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Product Earth CEO Matthew Clifton discusses his career in cannabis

Matthew Clifton, CEO of cannabis marketing company Milk & Amber, and CEO of the UK’s largest cannabis expo, Product Earth, discusses working in the industry.

After working at Facebook, Matthew Clifton has shifted his focus to his passion for cannabis with the establishment of cannabis marketing company Milk & Amber and working as CEO of the UK’s largest hemp, CBD and cannabis, Product Earth.

What do you and your business do?

Product Earth is the UK’s largest hemp, CBD and Cannabis expo dedicated to building a safe and trustworthy industry that is good for the planet and all of those who inhabit it.

Milk & Amber is a growth marketing agency network dedicated to helping build and develop all manner of cannabis brands from lifestyle to CBD and medical. Our team boasts over 50 years’ worth of marketing experience across companies such as the Financial Times, Facebook, Bebo, Endemol and much more. 

Our network is built up of trusted partners with specific disciplines that will add value to our client base covering website and app development, content creation and production, packaging, design, PR and more.

Why did you enter this industry?

I have always been an advocate for cannabis but had never really seen a pathway, or ever considered it as an option for my career, instead spending 22 years working across a variety of companies, honing my skills across a variety of media disciplines.

Having spent 12 years at Facebook, I was lucky to have worked in a strength-based organisation that allowed me to expand my horizons and develop different skills. As head of marketing for small and medium-size businesses, in spite of spending the majority of my career working with brands like P&G, Diageo and Samsung, I got a genuine thrill out of helping small businesses grow.

My time at Facebook afforded me a number of privileges, including the ability to be able to invest in several businesses. Gavin Sathianathan, CEO of Alta Flora, had left Facebook several years before me to enter into the world of cannabis, and having heard this, I asked him to keep an eye out for opportunities for me to invest in. Gavin presented me with the opportunity of investing in Product Earth and having involved some friends, we completed an investment round and it became clear that there would be value in me not only investing in the company, but potentially moving into the role of CEO.

With Facebook being so community-focused, both internally and externally, I saw the connection between Facebook and the heavy community focus of the cannabis industry and jumped at the rare opportunity to take on a role where I was able to apply my skills to something I feel so passionately about.

It was a bumpy start though… Who would have known back in September 2019 that there was going to be a pandemic that would decimate the event industry? It got to December 2020 and everything was still looking bleak with regards to the future of the show. We wanted to do something for the agency in a time when people needed support and stimulation and our founder, James Walton, had the great idea of a “joint rolling” competition. 

We carefully navigated Facebook’s policies and created a two-part competition for speed and style rolling where people would upload videos in a bid to win some great prizes from our sponsors. The High Roller World Cup had some astonishing results, reaching 1.3 million cannabis consumers, generating over 600k video views with views costing a fraction of a penny! This was the moment we realised we should offer these brand-building type skills to the community and Milk & Amber was born. We have already had some world firsts, successfully running an awareness and acquisition campaign on Facebook for Drug Science and Project T21, and we look forward to welcoming even more brands.

How long have you been part of the industry?

I am still very much a noob, having only worked professionally in the industry for two years and it is a very steep learning curve!

How has it grown since you first started?

The Association for the Cannabinoid Industry (ACI) and the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) launched their report “Green Shoots – Sowing The Seeds Of The New UK Cannabis Industry”, where they size the market at £690m up a third from their 2019 forecast. The UK is the second-largest CBD market in the world. Considering the stigma, awareness and ridiculous regulations meaning that farmers are having to destroy 90 per cent of their crops, I think this is a really positive signal that many investors will have their eyes on. To say anything other than the fact that we are still very much in the grassroots stage though, would be wrong.

What do you feel are the three key developments or updates that have changed the industry?

I would say that there are two main growth factors, but these are still far from perfect.

In November 2018 medical cannabis was made legal on prescription. This has not been smooth and still has a long way to go, but this certainly shone a light on cannabis not necessarily being the devil’s lettuce that people have been trying to engrain into us over the past 50 years. We still need to improve access, efficacy & price and this is no mean feat.

In January 2019 when CBD was reclassified as a novel food, this led to bodies such as the FSA and the home office improving regulations. As with medical cannabis, this is still far from ideal. Brexit, in spite of the car crash that it continues to prove itself to be, could have provided us the opportunity to carve out our own rules, however, we still appear to need to jump through various EFSA hoops as well as our own, with an infrastructure not set up to serve this body of work. This is a costly and drawn-out process for all concerned and if you weren’t one of the lucky ones to be involved in the EIHA consortium, the start of your journey as a fledgling business is going to be difficult.

What do you think the future holds for the industry?

Growth. Celebrity endorsements are on the rise with many mainstream personalities stating their allegiance to certain brands and as the stigma breaks down CBD will quickly become a familiar sight on shelves up and down the country.

Legalisation is the big thing everyone likes to talk about and in all honesty, I have no idea when this is going to happen. You will often hear about the dichotomy between activists to capitalists and their opposing views on what the future would look like. 

I believe true success will involve large-scale grows leading to costs effective mid-quality products and more boutique, high-quality products that will serve a more affluent market as you would see across most industries. The missing piece to the puzzle is the ability to grow your own. If we want to stop feeding the black market, then we need to stop criminalising people that like growing plants. It’s crazy.

How much of the industry relies on collaboration?

We are very much a cottage industry. Yes, there are some big players with deep pockets and good luck to them, but the reality for most is they need to collaborate in order to firstly survive and then thrive. Product Earth, in spite of being seen as the UK’s largest event has relied on collaboration from a number of people including, but not limited to; Beyond the Green, PSYence fair, OEV as well as all of our exhibitors, sponsors, ambassadors and let’s not forget the community that are buying their tickets by the fist full!

This is something we have also given careful consideration to regarding Milk & Amber. By identifying key players with complimentary skills and values, we have built a network that offers our clients the ability to harness world class ability and resources at a price they can afford. We want to work with like-minded businesses with a growth mindset that want to grow with us. What’s more, I look forward to building a new type of company without toxicity and prejudice that allows employees and clients alike to thrive.

Who is your main inspiration in business and why?

I find inspiration everywhere. My team inspires me. My friends inspire me. My family inspire me. I have a positive mindset and the more I work on this, the more I notice the positivity and creativity around me.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given in business?

Sheryl Sandberg once made a speech about the say/do gap. If you say you’re going to do something then do it. The smaller that gap is, the more trust you will build. People want to work with people they can depend on. It is much better to be upfront about limitations rather than building a false sense of security and letting people down.

A mantra that I live my life by is that “vulnerability is the fuel for growth”. I truly believe this. There are things we do that scare us, whether we show it or not. The thing is, the more we do something that scares us, the less scary It becomes and you grow as an individual. When you start to realise that fear is the first feeling on a pathway to growth, you will start putting yourself forward for more opportunities and you will find yourself on an amazing trajectory towards success.

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