CONFERENCES AND EXHIBITIONS: Should ad agencies beware live events?

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

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

exhibition hall.

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

live event.’

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,

he reasons.

‘An event allows us to bring a degree of theatre into a launch,’ adds

Peter Berners-Price, the executive chairman of the production company,

Spectrum Communications.

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?


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