Live events are an exciting, popular and more direct way of reaching the
target market. Ad agencies need to learn to work with specialists to
avoid losing out, Robert Gray says
Today, for a city to establish itself among the first rank of business
destinations, it needs an international airport and a top quality
Look across Europe and you will find ample evidence of the importance of
the latter. Municipal authorities in cities as diverse as Leipzig and
Milan have placed the development of new trade fair centres at the heart
of their commercial modernisation programmes, because national and
international trade and consumer shows give a huge boost to the local
Exhibitions also provide companies with a forum for promoting and
selling their product direct to their target market. According to ISBA’s
Exhibition Expenditure Survey 1994 (published in December 1995),
expenditure by British companies on exhibitions two years ago was pounds
929 million, up 10 per cent on the previous year.
Last month the trade show groups, Miller Freeman and Blenheim, merged
under Miller Freeman’s parent company, United News and Media. Valued at
around dollars 917 million, the deal, according to United, creates the
world’s largest trade show organiser.
Every year there are about ten million visitors to exhibitions in the UK
and the number of shows is growing as more specialist events are
established to challenge those with a broader base.
Last year the number of major exhibitions (those in venues of 2,000
square metres or more) recorded in the UK was up 6 per cent at 733,
while the net amount of space occupied by exhibitors rose by 9 per cent.
Clients are stepping up their use of exhibitions.
The conference market seems to be growing, too. The sheer volume of
conferences makes it all but impossible to quantify.
Several years ago, Coopers and Lybrand posited a figure of pounds 6
billion for the UK conference market, although the accuracy of this must
be open to question. But it’s certain that the market is immense and is
getting bigger still.
But what does all this have to do with advertising?
Maybe clients are spending more money on events at the expense of above-
the-line marketing. Perhaps marketers are giving greater weight to
exhibitions and other face-to-face events as a communication tool for
the positioning and selling of products.
‘Car companies and pharmaceutical companies are spending millions on
live events,’ says Nick Lamb, managing director of the event production
company, Crown Business Communications. He claims that three of his
clients each spends more than pounds 750,000 on live events. Some of
this expenditure, he says, has been shifted from advertising.
Steve Hill, the marketing manager at the exhibition design company,
Academy Expo, concurs with this assessment. ‘There is evidence to
suggest that companies are moving expenditure away from advertising,’ he
Some ad agencies have noted this trend, too. ‘Does it [money for live
events] come out of the advertising budget?’ asks Young and Rubicam’s
director of corporate affairs, Bernard Barnett. ‘I think sometimes it
does and sometimes it doesn’t. But there is a risk to the advertising
budget from any client who goes for large-scale event promotion.’
This is not a dire warning for the future of advertising. The point is
that marketers are judging live events by the same criteria as they
evaluate the effectiveness of their other communications. Live events
now occupy a fundamental place in the promotion of a corporation or
brand. They are being seen as a pillar of the marketing mix. And so a
live event may be chosen instead of advertising if it is felt to be a
better marketing medium for the job in hand.
‘Of course it is part of the marketing mix,’ says Tony Cadman, the
managing director of the events production company, Park Avenue. ‘Quite
a lot of enlightened clients have integrated conferences and exhibitions
with other kinds of marketing. Our clients, BMW and British Airways,
have done it.’
‘It’s now becoming part of the strategic mix and that’s the way it’s got
to develop,’ says Tim Rivett, the managing director of the business-to-
business agency, Aspen Business Communications.
‘The communication that might be delivered through face-to-face media,
like conferences and exhibitions, is much more tied into the advertising
strategy,’ adds Lois Jacobs, the managing director of the conferences
and exhibitions producers and designers, HP:ICM. ‘People are more aware
now of the need to integrate, of co-ordinating strategy and tone of
This elevation of live events to a position closer to other marketing
tools raises a number of issues, such as whether this gives the event
production companies greater clout.
Will they, for example, have a meatier part to play in helping clients
develop their communications strategies? Are they to be on a par with
advertising agencies and PR consultancies? Will they be an equal member
of a team working to ensure a client’s communications are integrated?
