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Why you need an experiential agency

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I”ve noticed a trend. Advertising agencies or branding agencies or digital agencies have been tasked to deliver experiential projects.

Where does the perception come from that to do an experience you just need to build some stuff?


I’m here to tell you – If you just build it, they won’t come.

To deliver an experience that actually works you need to be able to combine a very specific set of skills – hell to even pitch a good idea you need to be able to combine a very specific set of skills – because you need to know that your idea will be deliverable.

Let’s get physical
Did you ever think about how long it takes to get permits to project on a building? Or how many toilets you need in order to comply with city safety regulations? How about how many lights are needed inside in order to make it feel like daylight and not a dingy cabinet?

Did you ever consider that until the advent of AI there was no way to accurately measure the total number of people coming into a stand at a trade show because there’s just a porous boundary through which people come and go like molecules into a concentrated solution (look it up)

Production and strategy eeks at experiential agencies live by and love this stuff. They will get it done, because they have connections and they understand what is essential, what takes time and what you can ignore. And they submit permit applications.

Making a splash
Quite aside from the practicalities of staging an event, do you want to do something that’s been done before, 100s of times?

I thought not.

You want your brand to stand out, to be unique, dramatic. For that you need creatives who know what’s been done before experientially and for which brands. But if your agency is more interested in media buy than experiences how well do think they will know the experiential landscape?

And don’t think that the solution is to get an advertising agency to come up with the creative and an experiential agency to deliver it. Even if they do come up with a beautiful expression it may well not be deliverable, not only because of the practicalities (see above) but also because some creative ideas literally can’t be delivered experientially. They won’t work because they don’t take into account the fact that people are not sitting still for 30 seconds looking at a screen and therefore able to be immersed in a story. People are instead walking by on their phones, looking at someone else’s screens or simply shopping. 

Have you ever considered the way your brand should behave in an experiential setting? What does print look like on walls instead of in a magazine? How do your brand ambassadors behave? What do they wear?!

Possibly if you have a retail business much of this is known, but the people who work in experiences tend to be part-time, one week they are working for your teddy bear manufacturing group, the next for a FinTech start-up at CES.

They aren’t retail personnel, so they don’t live and breathe your brand.

And besides, they should behave differently in an experiential space. Your receptionist doesn’t try and sell your product to people coming in for meetings…I hope.

If you haven’t yet been burnt by a pointless VR then my congratulations. A good experiential agency knows what makes people cue, stay and what they take away from digital engagements like VR. They are not only expert at creating massive immersive environments they are also experienced at working in intimate mobile interfaces  – because that’s how we tell stories and generate leads.

And of course, a show space is completely different from a home space. Attention spans are shorter, sharing and information needs are different. There are far more distractions!

Who would you trust to do your teeth? A dentist or a doctor who wants to diversify?

If you want good experiential please look for an experiential agency.  Or encourage your advertising agencies to defer to the experience of the ones you are already using.

Your experiences will reap the benefits.

Your customers will reap the benefits.

You will reap the benefits.

What blogs should I follow?


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I have just purged the blogs I follow and I find myself looking for some new perspectives.

Do you have any recommendations? I would love to hear them! Send me your comments below or on twitter.

Looking forward to your suggestions!

On Manifestos


WARNING: This may turn into a bit of a rant.

What’s with ‘manifestos’? They are popping up in pitches everywhere, not unlike ‘poems’ did some years back or ‘story-telling’. Call me cynical but I see this as just another unhelpful trend that strategy is embracing to try and give ourselves more value.

manifesto (n)
Definition: a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issue

A manifesto is supposed to layout a declaration of policy and aims – but most of the ones I’ve read are statements about feelings with rousing language that makes the actual substance of what’s on the page seem more than it is. In other words, manifestos enable us to avoid presenting fact and insight and instead appeal to the emotions to sweep complicated conclusions out of sight.

But my feeling is that they confuse rather than clarify and they certainly don’t lay out policy – though they might lay out a general aim.

And the punctuation Drives. Me. Crazy. Because it’s always. Wrong.(sic)

Now, you can muck about with language and meaning as much as you like in my book. I studied English. I know that words evolve over time. However, punctuation is a code that helps you to understand clearly what is being said and where emphasis lies. All of that is thrown out as the emphatic emotional statements are brought in.

The punctuation changes are clearly being used to mimic speech patterns but if you keep putting full-stops where commas should be you are causing basic confusions.

