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Blog: Pokémon Go and all that

Facial recognition, smart mirrors, Pokémon Go – is your live event digitally optimised? MKTG’s Michael Brown explores what a new experiential agency should look like if it set up in business right now.


Digitally optimised experience

Last month we hosted a bit of a do at our place (you were probably invited) snappily entitled ‘Digitally Optimised Experiences’. The name held enough promise about it to suggest that some essential career-enhancing knowledge would be uncovered, and we attracted a stellar line up of both speakers and guests – thanks for coming!

Just in case you were otherwise engaged or your hair had an inescapable appointment with the shampoo, we were taking a look at what has been a kind of slow motion collision between the formerly analogue world of experiential marketing, and the digital asteroid that has knocked planet Experiential off its gravitational axis. A merger of sorts that has the potential to create a yet more dynamic, yet more personalised, yet more measurable and yet more scalable form of live marketing.

We had the joyful folk from Cadbury talking about using experiential to create brand content as a narrative arc for storytelling. They stressed that ensuring content is developed and optimised to the channels in which you tell the story is paramount, particularly with social, and for Digital Out of Home where you have the merest slither of a second to grab that much wanted attention, and no audio to help with that!

We also had those social shakers from Snapchat showing us how their filters are being used to add new dimensions of engagement to live experience.

Smart Mirror

Another highlight was Matt Gee, head of digital transformation at Isobar (currently digital agency of the year in 18 different markets). Matt demonstrated how facial recognition will be used with mobile to make secure purchases, and other variations of Internet of Things technology, that could break into the traditional weak points of a brand experience and improve upon it.  The examples on show forced us to think about experiential in an entirely different way – less of an immersive, linear experience created in a dedicated public space in which a stream of people rock up, take part, and roll out again, and rather as a medium that intervenes in short, sharp shocks in places where it is most relevant, and is closer to the point of purchase.

Particularly impressive was a smart mirror for fashion retail fitting rooms: Try something on, the colour does not quite suit or you need another size up. Tell the mirror and it shall be delivered to the changing room, rather than having to peak around a curtain in your pants and holler at an inattentive shop assistant. Like what you see, no need to go back out to join a queue to pay – purchase it with the mirror, order that it be delivered home and walk out free of carrier bags. With ideas like this you can see how a brand experience may enhance a whole day out, and not just the moments a customer spends with your particular brand. Such an approach will encourage hugely warm feelings in your target audience and may set you on the road to becoming a trusted brand with high loyalty scores.

Blueprint for a new agency

In many ways, our little event was a blueprint for what an experiential agency might look like if they were to set up in business right now, today, this minute!

The first instinct of a new agency might well be very different to the heritage agencies when crafting a campaign strategy. They might prioritise the conception of the digital experience at the ideation stage and then develop the blend between the digital experience and its physical manifestation in a live setting: what might be thought of as a ‘Phygital’ approach to doing things (Happily, the word was not my invention). Or it might simultaneously conceive of a campaign idea as a seamless entity in which your smart device acts as a portal to mesh the touchy-feely physical world with the digital, and so create a new and compelling enhanced experience.

Pokémon Go

Your correspondent was recently a visitor to world heritage site Stonehenge, where a significant portion of visitors where not as engaged with the sacred stones as perhaps English Heritage might like them to be. Instead, they were adding to their experience by playing Pokémon Go! Whether or not this is a good thing is a philosophical moot point, comparable to holding your phone up to film an entire gig without actually looking at the stage, and it is probably a generational argument.

Visibly, the people playing were totally engrossed in their engagement between two worlds – a kind of hyperspace between physical and digital, except this demographic may not recognise it in such terms. Jordan, a 20-year-old student visitor from Cirencester, told me he had come to Stonehenge specifically to play Pokémon Go. He saw no identifiable border between the real world of Stonehenge, and the digital world unlocked by his device, arguing that he was having a better visitor experience than those not playing.

