Long-term views

Long-term relationships between clients and production specialists are rare. Is this a reflection of clients’ pursuit of value, or are production firms unable to contribute strategically? asks Rob Furber

It is something of a contradiction that while companies usually view live events as a long-term strategic marketing tool, the production specialists they employ to manage them are invariably hired purely on a project basis.

While production companies yearn for clients who take a longer term view to event management – and, therefore, employ them over a period of time – a retained relationship is very much the exception to the rule.

“We’re perceived as service providers, called in when it’s necessary. If you get to know a client well enough, you can be consulted at an earlier stage, but I have not seen many examples of a communications company brought in on a retainer,” says Paul Ashford, managing director at conference production and event management consultancy Apex.

Some production companies accuse clients of short-sightedness over their event requirements, claiming they’re far too heavily focused on getting the best value for money, rather than seeing the benefit of forging more lasting relationships.

Adrian Smith, a director at business communications agency Line Up Communications, is a firm believer in the value that longer term, strategic relationships bring to both production companies and clients.

Smith says: “Clients tend to think that, as they don’t need these services all the time, they are better off shopping around each time for the most economic supplier. But the more we know about their industry, culture and approach, the better we can put together pertinent proposals for them.”

It can also lead to clients getting better value for money because production companies can offer a cheaper deal if they know there are likely to be a number of events in the pipeline. The overall result for the client would be improved service and cost, but the majority of them still perceive a production company’s role as purely event management.

Having worked for Saatchi & Saatchi, Joe Macgregor, client services director at Mar-Com Presentations, recognises a clear difference in the way production companies are treated by clients compared with advertising agencies.

He suggests clients typically plan for a sales conference or product launch at the last minute. This results in very tight deadlines and the client not knowing as much about its production company as it should, which can compromise both parties.

Ashford highlights some of the frustrations he feels when Apex is pulled in very late on a project. “By the time we are brought in, most of the major decisions have already been made. Sometimes we feel those decisions would have been different had we been consulted earlier.

Co-operative arrangement

“The best events are always developed as a co-operative arrangement between the production company and the client over a period of time. In the long run, it is better for clients to retain a company which can really get under the skin of their business and collaborate with them.”

Ashford does, however, cite the example of a client it recently pitched for which was looking for a supplier to do all its event work over a two- to three-year period – a far healthier approach in his view.

While it is rare to find clients that embrace such forward thinking, a number of production companies suggest clients cannot be entirely blamed for preferring to deal with them on a project basis. A bad situation is made worse, some say, by the paucity of top quality companies willing to offer their services as long-term consultants.

The suggestion is that there are many production specialists which excel at pulling off an event, and do not wish to extend their involvement beyond that. This has undoubtedly contributed to the stereotype of production and event management companies being purely functional service providers.

Nick Lamb, managing director at Crown Business Communications, goes further to suggest that the majority of production companies lack the marketing know-how to even be considered worthy of consultation.

He says: “The reason why the industry is not being used at a strategic level is that the majority of people running production companies aren’t strategic thinkers. If there really was this groundswell of untapped long-term strategic thinking in the event business, do you not think clients would have discovered it by now?”

Indeed, Lamb is quite damning in his appraisal of production companies. “People think that because they’ve spent a couple of years in the industrial theatre, they know how to run big companies and become a McKinsey overnight. The fact is I wouldn’t trust many of them to take my two kids to school.”

Despite Lamb’s harsh assessment, there are production companies which nevertheless claim to have the expertise required to act as consultants. The suggestion is that these strategic thinkers are being held back by others in the industry which lack the requisite skills.

Mike Hayhurst, conferences and events manager at Matinee, explains: “Event management is still juvenile in the way it approaches the early cycle of client relationships. A lot of the one-man-and-his-dog operations don’t get involved in the process until very late in the day.

Seeking involvement

“The newer breed of production company is looking to get involved in talking about the client’s marketing strategy. The more astute of them are saying ‘we’ve got a lot of tools in our bag, let’s find out what you’re trying to achieve before we give you the benefit of our experience’.”

Production companies also suffer because, unlike PR companies and advertising agencies, there are no simple metrics they can use to demonstrate to clients the value and effectiveness of a well-managed live event. “There aren’t as many hard and fast measures in our industry as there are in the others. Post-event, how do we measure whether morale has increased?” asks Ashford.

Many clients also have an internal policy of putting any event management and production work out to at least three companies for competitive tender, often changing their supplier with each new event.

“Wherever you go within the services industry, clients will put work out to tender and they will always look for the best possible price. If they were to stand back for one moment I would think they could forge a better relationship, and in the long term, get far more out of it,” says Hayhurst.

Although tendering is healthy and keeps people on their toes, so too are the advantages of longer term relationships. Production companies are still trying to shrug off their service-industry image, but with some failing to value the client relationship highly enough, it makes it easy for clients to believe the industry is not capable of offering consultancy services.

“We have a long way to go before clients want to speak to production companies when there is no event to produce,” says Apex’s Ashford.

Return on investment

Ultimately, companies are spending a lot of money on event production and want a return on their investment. But to maximise that return, they could be better off carefully thinking about what their objectives are for their live events, and working as closely with their production company as they would when considering a new campaign with their PR or advertising agencies.

However, to get to this point, production companies need to shoulder some of the responsibility and indicate clearly that they have the capability to contribute effectively to a strategic marketing relationship.

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