More importantly you are on the way to corrupting meaning and in this day and age I would argue clarity is more important than ever.

Why aren’t we confident enough to present our thinking process simply? Shouldn’t we be able to boil down our key insights and concepts into something a little clearer? And why are we calling it a manifesto? Isn’t ‘concept’ or ‘theme’ or ‘creative approach’ appropriate any more?

Possibly it’s the word ‘manifesto’ that irks me. I don’t know about you but I have never seen any of them be an actual  manifestos, they’re really concepts and tone setting statements – not statements of intent that truly describe concrete actions but instead lead with emotions.

Possibly there are more important things to worry about but this is one trend I hope to avoid if at all humanly possible.

Let me know if you think otherwise, after all manifestos are usually designed to set out political opinions and what goes best with politics? Debate.

For more on manifestos why not read this brilliant article by The Atlantic and then tell me if the last manifesto you wrote bears any of the hallmarks described here…

What podcasts should I listen to?

There are a lot of podcasts out there – a lot. And not enough hours in the day to listen to them all. What’s an inquisitive person to do?

Lucky for you I’ve been sifting and listening to an inordinate amount of podcasts recently and I’ve come up with a useful shortlist of 5 to start with. I haven’t gone to the usuals,  Revisionist History, Invisibilia, Freakonomics etc I assume you already know about them. (If you don’t I would obviously recommend them!)

So here it is, the podcasts I’ve found inspiring recently for strategists whether you are in experiential or not.

Genuine X – If you love to geek out on the latest tech then this is for you. This podcast comes from Jack Morton’s Genuine X unit which is their innovation practice. Conversational, low key but really interesting discussions on cutting edge tech with the people and agencies actually doing it.

Catalyst – This experiential marketing podcast from Boston agency Cramer is a short shot of trends and observation. Great observations, useful application of trends and a light-hearted and chatty tone.

Akimbo – Seth Godin is such an accessible writer, speaker and podcaster too, it turns out. Akimbo episodes are focused on entrepreneurial spirit, marketing and self-development, served with a slice of story-telling and anecdotes from Godin’s extensive experience. Want to feel empowered and challenged? This is the podcast for you.

Thinking Allowed – This one is on the list because you should never only be listening to business podcasts. Thinking Allowed is from the BBC and covers all kinds of topics from detective fiction to the politics of memorials. Feed your brain with a diversity of subjects.

Adam Buxton – And second to that, have a laugh. Adam Buxton is a great interviewer and talks to some very interesting people in a funny and insightful way. Plus he writes funny jingles that punctuate the conversation.

Any strategist needs brain food. These podcasts are a good start.

SXSW Review Part 1 – Ethical Digital

It may have been my imagination but SXSW had a more serious tone this year. There were politicians making their case for next year’s presidential race, there was a lot less chat about making millions with Blockchain and a lot more about female empowerment and ethics.

In fact that’s the first key trend I observed – Ethical Digital.

Ethical Digital
Screen Shot 2019-03-25 at 8.40.02 AMSince the Facebook/Oxford Analytica scandal, people have woken up to how their personal data may not be as private as they thought and to the ethical grey ground that social media platforms can inhabit. The idea that people who create technical platforms might have some responsibility for how they are received, the messages they give or the ways that they are used is only now coming into the public consciousness. Combine that with an upcoming election, political investigations and the #metoo movement and it’s no surprise that there was a strong stream of presentations this year focused on ethics. Specifically the presentations were on how ethics must be built into digital experiences, with some striking examples of how it isn’t.  But, this being SXSW, the focus was on networked homes, IoT, AI and even delivery systems like AR.

Privacy? What Privacy?
Garry Kasparov (yes, the chess player who was beaten by IBM’s Deep Blue) is now working for security experts Avast. He spoke about how insecure consumer-facing AI and IOT systems are and how difficult it is to work out how to make them secure because so much rests with the end user. He highlighted the way that manuals provided are designed to be brief on the one hand or extremely detailed on the other. Think about an Apple or Google Home start up booklet – 6 pages that help you to get going but never give you the information you need to ensure to secure your home system.

Avast then used a “Russian hacker” to give a demonstration of how easy it is to hack a smart home from playing music at 4am to getting right into Spotify and taking financial data. Scarey.

But there is hope. He pointed out that because many home assistants are AIs they could easily learn typical owner behavior sets to ensure better security. In fact, Avast has a positive approach to AI, a belief that AI are more efficient, but humans more intelligent and so we are complement each other. But they are also clear that the agencies that create AIs or devise IoT networks have responsibility for how humans use them. And was clear that humans have the responsbility for action or inaction.