This is entirely subjective of course, and it depends on the reasons people go to Stonehenge in the first place, but to him, visiting the site was merely selecting a new and dynamic game environment. In cynical terms, changing the wallpaper! Jordan’s attitude may have you fearing for the future of humanity or it may not, but in commercial terms, it is to this mindset that any agency in our sector, heritage or otherwise, may wish to shape their approach to doing business in order to stay in business.

Now over to two industry stalwarts to help me describe what a new experiential agency should look like if it set up in business right now.

Hugh Robertson, founder of RPM


The RPM of 1993 would have largely been judged against our competency to deliver an immersive event-based experience for a finite audience.

Today we are involved much earlier, at the strategic level as the ‘live’ element of the campaign may represent a significantly smaller part of the budget or sometimes not at all.  The advancement of technology and the proliferation of social media channels, enable our campaigns to be even more targeted and shared and enjoyed by a far greater audience in an even more compelling and relevant way. The world has actually moved in our favour and ‘experience’ is more important than ever.

However how and where people are having these experiences has changed, as has the context. I would advise any agency to continually look at what services you need to build to meet these emerging needs e.g. Retail, UX, Live, and just as importantly, what services you shouldn’t build, and instead work in a collaborative way with specialists such as tech companies.

Chris Dawson, founder of The Field and TED staffing


If I were to start up an agency today I would root it in the very same human to human paradigm that has always been the mainstay of the experiential sector.

We are a touchy feely empathetic bunch us humans! As such we need technology that enhances and deepens our humanity. I don’t think Pokémon Go is that at all and it remains to be seen what will become of that particular phenomenon, but one thing is for sure, the major tech successes of recent decades have been successful because they enable us to connect as humans – to share our human experience together, as opposed to something that is isolating. I

would always recommend that technology is used to help grease the wheels of experiences, but continue to plan your campaigns with the important caveat that if tech is used for its own sake, at the cost of genuine human benefit and experience, it becomes awkward and sub optimal.

We humans ultimately make our own minds up through a process of peer recommendation, which is now almost exclusively digital, leading to trial through experience of the product or service – the touchy feely bit. An agency that can plan and execute seamlessly through this process would be very unique in the market. It’s like everything in life, its ‘why’ and ‘how’ things are used that shape their benefit and ultimate success.

Michael Brown is managing director at MKTG.

Comment below to let us know what you think.

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Smart cities – creating cities that give back

Smart cities and urban partnerships are big business. In the UK alone, the smart cities industry is predicted to be worth £40 billion, says Michael Brown, managing director of PsLive.

Artichoke founder Helen Marriage, London and Partners’ Zanine Adams and CEO of Global Cites, David Adam help me dissect smart cities and what it means for us…

Picture this: You’ve had a bad morning at the office, you nip out for a reflective moment and a park bench senses the dark cloud over your head, returning the skip to your step by playing you your favourite song. On the journey home, a bus shelter dissuades you from getting on the number 38 to Clapton Pond, in favour of diving into a nearby bar because it knows a table for two has recently become available.

Sounds far fetched? Not really, the future is here and these types of initiatives are happening right now, with smart cities already a fully emerged movement.

The government has supported smart city growth in the UK including awarding more than £178 million, from 2013 until 2018, into research and demonstrator projects. This is just a modest indicator of the appetite for investment. Innovate UK’s Future Cities report, launched in November 2015, documented how a grant of £1.5 million, that was divided equally between 30 local authorities in the UK, went on to trigger a further £107 million in investment from other sources, including the private sector.

The bucks then are potentially big, and they are not all spent on what some may consider to be the frippery of lightening a mood, or encouraging people to stay out for a drink. There are worthy causes too, and it’s in those spaces that brands are beginning to see the opportunity for both giving something back to a community and diversifying their product offering for commercial benefit.

Take Xerox, in any office game of word association (you do play this right?) if someone shouts out that particular brand name, almost everyone in the world will respond with the word photocopier. Yet in San Francisco Xerox are reducing pollution caused by congestion and vehicle emissions through their smart transportation business, an idea that is both socially responsible and useful.

