covid festival

How experiential marketing agencies are bracing for a return to ‘in the flesh’ advertising

Physical—and potentially crowded—experiences are plotting their return.

· 5 min read

What seemed impossible in February is now a reality: The great hippie freak fest, Bonnaroo, is happening this fall, less than a year from the first Covid-19 vaccination.

Not only is Bonnaroo happening—it’s sold out.

Physical—and potentially crowded—experiences are plotting their return. Marketers want in on the action too, but they’re facing the murky difficulties of gathering people in the flesh in the waning days of a pandemic.

Let’s be clear: Experiential marketing is one of those terms that can mean anything.

In the land of marketing, small pop-ups, sample handouts at a baseball game, an intimate gathering of influencers, and full-blown conferences all fit the bill. And many solely exist so dorky reporters will cover them they can earn positive media attention.

This week, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) announced its plans to return to an in-person event in January 2022. By then, music festivals like Bonnaroo, California’s Outside Lands, Las Vegas’s Life is Beautiful, and New York’s Comic-Con will have already taken place, albeit mostly outdoors.

“They're the guinea pigs...I don’t envy them,” Patrick Jong, head of experiential at Giant Spoon, told Marketing Brew.

Requests for proposals (RFPs in industry slang) are starting to come in, many aimed at the back half of the year, experiential agencies told us. They’re mostly for pop-ups, or smaller settings aimed at garnering earned media, not actual audience engagement.

For instance, Hulu has submitted requests to hold “intimate, in-person” gatherings for an activation slated to run within the next two months, a person with knowledge of the discussion told Marketing Brew.

According to Josh McCall, CEO of creative agency Jack Morton, brands like General Motors, Molson Coors, Lego, and Harley Davidson have committed to spending on experiential activations in 2021, some of which are already underway.

  • In late March, during the NCAA’s March Madness tournament, Coors Light ran a stunt in Atlanta and Las Vegas asking fans to trade in any “unwanted purchases” from the pandemic for free beer.

“Our clients are scratching at the bit to get back to live,” said McCall.

Brands Live!

Like the rest of the pandemic, it ain’t easy: “We are dealing with a variety of different state, local and federal regulations that vary almost daily in the different markets that we're operating in,” said McCall, noting that safety is still a “primary concern” for brands.

That necessary extra level of protection comes at a cost. For instance, tighter capacity restrictions = fewer people in attendance.

  • Jong said brands that adhere to (or implement) capacity caps are “not going to get as much of a return on [events] because they have fewer people who can actually experience” them.
  • Plus, Covid-19 tests aren’t free. Jong said the agency’s Lovecraft Country drive-in activation for HBO cost additional “tens of thousands” of dollars for increased testing. “I think it's a hard pill for some of our clients to swallow when they have new line items on the budget that they're not used to,” he said.
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Marketers are also unsure how people will react to their IRL events. Brendan Kiernan, cofounder of Helo, an agency that’s worked with brands including Amazon Studios and Bacardi, said events might be “seen as something celebratory and at the forefront of this dawn.” On the flip side, they’ll be viewed as “a bit dangerous or a bit reckless.”

From a risk standpoint, Bonnaroo and its debaucherous fans can probably survive a bad PR scare, should anything go wrong. But the stakes are much higher for Coca-Cola or any other well-known brand.

What’s Next?

Given 2020’s deluge of virtual events and activations, it’s still unclear what the next wave of experiential marketing will look like. Will interest in virtual events even remain?

  • “Everybody's starting to think more heavily about how we are going to scale [events] from a digital perspective,” Dustin Callif, president of agency Tool of North America, said. “If we’re just going to have a livestream...nobody wants to do that. It has to be equally amazing from people’s homes. If you can’t do that, don’t worry about the digital aspect.”
  • Jong said he expects clients to “come back to us with the same budgets,” but ask for both a physical and digital event. “It doesn't work. Something has to give,” he said.

Ken Black, CCO of experiential agency GMR, is more bullish.

  • “It’s not half-in, half-out—it’ll be seamless,” he said. “There are new behaviors that have been created and solidified. There’s no barrier to how we interact.”

Anyone’s guess: Most of the agency execs we spoke with said that RFPs for big tentpole events, like Cannes and SXSW, haven’t been submitted yet, so uncertainty remains.

  • “They're not even thinking about it right now. We're not seeing large scale events like we did in 2019,” said Tool’s Callif.

McCall claims Facebook, one of the agency's clients, is eyeing a return to events like CES and Cannes next year—but hasn't committed yet.

A brand can dream: That’s not to say marketers and their agency partners aren't planning for a day when these events are back in full force.

Richard Goodstone, cofounder of marketing and event company Superfly, said he’s feeling confident about the latter half of the year, a time when events are expected to be “more ubiquitous, where people are really comfortable.”

“You can scenario plan when you feel like there's a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

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