The exhibition industry is now worth over 1bn – more than the combined advertising spend on radio, cinema and magazines. With that sort of investment at stake, organisations are increasingly aware of the need for a smooth client/ agency relationship.
The guidelines and strategic considerations which are strictly defined in the advertising business are finding their way into face-to-face communications. Strategic input into conferences and exhibitions is now critical to companies looking for consistency across their corporate communications.
“Brand owners are constantly looking for ways of communicating that cannot only provide information, but actually change the way people think and behave and feel. The capacity to do that is often much greater in face-to-face communication where you can immerse people in messages, rather than just provide them with information,” says Ralph Ardill, marketing director of Imagination, which includes Ford and BT on its client list.
Canon UK has a relationship going back several years with Leicester-based exhibition design agency Barsby Prince. Marketing services manager Martin Orton underlines the practical advantages of this long-term arrangement: “They understand and clearly communicate what they want from us and they have to push us. We’re busy with other priorities and you rely on an agency to help drive things forward.”
But the industry remains fragmented. On the agency front there are large and small, specialist and generalist operations; on the client side many different departments and people are involved in the commissioning process.
Most agencies are unwilling to pitch for work when the numbers on the pitch list creep above a handful. For large exhibitions, Orton has a roster of exhibition agencies.
Occasionally a fourth “wild card” will be added to the pitch list, says Orton, but “we do stick with four or we’re wasting everybody’s time”.
In sharp contrast, when Bayer was looking for a business communications agency it asked ten companies to pitch. One of these was Crown Communications. Managing director Nick Lamb says: “We did not know Bayer from a piece of rope, so we were suspicious.” It turned out that Bayer had been in a long-term relationship with another communications agency and wanted to move on. So, not knowing the market very well, the company sent out letters to the top ten conferences and exhibition providers.
On that “level playing field” Lamb decided to go ahead and subsequently won the business. “We need to know that we are not on a pitch list to make up numbers.” He also says he won’t pitch if he thinks the brief is not genuine or not open to new ideas.
If a company does not have roster agencies already in mind, the International Visual Communications Association, of which many agencies are members, can provide a list. Chief executive Wayne Drew is also co-ordinating a roadshow and a new handbook which will go to 3,000 businesses that use face-to-face communications.
Generally, larger business communications agencies like HP:ICM or Imagination will tend to deal with sizeable projects, with budgets above 100,000. Smaller companies, like exhibition and events specialist Academy Expo leave the all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas alone, although the company does offer a full service.
Once on a pitch list, agencies look for as full a brief as possible. Steve Hill, marketing manager at Academy Expo, provides a standard form for potential clients to fill in. It includes giving thought to the size of stand, nature of the show and whether it is looking for casual or specific traffic: “We try to get into their heads and find out why they are going to this event,” says Hill.
At HP:ICM, managing director Lois Jacobs emphasises the need to see each job as part of the bigger picture.
“When a client is briefing a supplier, the brief should provide details of all the other communications strategies within the company. If not, each strategy will be saying different things in different ways which will be counter-productive.”
It is also worth the client taking a frank look at the event and asking if the company needs to be there at all.
Although most agencies will say they can turn around most briefs in days (if not hours), Hill suggests looking at two to three months’ lead time to get the best results. Jacobs gets some high-end projects, such as the UK Pavilions for the next two World Exhibitions, years in advance.
One way for larger organisations to pull the briefing process together across departments is to put guidelines in writing. The Rover Group works with Page & Moy Marketing Group organising 500 events a year, with about 150 budget holders, and has developed a briefing manual for events, exhibitions and conferences.
“It has standardised the initial brief and ensures minimum standards and controls can be applied to all events,” says Gary Knight, Rover group manager conferences and events. At Page & Moy, events director Sally Learoyd adds that “if the brief is right first time it means our response is right first time”.
Given the importance of value for money, “a lot of clients are surprisingly coy” about revealing the size of their budgets, says Jacobs. Though discretion is obviously an issue, this nevertheless makes life difficult for the agency.
But the need for cost-effectiveness has been drummed into suppliers since the recession. “If a client has 20,000 for something that costs 50,000,” says Hill, “they could hire the equipment instead of buying it or spread the cost of over a number of shows.” There has also been a marked shift away from one-off exhibition stands towards modular designs.
Damian Hall, sales and marketing director at Wembley Conference & Exhibition Centre, has noticed that “exhibitors are increasingly revamping and reusing previously built stands over several shows”.
American Express has a modular stand made by RT Display Systems, which has recently had its 60th outing.
Stretching budgets is a given, but creativity is also expected. At Guinness, trade marketing commercial relations manager Richard Hutchings has basic requirements for sales conferences, but he is open to new ideas about venues and presentations – “there are no sacred cows”.
With a widespread change in management thinking towards flatter organisations and empowering employees at all levels, clients need an agency that takes this into account. “A sort of stand-up-and- preach approach to a conference is almost the antithesis of this ethos, so it’s very important that the format and execution of the conference reflects that,” says Ardill.
WCT Live marketing director Katie Jenkins describes its work on the launch of British Airways Premium Brands: “We used a combination of some directors, but also cabin crew – frontline staff who lived and breathed the product.”
WCT also works regularly with business TV specialist CTN, which can use satellite links to reach a far wider audience.
Clients are increasingly looking for strategic thought about audiences and about brands.
Imagination looks at conferences and exhibitions as part of the “brand experience”. Its launch last September for Ford’s Ka campaign was at Conran’s Mezzo restaurant in London’s West End.
Ardill explains the choice of location was based on an analysis of the lifestyle orientation of the brand: “We needed a contemporary, venue to appeal to the brand’s target market,” explains Ardill.
Imagination, is drawing new design inspiration from the world of performance and installation art. A recent stand for Ericsson featured some of the cast from Cirque du Soleil “bringing the brand values to life”.
With this philosophical ap-proach, crude measurement techniques of counting traffic on stand and sales leads acquired are not enough. Imagination now uses qualitative exit research as well as quantitative methods.
And he believes that in the future companies will move away from using exhibitions simply as a means of showcasing products – “leisure, entertainment and lifestyles will be the key drivers”.