Sensors inform motorists which street parking bays have just become available to reduce the time spent driving around the block looking for on street parking. A similar sensor parking project is on the brink here in London, with Camden Council looking to spearhead this concept on our doorstep, and on a similar tip (pun intended), the city of Leeds are piloting smart bins. They let the council know when they are full, reducing overflowing bins to zero, and concomitant public health concerns while impacting positively on council coffers – bin collections are cut by a ratio of 4 to 1. Rubbish it ain’t!

If this sounds far too utilitarian for you glamorous types, let’s toss some spice in the dish by showing how the same approach can actually improve a large scale event experience. Most of you will recall Lumiere London; the capital’s largest-ever light festival that took place in January. An estimated one million people visited the thirty installations which transformed the capital into a magical and immersive playground in such places as King’s Cross, Leicester Square and Carnaby Street.

Helen Marriage is the founder of Artichoke, the producers behind Lumiere and many other art-based happenings that use global cities as the canvas. Helen explains how a smart city initiative worked unobtrusively behind the scenes to improve the visitor experience.

“Real time footfall data from and around TFL public transport hubs controlled which station entrances were to open or close, and which bus lanes to close or divert as huge influxes of crowds descended on the events. Ultimately this shaped the direction of travel for visitors, improved footflow and created a safer, better experience.”

It is in the above that the future lies – the triple whammy of big data, city infrastructure and technology coming together to benefit citizens at a time and place when they most need it, is the very essence of what a smart city stands for. Now what a smart city looks like in a practical sense can be many things, as long as the outcome is to enrich the lives of those living within it. And… it can be commercial too.

We here at PsLive have been working in tandem with our Liveposter technology for Santander, the sponsors of the bikes formerly known as Boris. Data on how many bikes were currently available in the vicinity, and how far to walk to pick up the nearest one was fed in real time from bike docking stations to digital panels at bus shelters and to those with the app. We were able to record significant uplift of usage using the same data centric approach that drives the smart city concept.

Referring back to the approach Helen mentions earlier, there are examples of similar utilitarian principles to enhance experiences. Pavegen surfaces, which harvest kinetic energy from people walking over it to power nearby infrastructure, were recently used in an experience pioneered by Adidas at Victoria Park in east London. A secure running track was created for female runners to enjoy at all hours of the day removing concerns for personal safety when running in the dark. Pavegen surfaces tracked visitor movement and used it to illuminate the running track. The implications for the urban space are numerous…the least of which is in converting walking energy to power street lighting.

And there is no reason it can’t be used for out and out fun either. Playable cities is in many ways a part of the smart city dream and the city of Bristol has long been a pioneer in this space. The city has been clever about using public-owned space allied to technology to make their citizens engage with their environment in a fun and therefore enriching way e.g. their much championed Hello Lampost campaign from a couple of years back.

The inspiration here being that the notion of ‘places we’ve visited before’ can trigger memories of what we were doing there last time, who we were with and how we felt. By referencing the thousands of pre-existing identifier codes that label items of street furniture across the whole city, players were able to send text messages to e.g. lamp posts, post boxes, bollards, manholes, bins, or telegraph poles and so begin to refer to their city in a way that is more personal, fun and playful.

Projects like the High Line in New York have proved that by providing communal spaces of value for surrounding communities, strengthens the overall fabric of that community, and this works to potentially counter that isolation that some advocates of playable cities use to criticise the smart city concept. At PsLive we realise the power of smart cities and the potential to enrich the lives of citizen’s, whist giving brands the chance to be a part of the action. In response we’ve launched Urban Partnerships, a division to facilitate brand partnership campaigns that give back to society.

I have a tendency to see this as a new frontier for experiential to bring together commercial brands, local authorities and local communities to create something meaningful in publicly-owned spaces to mutually benefit all the stakeholders involved. As we see a rise in government cuts for infrastructure and essential quality of living services such as the arts or health and wellbeing, it could be that brands step in to give something back to their communities around them… and about time too.

My colleague, and head of Urban Partnerships Christopher Nicola summed this up perfectly when he said, “In the last couple of years, the smart city movement has really started pick up momentum, with demonstration (pilot) cities already reaping the rewards of more efficient, connected and data rich public infrastructure.

