After the summer of no love: where now for experiences?

Despite suffering a shock to the system with Covid, the live experiences sector has shown some resilience as it seeks fresh ways of bringing people together in a socially distanced manner

This year 200,000 revellers were set to fill the fields of Worthy Farm as Glastonbury celebrated its 50th anniversary. But as we now know, no bands, fans or brands made the journey to Somerset and the only mess left in the pastures this summer was created by grazing cows.

When Glastonbury, a flagship event in the experience industry calendar, was cancelled on 18 March, the announcement sent shockwaves across the industry. Then soon afterwards a UK lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 23 March and for many it felt like they were in free fall.

The experience industry has seen notable growth over the past five years, as marketers have tapped into consumers’ desire for face-to-face, real-world engagement. And while the coronavirus has caused above-the-line agencies to retreat from this area, specialist experiential agencies have had to embrace the changing face of this industry.

“The first 10 days were pretty horrific as client after client phoned to cancel work. In less than 10 days our summer and circa 50% of our revenue disappeared,” Rupert Pick, co-founder and director of Hot Pickle, says.

Cris Cicirello, senior vice-president at Wasserman, says the agency was plunged into uncertainty for six weeks following the lockdown as “clients’ plans, budgets and resources went through significant change”.

Agencies watched on in horror as the scale of the Covid crisis became clear. Jason Megson, managing director and vice-president of George P Johnson, says: “In the early days of lockdown, there was certainly an understanding that this was a serious public health issue – hence our business priorities took a backseat for a month or two. However, since mid-May it’s been clear that the ongoing and severe economic impact has become the most pressing issue for us and the wider industry.”

Through a survey responded to by 12 of the top agencies specialising in experiential marketing, Campaign has been able to gauge the scale of the crisis facing the sector. The agencies that shared their responses were Amplify, George P Johnson, Haygarth, Hot Pickle, Hyperactive, Iris, RPM, Sense, TRO, Unit9, Wasserman and XYZ.

The results make for grim reading. More than 500 events were cancelled across the surveyed agencies, as the typical British summer full of festivals was lost. As a total, the agencies say Covid-19 has lost them business worth £55.9m.

Some relief in the sea of cancellations has since come from pivoted campaigns, socially distanced activity and some clarity on outdoor events returning but it has been a hard pill to swallow.

Fran Derry, managing partner at Iris, felt lucky to be able to deliver festival work in a digital format after an initial bad period. She says: “Everything just felt so scary and bleak. We were so lucky that we were able to pivot a large piece of festival work into an online music series that kept us busy, sane(ish) and employed!”

Reflecting on those initial scary early days, Lou Garrod, managing director, Sense London, says: “Every agency head would have entered lockdown with a feeling of uncertainty. Reassuring colleagues and advising clients on possible outcomes became the norm.”

False dawns

Pick is starting to feel “more optimistic” with the reopening of the Hot Pickle office and some long-term strategic projects on the horizon that extends beyond Covid. But the false dawns from clients proposing briefs and then having their budgets pulled and unfulfilled promises of “opening up” by government have not helped.

Many agencies have invested time in their own research and white papers. After talking with its brand marketer clients, Hot Pickle found 100% of respondents did not envisage investing in experiential marketing until Q1 2021 at the earliest, with the majority thinking they will be investing in this type of campaign from Q2 2021.

Pick adds: “By nature, most brand owners are cautious and until there’s genuine clarity and [while there is] uncertainty around our channel, media and agency budgets will be directed at other channels [such as] digital.”

Caution is the watchword. Marketers in the live space will no doubt keep in mind the salutary tale of Live Nation, which announced a “Covid-secure” drive-in concert tour in June, set to visit locations including Leeds East Airport, Lincolnshire Showground and Liverpool Waters, but then cancelled the event just one month later citing “localised lockdowns” that had made it impossible for the events to go ahead.

Riding out the storm

As a consequence of changing workloads, many agencies have had to react by making structural changes including staff cuts. Sixty-six per cent of the agencies surveyed reported that they were making redundancies, on average decreasing by 30%.