Katrina Dow the founder of, a start up managing personal data, highlights all the flaws in current developments. For example, the clear bias built into AI assistants like Siri, Alexa and Google which start off with a female voice and persona. Why? Because they are serving us. Yes, you can change the voice, but do you know how?

She also explored the kind of legacy we may be building for our children by including them in our social posts from before their birth. We’re providing data about birthdays, lifestyles, spending patterns and so on that could be used to determine credit scores, school applications and criminal potential – right now. We are signing away rights to their images and data on educational platforms, like SeeSaw, and we have no idea if or when that data will be sold to governments, health providers or insurance companies.

But there is a flipside. We could also be providing data that will enable better health care or personalized education. Her focus was primarily on making the user the edge, having them deliver data to apps as required, rather than warehousing everything in giant cloud based systems that require you to sign away your rights.

Ethical principles
IMG_7073And there are companies considering ethical development seriously. Microsoft spoke about the work they are doing creating AR training systems in factory settings with Hololens.  It turns out that Microsoft have  6 ethical principles for the development of MR or AR devices:
1. How are we treating everyone fairly? Eg Is the data biased
2. How do we have systems that perform safely? Holograms are layers over the real world after all
3. Privacy and security – eg how do you opt out?
4. Inclusive technologies should empower everyone – Hololens is very visual, but what about people who’s main experience is auditory
5. Transparency – for instance being able to change MR guides to improve them
6. Accountability – can you co-develop with customers?

Art installations
Finally, there were plenty of VR cinema experiences to be had exploring current issues in fully immersive worlds. For example, Border Stories which put people along the US-Mexico border, Girl Icon about girls inspired to enter education by Malala Yousafzai and Last Whispers about dying languages.

Ethics is always a theme at SXSW, but this year it felt like it was higher up the agenda and emerged in more accessible places. I doubt it will make the headlines in the same way as the more fun immersions and musical acts, but it will impact us far more deepy in the long term if we get it wrong.

Preparing our kids for the future

Image result for kids thinking technology changing our world so rapidly in the last ten years and with AI becoming ever more present in our lives there is a lot of discussion around preparing our children for the future. This tends to focus on the fact that the jobs that might be around the corner are likely not to even exist yet and that we have to skill up our kids.

The jobs I have done for most of my life (website management, content strategy and experiential creative strategy ) weren’t around when I was born – strategy kicked off in the USA in the 80s, the web wasn’t even created until 1989. And yet…here I am doing the jobs.

80% of the programming languages used today weren’t around when I was a child. And yet there are millions of people my age happily working as coders and designers. But how? I hear you gasp incredulous.

My guess? They were taught how to use their brains to the best of their ability and talents. They were taught how to think. We need to stop teaching people to do stuff and focus more on teaching them how to think about stuff – whether it’s practical stuff or theoretical stuff. Focusing blindly on programming and coding isn’t going to help them any more than teaching them how to work mining machinery.

And if we crack the nut of making their education enjoyable they can pivot, reskill and develop on their career paths so that it won’t matter if they never learned Perl, they’ll teach themselves, like I did.

And then they’ll teach themselves another language. And another.

And they’ll love doing it.


Non-Obvious 2019 review

I was lucky enough to get a copy of Non-Obvious 2019 to review just before Christmas and I was jolly pleased, because I usually buy it anyway.

Non-Obvious offers two things;-

  • a methodology for trend identification
  • trends that the Non-Obvious author (Rohit Bhargava) and team have identified using that method

The trends that come out are applicable, useful and just over the horizon, so, close enough to be relatable but far enough out that if you employ them you make an impact for your clients. As an example, one of last year’s trends was Ungendered and low and behold what do we see in 2018 but the Collusion collection on ASOS and Gucci’s Future is Fluid film.

But in case you are bored by the idea of just another trend set, Non-Obvious actually does a review of where they were right and where they were wrong. Unusual. And confidence inspiring.

This year’s trends run from Strategic Spectacle, which focuses in on the continued rise of experiential in marketing to Muddled Masculinity, which addresses the challenges faced by the modern male as women become more vocal and empowered and gender roles flex. There is also a great list of books and online resources everyone interested in culture and trends should read and that ill help

Me and my team use the methodology as a part our experiential trends development. It’s great!