“The possibilities for smart cities is endless, with each piece of connected street furniture being a node that collects data and reveals insights into how people use the city. Through this, a smart city spurs on innovation and supports digital start-ups that further help people to get the most out of their environment; creating utilities and services that we haven’t even thought of yet. As for what this means for advertising – it is easy to join the dots to understand how important the role of smart cities will be in driving forward customer insights and dynamically different campaigns.”

David Adam, who is chair of the smart cities panel at Adweek Europe 2016  and founder of Global Cities, a consultancy on the interaction between cities, technology and culture, build’s on Nicola’s comments, and in many ways has the last word on this: “Demand for urban services is going to increase at such a pace that the size of the prize is potentially limitless, and it this that is exercising the minds of the imaginative and entrepreneurial – which is where people like Helen Marriage come in. It may be that smart cities only come of age when their technology is seen as useful by the citizen, just as the iPhone generated immediate benefits for the user, our attitude to technology and its uses stimulate active demand when they become tangible and easy to use.”

Is London a smart city?

I asked Zanine Adams head of events and business development at London & Partners:

“London is home to some of the world’s best tech talent and is putting technology and data at the heart of the city’s infrastructure. As such we are leading on many smart city initiatives and the upcoming London Tech Week provides the perfect opportunity to showcase these strengths.

“The smart city movement is just as important for city planning as it is for commercial enterprise. London has become a leading destination for brands looking to pioneer new digital marketing campaigns and a smart infrastructure offers further opportunities for advertisers to create innovative ways to engage with customers, while improving the experience of living in the city.”

The three ingredients of a winning agency

Michael Brown, managing director of psLIVE takes a look at what makes an award-winning agency: vision, values and diversity.

Michael Brown talks about the importance of the 'c' word - culture

“And the winner of Brand Experience Agency of the Year is psLIVE!”

My delight in hearing those words, coming to me as unexpectedly as they did, during Event’s newly-transformed Event Awards at the Hammersmith Apollo last month, also arrived as a moment of self-realisation: in that joyous and very public instant, I recognised in myself how so very badly I had wanted to hear them.

The psLIVE table erupted – a Vesuvius of skyward drinks, whoops, hugs, air punching and mile-wide grins suggesting that, like me, the rest of the team also desired to be similarly blessed as winners. We were a microcosm of the room – everyone wanted to win so very badly and as you would expect, quite a few others in the room did just that. Claire Stokes, founder of The Circle Agency, Chris Dawson founder of The Field, Phil Edelson, chief exectuive of Mash and Kate Woodcock, senior experiential consultant at Major Players, join me to take a look at the vital signs of a winning agency:

The C Bomb

The obvious tick boxes include factors such as having a strong leadership team and a clearly articulated vision. A marked year-on-year growth would also help to impress any judges, while a commitment to innovation and possessing a differentiated offer to your peers should combine to see the agency consistently doing great work for great clients. Who would think twice if you stopped right there and said those things were enough to win? For sure, I would claim all of these benchmarks for psLIVE, but to describe the single most important factor that underpins agency success I am going to have to drop the C bomb on you: culture.

Culture is a bullet. It ricochets around the corridors and meeting rooms of any organisation. Senior managers are so hot for culture it’s almost unseemly, but is it an apparition? Has the heat caused them to see a mirage in a desert where the only culture is in working long hours? Is it possible to make culture tangible? What are the base ingredients and how long do you put it in the oven for?

I am probably not alone in my belief that great culture starts with a vision. I tend to think of it as both a destination (not necessarily one I will arrive at) and a means of transport: it’s where an agency wants to be and how it will get there.

If the culture is the way in which the people within an organisation collectively act to achieve a vision, then the way they act also has to be defined within a set of values. It is no good being a winner if there is a trail of dead bodies all the way to the podium. At least not in a people-focussed industry like ours. Let’s face it, vision stands for zilch without a team to engage with it.

