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Three agencies on the future of events

VEI editor Alison Ledger spoke to senior leaders at George P. Johnson Experience Marketing, Jack Morton, and Opus Agency, to find out how their businesses and the wider events industry are evolving, plus their predictions for the future.

Jonathan McCallum, George P. Johnson Experience Marketing

#1 George P. Johnson Experience Marketing

Jonathan McCallum, CSO UK, Vice President, George P. Johnson Experience Marketing

How has your business evolved over the past 18 months?

What took us all by surprise was the speed and required pace of change. We adapted quickly, moved to 100% virtual events, and delivered more than 700 of them. The core principles of events remained true and our clients’ business priorities remained the same, even though one of their main channels to achieving objectives was paralyzed. It meant we had to evolve how we planned, created, and activated those experiences to ensure they compelled audiences to engage with our clients and still influenced behaviors and decision-making.

It led us to develop our own platform solution, OSPRE, which provides a bespoke approach, filling the gaps left by others. A platform that we could adapt and tailor based on need, and not constrained by existing functionality.

A focus on digital remote engagement played a large part in protecting people and businesses in the face of unprecedented circumstances.

How do you see the event agency landscape changing?

There will be a permanent shift in the ratio between in-person events and virtual, and hybrid is here to stay. Many events have always been ‘hybrid’, however, online audiences haven’t been prioritized and have been underserved. Now, both digital remote audiences and in-person audiences will be treated with the same relentless attention to effectiveness.

There is a need to address how we create connected experiences, not an online and in-venue event that happens simultaneously. A hybrid event must be a unified experience, with a unified message, audience, and outcome. All audiences must be served effectively.

The intrinsic nature of human behavior to be social, to interact, and to be connected will shape the landscape – it’s what makes events such a powerful tool. We will just have additional capabilities in our approach that afford us even more opportunities to engage more people, more effectively.

What are your biggest challenges as an agency?

The biggest challenge is uncertainty. The ability to plan and forecast activity with any sense of confidence is an ongoing challenge. What the last 12 months have proven is that we can be agile and adaptable, and now that is embedded into the planning process. An agile approach and the ability to shape solutions will lessen uncertainty and create confidence.

What challenges are your clients facing?

The challenges of the format have decreased as all parties are more familiar with the options, the restrictions, and the opportunities. We have moved to a better place away from trying to replicate in-person events online quickly and are using virtual in a way that is fit for purpose. We can also better recognize the limitations of platforms and where they excel.

The hardest challenge is the route-to-market aspect. Events often contribute infrastructurally to how organizations do business – they are not just a marketing or communication platform. The overnight digital disruption of events clearly had a negative impact on sales.

However, as we adjust effectively to a more unified approach in hybrid, clients can benefit from an even more enhanced outcome than before. For example, the positive benefits of both reach and direct engagement.

What have been your biggest lessons learned from the rapid digitalization of events?

In simple terms: embrace agility; understand the limitations and opportunities of platforms simultaneously; never forget it’s an experience, not just a broadcast. Finally, do not lose sight of the fact we are in the business of business and to continually focus on why and who we are trying to influence.

Looking ahead, what event trends do you see emerging from your clients?

In the immediate future, we expect to see more ‘global’ events with a hub and spoke type activation model – a central flagship with smaller concurrent regional activations. Further ahead, we will see events that run live around the world, passing the event ‘baton’ on region-by-region across time zones.

There will also be the end of in-person, or virtual events, as separate entities. We will have events that are more connected and unify virtual and in-person experiences. It is not a choice of one or the other – we can benefit from the best of both, not in competition, but in harmony.

#2 Opus Agency

Kim Kopetz, Opus Agency

Kim Kopetz, President, Opus Agency

In what ways has your business evolved over the past year?

When our industry became, in essence, illegal, our clients were fast to move into the forefront of virtual events and in-home experiences to continue to deliver on critical business outcomes.

We were fortunate to have team members with previous lives in digital marketing and media broadcasting and were able to quickly match them with our existing team focused solely on registration platform experiences. Altogether, they became invaluable in counseling our clients and partners.

While, like all businesses in the events industry, we had a rough 2020, we had one of our best Q1s ever and are now fully back and growing.

How do you see the event agency landscape changing?

With any disruption, there comes a new wave of startups and business innovations. For example, there are now more than 800 event technology companies. Before the pandemic, the event tech space was hot, and the focus on connected data and integrations was prevalent. Through the pandemic, the growth has been exceptional. Organizations are starting to better understand the 360-degree view of the attendee, from the data they provide to the data you can capture based on their behavior and more.

We are also seeing an acceleration of personalized, individualized experiences, as the pandemic has forced us to prioritize differently.

As we return to in-person gatherings, we are poised for the industry — for the ecosystem of providers and professionals — to continue to expand in intriguing ways.

