How Are Experiential Marketing Agencies Grappling With Coronavirus?

Agencies consider timely pivots and how they might change their strategy in the future

Lighting person setting up an event
Livestreamed events could become a new normal for experiential until the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.
Agency EA

Key insights:

There is plenty of uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic, but one thing is very certain: Live experiences that require physical interaction won’t be an option for brands and marketers in the foreseeable future.

The outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the pathogen coronavirus, has killed more than 6,500 people globally. To help reduce the spread, global health organizations and local, national and world leaders are urging people to stay home and practice social distancing, which means limiting in-person interactions. On Monday, the White House advised people in the U.S. to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

The unprecedented crisis has also led cities and event organizers to cancel or postpone gatherings that include massive industry conferences, tech summits, music and film festivals and daylong brand pop-ups.

As coronavirus has upended the experiential world and the ad industry as a whole, agencies are now trying to find effective and, more importantly, safe solutions for clients that had planned physical activations in 2020. Should agencies scramble to create and push out digital or virtual experience to connect with an audience? Or should they wait until it’s safe enough to hold a physical event again? And does a mass audience even care about engaging with a brand during a time of unprecedented crisis?

While there isn’t one correct answer for how experiential marketers should handle their future client projects, pros from U.S.-based experiential agencies shared how coronavirus has impacted their business so far, ways they might pivot their planned physical events, how to view the situation in a positive light and how it could change the way the experiential marketing handles pre-event precautions and contingency plans in the future.

“Pivot” is the experiential buzzword of the moment—but what does it mean, exactly?

With physical experiences temporarily not an option, agencies are looking for ways to pivot to alternatives. The most obvious option is going virtual or digital, but most agencies and brands have been tight-lipped on the details of specific alternative projects they have in the works with clients.

Los Angeles-based creative production partner Tool of North America creates activations and content for brands like Netflix, Amazon Studios and Twitch. Tool president Dustin Callif said the agency’s expertise in content creation will come in handy for the next few months, as clients want to offer ways to engage with audiences virtually.

“The biggest challenge is that the beauty of an event is bringing together a certain amount of people, of a certain mindset, in one place,” Callif said. “Now that events aren’t happening, the challenge is targeting that audience in a similar way, virtually or digitally. How can we accomplish that for clients that unfortunately were part of events that were cancelled?”

Livestreaming is an option, but Callif said agencies and clients will have to think beyond that if they want to achieve an emotional connection with consumers on par with an IRL event. While he couldn’t share specific digital solutions his team is considering for clients right now, he noted the agency might translate learnings from their previous livestreamed experiences that took learnings from esports, such as one the agency created with Amazon Prime Video.

To promote the second season of reality road trip series The Grand Tour in 2018, Tool worked with Amazon to create a global gaming event broadcast on livestreaming gaming platform Twitch. Amazon Prime Video tapped Twitch influencers to participate in a life-sized game of Battleship, where each game board square was rigged with different levels of explosives to destroy cars. For the two hourlong livestreams, Twitch users could participate in the game through custom extensions, and could choose a team to support by selecting squares on the grid to destroy. More than 170,000 Twitch users actively participated in the broadcast, which drew 3.3 million views.

“This was a way for the audience to interact and engage in what was basically an event, but no one had to get together,” Callif said.

Some agencies have been proactive in providing guidance for their clients on exactly how to pivot, based on brand objectives. When coronavirus caused major events to begin canceling in early March, brand experience agency InVision Communication released a revamped version of its Pivot Playbook, a resource guide for clients on how to adapt and leverage an existing event investment for a new audience engagement strategy, when their in-person events are canceled due to unforeseen circumstances.

Delivered through a virtual workshop, the guide has tools that help clients navigate decisions and trigger points in contingency planning, consider the benefits and drawbacks of virtual meeting technology, specific ideas for event and communications approaches and key learnings from case studies for clients who used the guide in the past.

“The Pivot Playbook was very much developed in partnership with clients,” said Nicole Bojic, svp of strategy for InVision Communications. “The content continues to expand and evolve daily, given the rapidly changing environment, and its continual development will be driven by clients’ evolving needs and challenges—the most recent of which may be a 100% virtual or remote workforce.”

Gabrielle Martinez, managing partner and co-founder of Chicago-based Agency EA, which creates experiences for Hilton, Intuit and Samsung, including the Samsung Developers Conference, couldn’t speak on specific client projects that have been affected by coronavirus, but noted the agency is looking to see what can be shifted completely online in the near future.

“I think tech companies were already heading in that direction, but now it’s just taking it to that next level. Ultimately, we have to completely reshape what experiential means,” she said. “Who says that experience and connection can’t happen in a multitude of ways, digitally? I think the brands have come a really long way in finding the value of experiential, and this presents a whole next level. It’s a force of hand in innovation that we’re going to have to be able to show.”

Are agencies still pitching physical activation ideas? It’s complicated.

Some agencies are still holding out hope they’ll be able to execute events in Q3 and Q4 this year. For postponed festivals like Coachella, which was pushed from April to October, it might be easier for an agency to create the same experience they had planned next month. For experiences that might have been planned for the canceled South by Southwest, agencies could conceivably repurpose them as standalone events or for another festival later this year.

Kristin Kidman, vp of client services in music and entertainment for RedPeg Marketing—a Washington, D.C.-based brand engagement agency that handles global tours and activations for brands like Yuengling, Geico and Southwest Airlines—said they work with a client slated to activate at a music event this summer, and have three tentative plans for a physical event.

“What it comes down to is how much of the general population can be involved, physically, and how we can mitigate risk but still take music to the people,” Kidman said. “Does that change [the activation] to something more intimate, or does it change it to something based more on direct artist partnerships, where we can digitally stream it out to the masses?”

Kidman said if the outlook becomes more positive, the agency will work with their clients to make up ground in Q3 and Q4.

“It will be interesting to see what festivals and events can withstand this storm,” she said. “The value and opportunity for brands to be a part of those is going to be incredible.”

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