The people an agency selects to join its ranks should be recruited with vision and values to the fore, which is different to singularly focussing on ability and experience in a role. If, in the interview process, you are looking to see if a candidate stacks up favourably against your vision, then I would contend that you are ensuring the evolution of your culture is no happy accident. Your values are like clay on a potter’s wheel. Turn it on, roll up your sleeves and shape it into a culture shaped vase!

Phil Edelston, founder and chief executive of Mash, winners of Staffing Agency of the Year at the Event Awards has a similar outlook: “We look for identifiable qualities in all of the candidates who want to work with us. By being clear about what our values are, we feel we hire the right people who all buy into that ethos and help feed into a winning culture.”

However he goes on to confess to things not always being this way. “When we were smaller it felt like culture was something that the guys just got on the office floor, as they were working closely with me. In getting bigger we have realised how powerful an exercise it can be to identify and communicate company values and this is something we have now invested in.”

Guiding principles

Claire Stokes, founder and managing director of The Circle Agency, knows what it is to be an agency of the year. She has identified the guiding principles around which her agency is built and enshrines these in every company communication. This includes an internal annual awards system in which The Circle Agency team are celebrated for bringing the values to life within their work.”

“If you focus your teams efforts on their ability to deliver what really matters to the client, the awards naturally follow,” she said. “Over the years we have successfully developed a culture that thrives on innovation and creativity, but never, ever, at the expense of delivering the client objectives and this is inherent in our company values. We have six values but my personal favourites are: be bold and innovate, put clients objectives first and be accountable.”

Despite such ringing endorsement of the importance of values, Kate Woodcock, senior experiential consultant for top recruitment agency Major Players, confirmed that many agencies in our sector seldom brief her to recruit against agency values. “Not all agencies have their vision and values formally articulated. Many clients will brief us on the key functions of the job only,” she said.

Kate has a clever way of getting around this: I will ask my client to describe the culture in their own words to tease out what their business is really like. This helps factor in cultural fit when looking for a person for the role. My end goal is not to just find someone who can do the job – that’s usually easy. For me it’s about finding people who will also love the company and demonstrably show a passion for the client I’m presenting to them.”

The importance of trust

Chris Dawson, founder of The Field, finalists in the Best Brand Experience – B2C category, is unequivocal on this point: “People are the raw materials of any agency. Therefore your recruitment techniques and processes could be viewed as the single most important strategic input into a business. One can never spend too much time honing the process by which you recruit and interview.”

He also speaks passionately about the unpredictable nature of any given individual within a team ethos, and how this impacts on his culture. “Even with the best experience and attitude, we are sometimes unreliable as individuals. An agency needs to leverage the values of the team ethos. A well-focussed and galvanised team is strong and adaptable, able to innovate and overcome obstacles, and can rescue individual team members when they may need it. Therefore the potential of the whole team, its combined ethos, is really top of the list in factors of success.”

Chris is of course talking about trust – perhaps the most important currency in terms of values. It is this singular value that drives his agency’s success. “Recommendation is widely accepted as the Holy Grail in any business,” he said. “We understand that ‘trust’ is the bridge to that recommendation, therefore our job as marketers is to help consumers build trust with brand,” he adds.

The benefits of diversity

Coming hand in hand with values is the similarly hot topic of diversity. My take on the February 2015 McKinsey and Company report Diversity Matters is that the D word (let’s call it that) is both a vision and a value. Winning is underpinned by financial performance. The authors of that report are very clear:

“More diverse companies, we believe, are better able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision making, and all that leads to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns. This in turn suggests that other kinds of diversity – for example, in age, sexual orientation, and experience (such as a global mind-set and cultural fluency) – are also likely to bring some level of competitive advantage for companies that can attract and retain diverse talent.”

The Diversity Matters report examined data from 366 public companies in Canada, Latin America, the UK and the US. It contains a very illuminating conclusion:

“The findings are clear, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”

Putting this in context of that common output of agency life – the response to a brief. In any given year, those briefs collectively speak to every demographic profile under the sun, yet how often do we see a collection of people from one very common demographic in media life, (white, youthful, middle class) come together to respond to a brief against an audience they cannot possibly have much empathy with. Diversity of opinion, beliefs and life experience are required to bring the success you need to win more clients, win your team’s hearts and minds and yes, do well at the awards.

