Keep calm and evolve your live experience

Brand experience agencies implore clients to modify rather than cancel their live plans.

SXSW: Austin-based event was cancelled due to coronavirus
SXSW: Austin-based event was cancelled due to coronavirus

In the numerous 2020 year-ahead predictions made at the start of the year for the thriving experience economy, the prospect of mass event cancellations and the postponement of major sporting and music festivals simply didn’t feature.

Fast-forward 10 weeks in and La Liga matches being played in empty stadia, Coachella rescheduling to the autumn, part of Stormzy’s tour being cancelled and Dublin’s St Patrick’s Day parade being scrapped are very much a reality. The impact of concerns around the coronavirus, or COVID-19, has reverberated across the experience industry and cultural, sporting and business events have all been affected, with the list of cancellations and postponements growing by the day. This is in addition to the silent scrapping of experiences that agencies had pitched for and planned with brands, but had not yet fully announced.

Yet for the agencies that specialise in creating live experiences, contingency plans need to come into play in the face of looming restrictions on large gatherings. And these are the creators that are adept at delivering live moments in ever shorter lead-times, so adapting experiences to reach audiences either in a behind-closed-doors environment or through the manifold creative technology available is both crucial to retaining clients and a masterclass is keeping calm and adapting through an unforeseen crisis.

Alex Wilson

Head of content, Amplify

If we’re not able to create experiences in real life, audiences will have to consume brand experiences in a "real enough" way. This means we are putting an increased emphasis on our content engine offering, where we use content to drive experiences across every touchpoint, not solely through physical interaction. The "witnessed by few, experienced by many" approach is incredibly effective – our Airbnb "Night At The Louvre" project was experienced by just two people but because we championed the content engine methodology, the message travelled across 90 countries around the world.

With COVID-19 potentially keeping large groups of people physically apart, brand experience agencies will need to lean further into content engines if they want to offer alternative ways to join the dots between people, brands and culture. As an immediate response, we are developing a turn-key solution that allows us to live broadcast planned events anywhere, anytime. This insures existing or future investment against potential disruption.

The content engine approach is indicative of a broader shift in the brand experience industry. Experience is no longer penned in by its traditional definition of being centred on physical spaces and interactions. Brand experience 2.0 now means going beyond this niche into live broadcast, VR, app creation, AI chatbots, screen content, retail installations, social, podcasts, editorial… all part of the new symbiotic, hybrid offering as the lines between disciplines blur.

Scott Cullather

CEO, INVNT

It’s in our DNA to have a contingency strategy complete with a plan B, C and D in place for all events. It’s our job to provide our clients with these alternatives and to implement them as and when required.  

We’re helping our clients reshape their live events: for example, we’ll transform a 2,000 attendee event for employees across the globe into four regional meetings for 500 delegates. It means people are still coming together face-to-face, but we’re minimising the risk of contamination as we’ve eliminated the international travel component. 

We’re also enhancing the digital element for those who are unable to attend live events, adding live streams into the mix and creating more integrated campaigns that leverage digital and social to share event highlights. The modern consumer lives in a "phygital" state, one where they simultaneously exist in their on- and offline worlds, and this situation presents opportunities to tap into this powerful trend.    

Tariq Duff

Head of client partnerships, UNIT9

It’s time we took a leaf out of the Boiler Room and esports playbooks to flip the script and imagine a world where two-way interactions can happen without a physical presence. By mashing up live-streaming, sound and social interactions, we can virtually transplant an audience into the heart of a live event. HBO took this "behind closed doors" approach when hiding the Game of Thrones Season 7 premiere date in a 4,000lb ice block and handing control to a Facebook Live audience who virtually powered real-life flamethrowers via emojis and keywords until the ice melted,  garnering more than one billion impressions.

As climate champion Christiana Figueres points out, if there’s a silver lining to the coronavirus, it’s that we might travel less and stay home more. But what could be an upside for the climate is a potential disaster for experience-based businesses… unless, that is, we usher in a new generation of what I like to call "Experience+" activations; one that exploits technology, platforms and live-streaming to create innovative behind-closed-doors live experiences that audiences can enjoy and control from the comfort of their sofas.

Julian Pullan

Vice-chairman, president international, Jack Morton

Clearly the coronavirus is impacting events globally, as evidenced by the cancellation of industry gatherings – most recently the Geneva Motor Show. For anyone organising or planning an event, safety has to be the primary concern and in this instance, some organisations are erring on the side of caution.  

Our industry is by necessity very adaptable to change and thrives on innovation.  A good agency will always be able to help brands find alternative engagement solutions, whatever the disruption. Leverage the content and information that has already been developed, or was planned for the live experience, and the many technology platforms available to deliver it in an engaging and informative way.  Think of it as an opportunity – live experiences can create great content to be shared, and if designed for that purpose can reach many more people than the core attendees.

Isabel Perry

Director of technology, Byte London

COVID-19 is disrupting every business across the board. As with many agencies, we are already feeling the contagion, with event-based briefs switching focus to cater for people who can’t physically attend.

Some brands are having their value slashed overnight in this crisis. And the impact will be felt all across adland as these brands are forced to cut marketing budgets. But experience agencies have it the worst. They’re now challenged into thinking about alternative ways to deliver exceptional brand experiences. This is just as, if not more, important for B2B brands: how can we educate, sell, prove and excite potential customers if we can’t host them? One answer is using AR to create a virtual presence and connection.

But perhaps most interestingly, COVID-19 could trigger an uptick in the nascent use of digital brand avatars. This approach combines the intelligence and real-time conversational interactivity of a chatbot with the visual impact of an AR character that can be aesthetically designed around the brand’s personality and tone. Such formats won’t replace events forever, but if we need to put big gatherings on hold to tame COVID-19, digital brand avatars could be a useful and creative stopgap to capture the imagination. 

Additional reporting by Kim Benjamin