“In the early stages, we were obviously very nervous, but optimistic that we’d be back within a couple of months, with clients moving events from March/April to June/July,” Andrew Casher, founder of Hyperactive, says. “The realisation that this was not going to be the case has meant a complete rethink of operations but in a way we’ve eased into this major shift.”

He adds: “We’ve also changed the way we’re supporting our clients. At first we were very proactive in taking lockdown ideas speculatively, but the reality was that clients needed to get their own businesses stable before investing in the future, many of whom were furloughed, many of whom have had budget cuts. Now things have settled, we can offer a lot more tailored support and advice.”

Some offices have begun to open their doors but a new work culture is thought to be here to stay with flexible working and working from home now more of a significant part of agency life.

Derry says: “Everyone has been brilliant at adopting Zoom and Teams. It definitely wasn’t part of our culture before but we’re now at a point where it feels odd to speak to someone and not see their face.”

Cicirello adds: “We have established great remote-working practices and there have been some encouraging green shoots from both our existing clients, in terms of budget allocation, but also new clients, a few of which we’ve secured through pitch wins over the last month.”

And so with these new ways of working, new types of work have come to the fore with some agencies feeling like they had diversified their scope enough to survive the storm. “If Covid-19 had struck four or more years ago, as an agency we would be in a very different place right now. Fortunately, over the last few years, we’ve invested heavily in our studio and this has helped grow this side of the business as we support our clients,” Jonathan Emmins, chief executive of Amplify, says.

The agency’s studio encompasses insight, strategy, creative, innovation, content, broadcast and retail, and while live has been hard hit other areas of the business have been busier.

Technology has always been at the heart of Unit9, and its heritage of delivering digital, augmented and AI-driven experiences has served it well during the pandemic. Rosh Singh, managing director at Unit9, says: “We have enjoyed remixing our skillset to create new offerings, such as applying our expertise in game-engine and augmented reality experiences with virtual production techniques to create future-facing, interactive live-stream and virtual experiences from product launches to virtual keynotes.”

The industry is having to adapt quickly and has learned lessons and applied new thinking over the space of just a few months. Adam Shapland, associate director at CSM, says that “we are now seeing some truly fantastic virtual events, but at the start we saw many trying to plug traditional thinking into the virtual world”.

Immersive technologies, including virtual and augmented reality, will enjoy renewed interest, according to Amelia Shepherd, Tro’s managing director: “Clients are looking for solutions that offer ultimate flexibility, to adapt at speed and still deliver immersive experiences whether online or in person.”

A new focus

As restrictions eased, the emergence of socially distanced events provided an opportunity for people to be able to gather again. Crowds of up to 2,500 people have been entertained at the Virgin Money Unity Arena in Newcastle since the start of August.

But with localised lockdowns and no vaccine, hosting these events in a way brands and consumers feel comfortable becomes a hefty responsibility and runs risks, as shown by the aforementioned cancelled Live Nation tour.

“Inevitably, from a live experience perspective we now have an enhanced duty of care to consumers, fans, clients, our people and all personnel involved,” Paul Hicks, director of experiential and events at CSM, says.

Social distancing creates limitations along with the new-found difficulties facing brands looking to activate on a global scale but not wanting to face quarantine restrictions when moving between countries. Cicirello feels “the future of brands succeeding in [the experiences] space will be rooted in innovation through integration”.

The popular choice has been to go for digital events, something Singh thinks can continue to grow alongside in-person events: “The medium-term future is digital, interactive, virtual and augmented. Events like Travis Scott x Fortnite and Tomorrowland have proven that virtual experiences are a phenomenal way to bring huge numbers of people together to create truly memorable experiences and brands are paying attention to this now.”

He adds: “Are physical events a thing of the past? Probably not. But for the forward-thinking and progressive, virtual events will become the platform on which to build breathtaking and memorable brand experiences.”

Kantar’s Covid-19 Barometer, a study on how Covid-19 is influencing consumer behaviour, attitudes and expectations across 60 markets, shines a light on just how divided parts of the population are on the idea of returning to events.

Out of the six consumer tribes identified, Garroud views the “Ostriches”, the 12% of the population described as not seeing or caring what all the fuss surrounding coronavirus is about, as the group that will lead the charge back to live events.