Referring back to the night at the Hammersmith Apollo, it is in such rare moments that your culture is celebrated; the way you specifically do business is held up as the right way of doing things. It does not matter what line of work you are in: whether a jury of your peers has voted you Britain’s Best Brand Experience Agency or the finest French polisher in Peterborough, the bonds between a group of people are gilded with the varnish of success to further strengthen your culture and justify your vision.

In turn this increases the likelihood of winning more stuff in the future. Drop the C Bomb and the gongs will gather in multitudes on your mantelpiece. To this, Claire Stokes added an advisory note as the last words: “What I would reiterate, is the importance of ensuring that your team values success, not by how many awards they win, but how many happy clients we have.”

Hear, hear!

The time and place for a brainstorm

Michael Brown, managing director at psLIVE, discusses how experiential agencies are a viable alternative to ad shops as a first port of call for campaign creatives or strategy.

“No good idea ever came out of a brainstorm.” So stated Sir John Hegarty, otherwise fondly known as the H in Bartle Bogle Hegarty – the creative agency of global renown – as part of a talk he was giving at the Soho Hotel earlier this year to launch his then new book: Turning Intelligence Into Magic.

Undoubtedly this was a brilliantly controversial shard of rhetoric tailored to shock a room in which ideas are the stock in trade of both speaker and audience. When you further consider that the brainstorm was actually invented by the ad industry, you might conclude that Sir John was, in metaphorical terms, shooting the child of his creative and spiritual forebears: [brainstorm inventor] Alex Faickney Osborn would be spitting feathery expletives if he were still around today.

I am not sure how many of you know this, but Osborn was co-founder of New York based ad shop BBDO (now Omnicom owned). It was he who authored the first group technique for creative problem solving, set rules for the technique as far back as 1942 and described it as the brainstorm in his 1953 book Applied Imagination. The brainstorm then is well past retirement age and has had a free ticket to ride on public transport for at least a decade. Please give up your seat.

Delving deeper

But is Sir John right? Should we ignore or even, depending on our seniority, sack the next creative director who invites us to the latest gathering of sharp and shiny minds that has become the everyday staple of agency life these past 70 years?

Can we go further? If the brainstorm, and by extension the creative director, are outmoded vestiges of the past, when every campaign cascaded spring-like from a moment of inspiration clandestinely conjured in their closed shop environs, should we not be questioning the role of the creative agency as first port of call for a good campaign idea? Will we even need them, as they exist now, in the not too distant future?

Consider this: Apple’s recent campaign, Shot on the iPhone 6, is a great idea (on going to press I am unable to confirm if it was created in a brainstorm): it showcases stunning snaps that iPhone users from around the world have fired off with their devices.


In every instance, the shots were so artistically striking that they looked like the work of a pro. There was no ad agency required to dream the idea up in the first instance and certainly no need to send a crew to create the work in a series of exotic, wallet-bursting locations. Apple’s customers are doing it all. The only qualified person needed for this kind of work is a humble designer on a few hundred quid daily to create a nice, on-brand boilerplate, flexible enough to adapt to various mediums, onto which you can drop the work of your customer.

This is UGC deployed at scale, an approach that turns the brand away from advertiser, and repositions it as publisher – a strategic approach that is increasingly prevalent. Therefore, if your strategy is always the same, your client is now a publisher and their customers provide the content, then the ad agency may not always be the first port of call to get a campaign out of the traps.

User generated content

In one of my previous blogs Real Time Experiential we saw how lots of people, from Canon to Captain Morgan to Camelot, are experimenting with experiential as the vehicle to create user generated content, or content featuring consumers (CFC) and broadcasting it in real time to DOOH. The same content is then deployed across the mix to creatively inform the entire campaign from TV to social and all points in between.

