Covid-19 does not need to stop us selling the best of UK business to the world

Every business looking to grow its revenues must prepare to generate leads and revenue online or risk being left behind by competitors.

Had 2020 been a normal year, today would have seen the world's advertising industry amass in the south of France for the centrepiece of commercial creativity's global calendar. 

But the cancellation of events including Cannes Lions – now replaced by virtual festival Lions Live  and SXSW, along with the postponement of the Shanghai International Advertising Festival and shift of the Advertising Week series to virtual format in JAPAC, has brought about a brave new world of networking and lead generation for advertising and marketing services.

Pre-Covid-19, the industry calendar to build profile and develop business with international audiences was familiar and the activities well-oiled. All of that has been thrown up into the air with a great boom in online events and content marketing campaigns, plus a plethora of software tools and platforms to host any kind of business gathering.

Our own plans for the new UK Advertising Export Group needed a complete overhaul in mid-March. As chair of the group of 50 ambitious UK companies with that number growing fast, we had a collective target of increasing our annual exports by 50% within a three-year period.

Given the dramatic change in circumstances, our immediate goal changed – to make sure we are seen as being open for business with world-class capabilities to produce and deliver brilliantly creative and effective advertising work for people everywhere.

We’ve just completed a three-day event, Createch, as part of CogX, including our first-ever virtual trade mission as well as a full agenda and virtual exhibition space for an invited international audience of buyers. It’s just the start of a transformation in how we market the UK’s very best advertising and marketing companies to prospects around the world following lockdown.

The first big challenge is networking  it is incredibly hard to replace face-to-face activity. We took many learnings from this during Createch and changed our strategy, which paid off with how delegates engaged with our group as a whole. The move to a virtual event hasn’t changed the timeframe around new business; in fact, I would say it will make the process longer. If you’re thinking about virtual events as part of your new business strategy – start now!

The second challenge is the technology – taking part in events of this scale means you are reliant on the tech to play its part (which we know isn’t always the case).

To overcome this, we set up a studio in London, and recorded from homes across the UK in advance. We then ran a production control room over two days and manned the UKAEG TV station at Createch@CogX to ensure things ran as smoothly as possible. I can’t stress enough, when it comes to online appearances, think TV Studio not Zoom meeting – it improves the performance of your speakers.

Third, test your content – we held a number of briefing sessions with all member companies who were presenting. We checked content, we held run-throughs with a test audience and, most importantly, we checked backgrounds, lighting and camera quality. We worked with the specialist team at BrandFuel and invested in both tech and production to ensure all content for our UKAEG members felt like a real experience.

Fourth, things will go wrong and you need to be able to work around this. You need a plan B and C as many factors are outside of your control. Having backup plans is critical for success. 

For example, don’t livestream on to YouTube if you want to attract a Chinese audience! They can’t access your content unless they have a VPN.

Finally, you can get the best talent from around the UK. Now that everything’s online, you’re not limited by the event’s location. My event wrangler was in Birmingham. My stage A producer in Manchester. My stage B producer on the south coast. The same goes for the talent on-screen and, most crucially, the audience. They can join from everywhere.

The UK government is about to go into overdrive with its plans to boost exports of our creative industries, including advertising, around the world. This Covid-19 crisis, and its enforced lessons in lockdown, plus Brexit transition, is the starting ground for a new way of doing business with international customers – I can only see this increasing.

Every business looking to grow its revenues must prepare to generate leads and revenue online through events, roundtables and exhibitions or risk being left behind by competitors. We’ve much to sell as an industry, despite Covid-19’s impact and the challenges we face across areas such as diversity and inclusion. The better we get at selling ourselves online, the more successfully we can solve these challenges and build a better industry.

Our global roadshow continues… over the coming weeks the Brits will be touring (online) to China, Japan, South Korea, America and Europe among others. All businesses interested in growing their international revenue streams are welcome to join us.

Janet Hull is chair of the UK Advertising Export Group and the IPA’s director of marketing strategy

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