04/07/14

The Future of Experiential Agencies

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By Alex Smith, planning director

 

Experiential agencies will delight in telling you that theirs is a fast-growing medium – and indeed they’d be right. Every year we see exponentially more campaigns featuring some element that could be defined as “brand experience”.

The funny thing is, in spite of this pride, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the growth of experiential will lead to growth for experiential agencies. In fact, it could be quite the opposite.

So how can that be? How can the growth of a discipline lead to the shrinking of agencies that specialise in it? The answer is simple: when it outgrows them.

Think about it like this: Would you rather pay a lawyer to drive your truck, or a truck driver to defend you in court? I’ll wager the former.

This demonstrates that all skills are not equally transferrable. It will be easier for a lawyer to turn his hand to driving a truck, however cackhandedly, than it will be for a truck driver to blag his way through three months of courtroom wrangling. Neither of them are perfect at both tasks, but if you could only have one man to do both, you’d grudgingly pick the lawyer.

The relevance of this is as follows. If experiential continues to grow in profile, it will move up clients’ agendas. Experiential campaigns will become more expensive, more risky and more integrated. In this way, they will start to become a “top table” conversation piece. Instead of being a downstream add-on to big-picture brand plans, experiential will move upstream, and have to join the discussion with global marketing directors and their heavyweight creative agency advisors. At this point the ability to effectively deliver a campaign (driving the truck, if you will), will only be part of the task, with the rest of it being longer term strategic marketing (fighting the court case).

 

The question experiential agencies have to ask themselves is, are they ready to step up and do this job? Or are clients going to have to let the ATL and digital agencies, sat at their right hand, “drive the truck”, and deliver the experiences which, whilst imperfect, will at least be smoothly integrated and soundly on message?

Experiential should look to digital for inspiration, as a formerly “niche” discipline that, amongst its best agencies, has successfully made this transition. Fundamentally, the likes of AKQA and R/GA have positioned themselves as marketers first, and programmers a very distant second. They’re great at it of course, but they’d never define themselves as digital “suppliers”, who will “build you a website”. They lead the client, not the other way around. For experiential agencies to keep pace with their own discipline, they’re going to need to do the same – abandon any notion of working in “events”, or “sampling”, or even “experiential” and just focus on being above all great marketers (who just so happen to be perfect at executional delivery as well).

If they develop in this way, as the best are, then they’ll be able to follow the discipline to the boardroom, as the client will know they have people they can call on not only to “deliver”, but also provide big-picture value.

If they don’t, well, that won’t necessarily mean death. There will always be tactical, downstream, experiential activations, raw sampling and the like – and this will continue find its way into the group of agencies who choose to stay put and specialise in that field. They just need to be prepared for the likelihood that the discipline will split, and the growth area of experiential they were all looking forward to will expand without them.

The childhood of brand experience is now complete. Experiential agencies gave birth to it, held its hand, and nurtured it throughout its pre-pubescent years. But now its voice has broken, it’s got a wispy moustache, a 4-pack of Hooch, and is about to leave home – how many agencies will follow?

04/07/14

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