To nick my own words in that previous piece, this puts live activation at the heart of a media plan, placing experiential and digital practitioners at the centre of the mix. The main thrust of my argument being that, in the future, we could see all content for any creative campaign flowing from the live activation with experiential agencies driving the campaign idea. In such a paradigm, how would an ad agency have to evolve to have a stake in that particular world order?

Nick Bailey, chief executive of digital creative agency Isobar, has a view: “In this context the role of the creative practitioner is not eliminated; it is simply changed – and changed into something very different from the world where ‘creative’ was the special responsibility of a privileged elite in an advertising agency.”

Bailey is a lot more than the chief executive of Isobar, a company operating in 70 countries under the strapline of ‘ideas without limits’; a philosophy that is perfect for the other hat he wears to work – he is also their executive creative director. I could not have asked a better person to comment.

He continues: “The explosion of forms and means of creative expression driven by digital in the last 20 years demands a different approach to creativity; one that has more in common with the process of invention, where many disciplines are involved, collaborating with each other, trying things out, iterating, being prepared to fail and try again.”

Bailey’s comments reverberate in our recent collaboration for adidas, in which psLIVE was actually the home of the campaign idea: a high-tech, immersive experience that allowed footballers to trial product around the recent football boot launch Ace and X.


Players were invited to participate in two challenges that helped them to identify their playing style. Adidas believes there are two types of footballer, those who control everything and those who create chaos. We recorded their performance scores before making personalised product recommendations based on the type of player they were.  Players where then invited to show off their skills in a specially designed 2 v 2 football arena against the pros.


In this case, the ad agency creatively shaped (see above) the look and feel of our live activation – taking the lead from us. Isobar designed the corresponding digital experience and the media agency Carat drove huge awareness around the campaign to make manifest Nick Bailey’s earlier quote around cross discipline collaboration.

Interestingly, five of the ad agencies in the UK Top 10 – Publicis, Leo Burnett, VCCP, WCRS and McCann – include experiential in their service offering. Plainly these guys are intent on fully owning all the means by which a brand story can be told, but what is certain is that however the landscape continues to evolve, the future remains a very rosy place for experiential specialists.

Now, who is in favour of renaming the brainstorm as an ‘Osborn’ in honour of the great man who gave us the institution?

Live storytelling and its growing importance

Storytelling, in an evolutionary context, has been undeniably important to our success as a species, says psLIVE’s managing director Michael Brown.

The myriad theories of precisely why this is so can bring the world’s sharpest intellects to fisticuffs in the laboratory car park.

Some scientists believe storytelling evolved to help impart crucial survival information, such as where the ripest berries could be found, or where to avoid the most dangerous animals. Others believe it bestowed a peacock-like advantage in the quest for a mate – entertain your would-be partner, raise a chuckle even, and you’re in. Others yet would punch you on the nose if you did not agree that social cohesion was the reason; storytelling was the stimulus to gather around the campfire, a social act that helped to strengthen tribal bonds.

To straighten things out, I contacted Doctor Mark Coulson, associate professor in Psychology at Middlesex University; home to the BSc Psychology and Marketing course.

Mark said: “Perhaps the most interesting contemporary psychological explanation of storytelling is that it allows us to ‘simulate’ emotional responses to situations we may never have encountered. As readers or listeners we take on the viewpoints of other people, perhaps very different from ourselves.

“By sharing their stories, we learn about our own emotions. Just as rough and tumble play teaches us behaviours which help us to survive, so listening to stories teaches us psychological skills that will serve us well in the future.”

What we did not foresee, when we dragged ourselves out of the primeval swamp, was that the evolutionary trail would lead us from hunter-gatherers to such occupations as working in media.

Assuming you are a fully adapted media type yourself, I am sure you would acknowledge that the ancient art of storytelling has been, and is, the subject of as much debate in a marketing context as it amongst those combative evolutionary scientists. There have been many articles on the subject. Here is yet another, hopefully, suitably evolved from its predecessors.