‘In the old days, the tendency was for our business to only revolve
around stage design, technical matters and venue selection,’ says Pump
House Productions’ managing director, Nick Eve. ‘That still happens. But
what’s happening more and more is us playing a part in the train of
thought for positioning a client. The areas of our operation are
changing and becoming much more vague and blurred. How long is it going
to be before a company such as ours could do an above-the-line
In fact, Imagination has already created such a campaign with its
infomercials for Ford, in part created by the company because Ford’s
advertising agency, Ogilvy and Mather, was reluctant to do so.
Imagination steers clear, wherever possible, of appearing to compete
with advertising agencies, a decision which is borne partly of political
Eve’s mischievous throwing down of the gauntlet will be of scant concern
to the larger agencies. What threat is his company to them?
But maybe they should give some of the smaller players pause for
thought. After all, if Pump House and its rivals are playing a role
(albeit a small one at present) in shaping strategy and can call on
production expertise that extends to state-of-the art audio and visuals,
who is to say that they will not eventually muscle in on some areas
currently viewed as the preserve of ad agencies?
The barriers are bending and blurring. This can be seen in the way the
below-the-line specialist agency, Carlson, has recently restructured
Carlson has brought its four main areas of operation closer together.
These are: direct marketing, loyalty, sales promotion and what it refers
to as performance improvement (which includes live events) for clients
like Royal Bank of Scotland and Johnson and Johnson. The rationale is
that live events should be looked at in the same marketing context as
the other disciplines. Crown Business Communications has smudged
traditional boundaries by moving beyond live events to take in new
media, working with clients to develop CD-Roms and Websites.
Advances in new technology also mean that live events can be more
dramatic, eye-catching and memorable than before. Lamb argues it is now
possible to ‘put any image behind the speaker’ and claims that new
technology is the most significant thing to happen to the meetings and
events industry since its inception.
Interactivity, one of the great marketing buzzwords of the moment, is
being put to use at live events, enabling the target audience to get
under the skin of a product in a way that is not possible with straight
advertising. And clients and production companies alike are devising
more innovative ways of using live events to involve potential
A good example is the event which HP:ICM produced for the computer chip
manufacturer, Intel, at the ICC Exhibition Centre in Berlin in 1994.
More than 1,200 visitors took part in the ChampionChip, playing computer
games against one another on 120 different PCs - all containing Intel
The day also featured a mix of other live events, interviews, product
demonstrations and commercials, balanced to maintain momentum and
underscore Intel’s branding.
Technological sophistication means showing both product and commercial
at a live event can be done more slickly. At Nissan’s stand at the
Birmingham International Motor Show last month, Park Avenue made
prominent use of TBWA’s commercials for the marque.
‘We do a lot of work with Zanussi,’ says Eve. ‘If they do a dealer
launch the branding we do is very much linked to the ad campaign. It has
to follow on. One of the best ways to launch a new campaign is with a
Colin Gottlieb, managing partner at the media specialist, Manning
Gottlieb Media, adds: ‘Increasingly, people working above the line are
starting to see that there are huge opportunities.’
Gottlieb thinks that if live events play a part in marketing a product
well, they will contribute to the client’s success, bringing about
bigger budgets for agencies like his own. It is not a case of either or,
‘An event allows us to bring a degree of theatre into a launch,’ adds
Peter Berners-Price, the executive chairman of the production company,
Earlier this year, Spectrum was acquired by the US group, Caribiner, and
is now able to produce events on a global basis. It, too, is doing more
work on a strategic level than ever before.
In the UK, it works closely with the Vauxhall car company’s ad agency,
Lowe Howard-Spink, and its PR consultancy, Hill and Knowlton. This,
though, is an exception, rather than the rule.
‘We’re in the image-building business,’ says Berners-Price. ‘But rarely
are we asked by the client to sit around the table with its respective
This is a pity. With event producers developing their strategic skills,
ad agencies - and their clients - may well benefit from thrashing out
ideas with their counterparts in the meetings and exhibitions industry
on a regular basis.
After all, there is a precedent for this sort of co-operation. Once upon
a time, large ad agencies like J. Walter Thompson and McCann-Erickson
had their own in-house event production teams. Clearly there was
dialogue then - why shouldn’t there be more now?