What are your biggest challenges as an agency?

We had to quickly retool for a new reality. This shift meant we had to embrace new languages, develop new processes, and establish new partnerships, and keep our team engaged and motivated. The most significant challenges were in how we aligned our agency’s retooling with our clients’ internal retooling.

What challenges are your clients facing?

Resourcing is one. Delivering virtual events requires a different skillset and desire to understand digital marketing and best practices. This type of work also involves clarity on roles and responsibilities in the digital space. Does the digital marketing team own digital events? Or does the events team? Or, if it is a mix, what is the right mix for the program?

The second is that the digitalization of events requires an entirely new approach for ‘Experience Architecture’. Before the pandemic, event professionals had standard playbooks for different types of events, and those well-known and well-practiced building blocks were based on captivated attendees taking a mostly linear journey with us.

In digital, the attendee engagement patterns are nearly a 180-degree shift from in-person design patterns. Attendees are task-oriented. They fit sessions into their calendars when they have time to pop in, and they are much more selective about content because there is just so much more available. So our clients have had to learn to re-architect their experiences to meet these realities and establish (and iterate) new playbooks continuously because the marketplace became increasingly sophisticated over the year.

Biggest lessons learned?

In events, measurement and data have been hot topics for many years. With the push into digital, the walls have fallen, and data is now flowing.

Event professionals have now been able to experience the full power of analytics. They now have a more robust understanding of the stories, insights, and impact that have come from their investments. They also have a clearer perspective on how we will enable new methods for offline and online event data as we return to in-person events, like our partners at Explori and the launch of Vsef, and the growing momentum of the new Experiential Marketing Measurement Coalition.

What future trends do you foresee?

Within virtual events, our industry is getting more thoughtful about content design. We’re obsessing about how to pay off live engagement and combatting a year of content that too often is just pre-recorded infomercials that could have been a blog post instead of an event.

As we continue to settle into a world of digital events being part of all portfolios, our agency — our industry — will continue to assess the value of live content and live participation.

Additionally, our teams are exploring the future of gathering online. We’re breaking beyond the standard platforms and templated events as we see how the rising chit-chat economy, new status currencies, and asynchronous listening parties give us a glimpse of what's to come.

Finally, across the spectrum of a brand’s events, we are reimaging portfolios and redesigning legacy programs for a new world of online, offline, and always-on live engagements.

#3 Jack Morton

Josh McCall, Jack Morton

Josh McCall, Chairman & CEO, Jack Morton

How has your business fared and adapted over the past 18 months?

When 2020 put live experiences on hold, we reimagined our brand and business. We shifted our expertise from live to virtual and leaned into some significant areas of expertise that clients could really benefit from, like our Emmy-winning broadcast design team.

By the close of 2020, we had designed and delivered almost 100 virtual experiences. To help our clients adapt to the shift, we launched our own branded experience technology platform, Jack ethos, which helped our clients create virtual and hybrid events.

Our business remained strong due to our diversified offerings in integrated marketing, digital, and sponsorship consulting. Our work in healthcare grew to levels that encouraged us to launch a separate specialized practice area, Jack Health.

Thanks to solid relationships and deep trust that we’ve built over many years, most of our clients from 2020 stayed with us into 2021, and we managed to add 52 new ones last year, including Riot Games and

Working virtually as a global agency has allowed our team members to support one another across geographies in a new way, bringing clients the best of what we have to offer regardless of the location, it’s what we call 1Jack.

How do you see the event agency landscape changing?

We are seeing the intersection of technology, content, and data becoming more critical to the success of experiences. Technology pushes brands into new dimensions and allows them to reach new audiences. It’s also a new era for content – virtual experiences (and spending all day on Zooms) taught us that high production levels are critical if you want to keep an audience engaged, especially when they have so many distractions. Also, data informs experience design and is the key to demonstrating ROI.

What challenges are your clients facing?

The biggest challenge for clients is deciding when to return to live events and how to do it successfully and safely. We’re working with clients to determine the best scenarios for their brands and what engagements should be virtual or hybrid.

Brands are also asking about how to retain the broader digital audiences that they tapped into during the pandemic. Some really extended their reach and they want to keep it there. While some people are itching to get back to live events, we’re also bound to see audiences that want options, so clients will need to figure out the balance.

Looking ahead, what is the business outlook for your agency? And what key trends do you see emerging?

We’re seeing a heavy focus on employee engagement especially as offices start to re-open and businesses want to make sure they are engaging with their employees – who have had a heck of a year – with the right cadence and demonstrating recognition.

Because of our global footprint, we’ve been able to leverage insights and key learnings from other parts of the world, such as from China that is already back to holding experiences in real life, so that helps us inform and guide clients.


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