where Boxpark now has more than 250,000 subscribers to its emails, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram presence. He also created events to bring more people into the venue.

"All that came about because we were struggling with footfall post-Olympics," Wade notes. "You don’t tend to innovate when things are going great – you innovate to create solutions for problems."

Experiences over advertising

The changes have clearly helped turn things around, as the business amassed shareholder funds of £505,517 in 2013, up 247% from £145,786 the previous year.

That figure continues to rise, as the latest accounts filed with Companies House show that Boxpark made £626,812 in shareholder funds in 2016, up 1% from £620,322 in 2015.

With a third site on the horizon, Wade plans to grow those funds even more. With Wembley, he wants to create the "greatest fan experience in the world". The site will focus on independent food traders only and will be Boxpark’s first indoor development, mainly because it is surrounded by residential properties.

Wade also plans to work with sport and music brands hosting events at the stadium and arena, encouraging them to create pre- or post-event activations. The venue’s high-profile location on Olympic Way will surely be enticing in itself, not to mention digital advertising screen wrapping around the site.

For Boxpark’s advertising, however, Wade is more enthusiastic about creating content and events than traditional advertising.

"The most successful way to drive people is through great content," he says. "If someone said I had the choice between an ad campaign to promote a venue of ours or having a great event, it would be a no-brainer – I would go for the event because that’s a real, tangible experience. With advertising, you’re just creating fake customer experience sometimes.

Wade adds: "It could be that you’re using advertising to drive people to special events. It’s actually creating a more holistic approach to advertising – it’s driving great content and then driving great traffic to that content."

Looking forward – and further afield

Over the next five years, Wade is planning on opening a dozen Boxpark sites in the UK, and half a dozen under license elsewhere. It sounds like a lot, but he is taking it all in his stride, thinking about it one site at a time.

Wade will continue looking out for locations outside central London. "The reality is that we work with a 50,000m2 footprint and there’s not a lot available in prime sites willing to sign up on a five-year basis, it’s tough to get."

He adds: "At the same time, people get too caught up with the so-called ‘trendy’ areas. When we came to Shoreditch in early 2000s there were prostitutes on Commercial Road, and there were only a couple of decent bars, so you have to look beyond [to] what you can’t really see."

Wade has his sights set on major cities around the UK such as Leeds, Bristol Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham.

His goal is for everyone to be able to experience good entertainment.

"Growing up in south London I remember being nervous of going into Jones on Floral Street, wanting to wear really nice fashion but feeling like I wasn’t good enough to be in there," he recalls. "I think that’s had a very, very strong impact on me. I want to bring good things and special experiences to areas of London and outside that have not had those."