“Never accept no for an answer. People are often dissuaded by being told ‘you can’t do that’ or ‘that will never work’ but it’s by others who don’t have the tenacity or the creative thinking to make things happen. I’ve never let the word no slow me down.”
So says Perth-based multi-millionaire Kym Illman who has been rejecting the concept of ‘no’ over the span of an enviable career. The two-letter word is also one he won’t use with customers – a key factor, he says, to his success.
From the time the Adelaide-born former disc jockey began his audio advertising business Messages On Hold from a two-bedroom apartment in 1988, long before others had considered capitalising on the ‘dead air’ time customers spend on hold, he was leading the way with positive thinking.
It was immediately obvious in his approach to customer service, which he describes as ‘pretty much non-existent’ in today’s world where overseas call centres are becoming the norm.
“If I’m asked by a customer whether I can do something, I always say yes, and then I figure out a way to make it happen,” he says. “We’ve got clients who have been with us since day one and that’s because we listen to what they want and then find a way to provide it.”
What it takes to take on the big boys
Illman and his team’s ability to rapidly turn around customised on hold messages for businesses – scripting, voicing and mixing them to music – quickly paid off, as did his ingenious approach to promotion, where he was quick to illustrate another classic entrepreneurial trait: that of being disruptive in nature.
Faced with trying to grow a young business with little money, he turned to ambush marketing; his outrageous and savvy tactics gaining him notoriety in the media and the grudging respect of seasoned marketers across the country.
Who can forget the ubiquitous, giant foam hands carrying the Messages On Hold logo waved at West Coast Eagles games at Subiaco Oval in 1991.
“I had the hands made up for next to nothing following a trip to the US,” Illman says. “I paid a bunch of teenagers $5 each to hold them up behind the city-end goals at games, giving us massive free exposure worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
The strategy gained the company widespread TV coverage before the AFL shut the stunt down. There was no lasting damage with the company eventually becoming a long-standing major sponsor of the Eagles and Illman’s cardboard hands ultimately welcomed at club matches.
He repeated the successful formula at 1996’s Melbourne Cup when he had a staff member walk up behind (sports presenter) Tim Gossage as he was live on air holding an in-your-face Messages On Hold poster.
“The phones here went beserk and while most of it was people complaining, they had to find our number to ring us and I am sure they didn’t forget us after that,” he grins. “Clearly it had an enormous impact.”
It’s a tactic that’s been repeated with Messages On Hold umbrellas popping up during morning breakfast show TV, behind Richard Branson and his Virgin team as they toured Australia, at the cricket and even at the Olympics.
“It was the cheapest way of getting my message out there to a big market and it pissed a lot of people off. When you do that you know you’re having an effect. If no-one is whinging, they’re not noticing,” Illman argues.
What has not taking ‘no’ done for Illman?
Not surprisingly Messages On Hold has achieved international success with offices in Australia and Singapore, and clients in 20 countries. Digital content production company The Message Group and, more recently, online staff training platform Canity, are also included in Illman’s stable.
At the same time as building a business from the ground up he’s managed to carve out a niche as an international wildlife photographer, along with wife Tonya, and more recently has become an accredited F1 photographer. Here too the word no has not been an option.
“We spent 26 weeks in Africa over two-and-a-half years, lugging more camera gear around than anyone in the world other than the BBC,” he says. “We went from being unknown in the wildlife photography field to being in National Geographic and there is no higher pat on the back than that.”
Using remote controlled camera buggies, hidden cameras and quad-copters among other things, the Illmans were able to get up close and personal to Africa’s unique animals, capturing as many as 3000 images a day. The best of these have been documented in a stunning photo-book, called Africa on Safari, to widespread acclaim.
Not content with the well-worn tourist tracks and safaris — and in typical Illman form — the couple searched out the most out-of-the-way places in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, enlisting the help of local guides and other adventurers to seek out isolated areas in which wildlife roamed freely.
Then came the decision to try and get accredited for the Formula 1 circuit, not easy for even long-established photographers. “It’s almost easier to be an F1 driver than to photograph the races,” Illman says only half-joking.
“It’s the most intense thing I’ve ever done. I went to Abu Dhabi last year and paid for a Red Bull package and was in the pits with the team. And just standing there with the headphones on listening to Daniel Ricciardo talk to one of the engineers, I was struck by how privileged I was to be privy to that.
“I thought, ‘I really like this, I want to be part of it’.”
In typical fashion, Illman simply got on the phone to Red Bull and asked to be their photographer. When told he would have to be officially endorsed, he spent some time putting together an impressive package and sent it to those who were in charge of accreditation.
“They must have liked what they saw because I was granted the right to photograph pre-season testing in Barcelona, and from there, things have just got better,” the businessman says.
Trips to Melbourne, China, Bahrain, Russia, Spain, Monaco, Canada and Azerbaijan have produced a host of spectacular photographs.
“I was being accredited race by race,” Illman explains. “Within a short time I had picked up a number of clients keen to use my images, with one of them distributing to F1.com—the largest F1 platform in the world!”
The thought of visiting 20 countries in eight months, snapping the fastest cars in the world, being up against some of the globe’s best photographers, while somehow keeping an eye on his business and also finding time with his wife and two teenage sons might be daunting to some, but not to the man who doesn’t take no for an answer.
“I’m having the time of my life; it’s busy and exciting every single day,” he says. And there is no one saying no to that.
Liz McGrath is a journalist and former Channel Seven reporter from Melbourne who has worked in news, communications and public relations for more than 30 years. She writes on a wide variety of subjects including everything from science to business and health and wellness.