When a plan comes together

Exhibitions are not usually considered part of the media agency’s remit, but brands are beginning to realise that they can benefit from integrating the show with their schedule, says Steve Hemsley

At information technology exhibition CeBIT, Sun Microsystems paid promotional staff to dress up as “Sun Kommandos” and walk around the event with televisions on their shoulders displaying the company’s new products.

What is interesting about this piece of live marketing is not that it drove more potential clients to Sun’s stand – which it almost certainly did – but that the activity was devised by the company’s media agency, Starcom.

Exhibitions have always provided brands with the opportunity to interact with their target market in a creative way, but Starcom’s involvement is further evidence of how media agencies are taking a far greater interest in which events their clients attend and visit and, ultimately, how their exhibition and conference budgets are spent.

Traditionally, planning and buying agencies have been kept out of the loop when brands are considering exhibitions, because the decision as to which show to visit was based largely on the directors’ gut feeling. Would their competitors be there and what message would it send out to rivals, customers and suppliers if they did not attend?

New media roles

Yet the role of the media agency is not what it once was. Gone are the days when planners would operate within full-service agencies, allocating funds to different media with a brief not to overload the audience or exceed the budget.

Today, they play a vital role in helping clients create excitement about their products and driving marketing strategy using the huge amount of consumer insight data they gather. This includes information on where a brand’s customers will be and when, such as at a particular exhibition or conference.

After all, an exhibition is the only medium where the market effectively chooses to see the ads and, more importantly for clients, where active buyers and other key decision-makers are the people most likely to attend.

“We always consider exhibitions as part of our strategic thinking nowadays, because these are where crucial members of the target market can be found. At the biggest exhibitions where everyone has a stand, we can help a client differentiate itself in a crowded market and even show marketers when the best time to talk to people is,” says Starcom managing partner Ian Clarke.

Clarke reels off a list of examples of Starcom’s close involvement in its clients’ exhibition strategies. He remembers helping Barclays attract farmers to the Royal Smithfield Show last year. The agency’s consumer insight report confirmed just how much farmers dislike coming into London, suggesting that this might act as a deterrent to them coming to the event at all. Starcom convinced Barclays to place an ad with a London Underground map and directions to the show in the trade magazine Farmer’s Weekly. “The farmers attending the event really appreciated this and thought Barclays understood them better because of it. This improved visitor numbers to the stand and strengthened the client-customer relationship,” says Clarke.

Everyone wants to know

Media agencies are also aware that consumer demand for information on new products and innovation results in extensive media coverage of many exhibitions, making them ideal vehicles for advertising and sponsorship. Advertisers can buy space inside the show halls, externally and even on public transport used by visitors. Starcom has even advised large clients such as BT and UBS to spend money raising their profile at the Davos conference of top business and political leaders in Switzerland.

The natural progression of this type of communication is for media agencies to recommend that clients invest in a bespoke exhibition or event. For Procter & Gamble’s Pampers brand, Starcom worked with creative agency Saatchi & Saatchi and PR agency Fleishman-Hillard on a mobile exhibition that explained how babies experience the world.

Despite the more hands-on approach that media agencies are taking to exhibitions, the exhibitions industry is perhaps not exploiting their interest as much as it should be. It seems show organisers have been relatively slow to build any meaningful relationships with media planners and buyers.

Carat head of communications planning Alex Altman says he wants show organisers to talk to his company and to market themselves to his team as well as directly to his clients. “We are overseeing the communications strategy between a brand and its consumers. If people are giving up their time to go to a show to see a new product, then this is a big brand experience opportunity for our out-of-home or sponsorship team, and we may want to get involved,” he says.

Carat has an informal relationship with marketing consultancy Omobono, which runs and manages bespoke exhibitions for clients. Omobono chairman Francesca Brosan points out that in the past, media agencies have not considered exhibitions a communications medium because the effectiveness of events was notoriously hard to measure. This had made it difficult to include any show on a client’s media plan.

She says things are changing, however. “Traditionally, events were not on the radar of media buyers because clients made the decision on attending a show based on whether they always went and what their competitors were doing,” she says. “Today, we talk more to media agencies, especially those offering clients creative ideas to maximise the return on the shows they attend. If they want to deliver bespoke events we can produce and run them to ensure the right people attend and the right things are said to them.”

Well worth talking to

Businesses supplying equipment for exhibitors to use on their stands are also realising they need to have more dialogue with media agencies, especially to make them aware of how the latest technology can enhance their clients’ exhibition experience.

Iain Liddiard, senior producer at the conference production division of communications specialist Outlook, details the influence media buyers are having on exhibition budgets. “These days we have to work with media agencies to ensure everyone is aligned with the same strategy and what is being proposed to the client by the agency is deliverable in the real world of time-scales, budgets and health-and-safety concerns,” he says. “It would help if media people were more knowledgeable about what works and what is possible, but we are happy to educate them so they can advise their clients more confidently.”

After the show, “we sit down with the media agency to see whether the original questions about the target market and the measurement of success have been answered. Together, we discover whether an event worked, whether it could have been done better and whether visitors or delegates actually got the message and will act upon it,” says Liddiard.

At exhibition contractor and face-to-face marketing company Raisley, managing director David Foster warns that exhibition stands should not be bought like print and broadcast media – which are all about conveying ideas – because live marketing is the real thing, where a brand can and should come to life. “The audience numbers and visitor profiles for an exhibition or event may add up, but that does not equate to effective communication,” says Foster. “With live marketing, the elements that sell brands, such as their touch, feel and smell, must be broken down and matched in communications terms to the specific target market.”

For olive oil brand Belazu, Raisley targeted consumers at upmarket gardening shows rather than at food events. The activity worked because the audience did not expect to experience the brand in such an environment.

Foster adds that if media agencies are to take more of an interest in the whole area of exhibitions, they must also ensure the medium is used in concert with other media. At the Daily Mail Ski Show, for instance, pre-mixed alcoholic drink Rigo ran a voucher-based offer in conjunction with the Evening Standard, entitling every reader to a free drink at the exhibition.

For clients that complain about the cost of exhibiting and have concerns that the shows they choose do not always bring in the quality of visitor they demand, a deeper involvement by media agencies has to be a good thing. And for event organisers that deliver what they promise, it should mean happier and more creative exhibitors – and more of them.

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