“The generation coined Ostriches are probably already packed for the 2021 festival season and will carry on regardless – a haven for the right brands. Whereas we’ll see a split with the more precarious older generation needing a more distant form of engagement,” she says.

It’s a feeling echoed by Will Mould, co-founder and managing director of XYZ, who says: “The future is definitely still rosy, there is no doubt in my mind that the hunger for live experiences has only grown stronger during this period. The short-term future may well have to be compromised but the opportunity and need for our industry remains.”

Dom Robertson, managing director at RPM, thinks the pandemic has accelerated us into a new age of experiences with consumers and clients expecting projects to be more connected. He says: “We believe we’re seeing an acceleration of what we term third-wave experiences. Having been around since the beginning of brand experience, we’ve seen first wave – mass participation – on to second wave, experiences amplified by social. And now we believe we’re moving into third wave – connected experiences at scale enabled by technology.”

This sentiment is shared by Shepherd: “In the early stages, we adapted live experiences to become fully virtual but more recently we have been creating flexible hybrid experiences with greater emphasis on creating shareable content that can reach a broader audience.” She cites Electrified Berlin with BMW ahead of the Formula E season finale as an example of this (see box, far left).

Uncertainty reigns

As the months pass, it has still not become clear when larger capacity events with no social distancing will resume, but there is already an appetite – with the Metropolitan Police reporting more than 1,000 unlicensed music events have taken place in London since the end of June. Johnson has confirmed that conferences and exhibitions will be allowed to open in England from 1 October 2020, as well as competition venues for sports fans, with social-distancing measures in place.

In advance of this, pilot events are being hosted but, from 14 September, the government is to reduce the number of people that can attend these sporting events to 1,000 in light of the increase in the number of positive coronavirus cases.

The updated rules also state that venues following Covid-19 secure guidelines will be able to continue to host more people in total but no-one should visit in a group of greater than six. 

The government is investing £1.57bn to support the cultural sector and protect jobs. But many businesses feel this funding will not help them and with no date as to when non-socially distanced events can resume, this funding will not go far enough.

The sector has been left in limbo, Mould says: “The lack of a clear exit strategy from the government has continued to cause frustration and anxiety. We need to know what the parameters are that we can operate in come 1 October ASAP. Clients want to start planning but are hamstrung by this lack of transparency.”

But despite these obstacles, the industry, on the whole, is trying to face its future with optimism. Shepherd comments: “Our job as experiential leaders is to continue reimagining where and how we bring these experiences to life – whether that be in person, online or, more broadly, in culture.”

One thing is clear: even with a changing face, experiential is still craved by consumers. The trick is conceiving how to deliver it.


Drive-in experiences

The personal space provided by staying in a vehicle has proved a safe choice for brands that are looking to tentatively re-enter the activation space. Drive-in experiences allow consumers to arrive and remain socially distanced with entertainment provided on a big screen or main stage and food delivered to each car.

 

Suzuki@TheDriveIn

A retro-inspired drive-in cinema experience (pictured above) delivered filming screenings, silent discos, comedy and karaoke to several UK cities. Sales in the car industry were down 89% year on year due to Covid-19. When car dealerships were able to reopen, Suzuki wanted to show the nation it was possible to have fun and socially distance. Iris worked alongside @TheDriveIn to deliver the project.

BMW and Formula E Drive-In Cinema

BMWi took to the streets of Berlin with an electric vehicle convoy through the city to celebrate the Formula E season finale. To close the event, TRO delivered a Drive-In Cinema experience for BMW and Formula E. The event featured a performance from Lost Frequencies and the chance for consumers to watch a race.

Secret Cinema with Häagen-Dazs

Secret Cinema partnered with ice-cream brand Häagen-Dazs on a series of summer screenings at the Goodwood Motor Circuit. The interactive shows included a pre-event online experience detailing costume ideas and car makeover tips. A pre-show Zoom party saw the best-dressed cinemagoers win Häagen-Dazs goodies. The cinema snack menu included exclusive flavours of Häagen-Dazs ice-cream.

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