Aggressive storytelling

Earlier this year, Adidas appointed creative agency 72&Sunny in order to mount a campaign of what the brand called ‘aggressive storytelling’. Ed Pilkington, Diageo’s marketing and innovation director western Europe, stated in May that a brand’s longevity depends on its ability to tell a great story. The UK marketing director for Three, Tom Malleschatz, spoke widely this month about the brand’s move into storytelling. This topic is evidently so hot right now (again) that you should be loosening a collar and opening a window as you read this.

If everyone’s at it then, just who is telling the best stories and how are the best stories told? Rick Hirst, chief executive of creative agency McGarry Bowen, creators of the fabulous Endless Road ad for Honda, offered some guidance.

“Stories have always been at the heart of great brands but in today’s world, those stories have to do two things,” he said. “First, a story has to grab the attention, like NOW, of the audience in that moment, in the right place and be memorable. No easy feat.

“It also needs to be cumulative – work toward a bigger, consistent narrative so that you build an enduring and deeper relationship with an audience. Simplicity is key: people don’t have the time or inclination to piece together a brand narrative. It’s our job to take away that complexity.”

To expand on Hirst’s comments around narrative, I think a convincing case could be made for experiential as the best way to start a brand story.

Think about it. All the best stories are kick-started by an individual’s personal experience, whether that is the work of a favourite author or simply your mate down the pub regaling you about his or her hilariously bad day. To be truly engaging, a brand narrative would surely have to be similarly experience based. Adidas certainly took this approach in their recent Supercolor launch.

50 Shades of Supercolor

A reimaging of their famous Originals trainer in 50 amazing shades by global superstar Pharrell Williams, who is (according to the story) a man with Synaesthesia, a condition that jumbles the senses in a spectacularly artistic fashion. The effect on Pharrell means he experiences sound as colour.

Here you can see the beginnings of a plot that is ripe for development. In this case, into a live experience in which people could use Twitter to control the colour palette of a dramatic light display choreographed to music. The plot also involved DJs, drones, arcs of floodlights strafing the skies over London, a live link up to Pharrell himself and a floating sound stage in Hackney Reservoir. Guests were immersed in an interactive sense in the story as it unfolded, and it gave them content assets enabling them to retell the story to their social peers.

This approach mirrors the oral traditions of storytelling in which a listener would hear a story, embellish it with their own experiences and pass it on. The listener becomes the storyteller and so on. This is marketing: plugging straight into, or simulating the ancient hardwiring of human behaviour to better chime with modern audiences. You may recall both the Canon and Captain Morgan case studies from my last blog on real time experiential.

Both campaigns mimicked the oral traditions of storytelling by giving the audience their own assets so that they too could become the storytellers.

Whether or not such case studies build a credible case for experiential as the prime mover in starting a brand story, the psychology would also appear to be with us, according to my interpretation of Dr Mark Coulson’s further words on this subject.

He said: “When we are engaged in a story, at whatever level, we come to share the experiences and feelings of the protagonist. The more engaging the story, the more we share. Books, movies, many forms of advertising are largely passive media, uninfluenced by our actions.

“Anything as a medium that is interactive, more responsive, which may include media such as computer games or forms of advertising such as experiential or social, is consequently more engaging. The opportunities for such media to further enhance the ways in which we become part of other people’s stories are an untapped and exciting frontier.”

Good stories, well told

However we choose to tell a brand story, Hirst had both the last word and further guidance for us: “What we have at our fingertips are more tools, more opportunities and more ways in which we can tell a brand story.

“Whether a big cinema ad, an amazing interactive experience, or a surprising piece of PR, a great story can be a powerful way of communicating a brand’s message. The key in that last sentence though is the word ‘great’. There’s no such thing as a bad story well told.”

Michael Brown is MD of psLIVE.

Real time experiential fed by data


BA’s ‘Look Up’ DOOH campaign responded to real time flight data.

Like a well-fed toddler constantly in need of ever bigger shoes, the footprint of digital out of home (DOOH) grows ever larger. The proliferation of interactive panels is heading towards 20% of all UK poster sites. Correspondingly, more and more outdoor spend is channeled into the hungrier and hungrier mouth of the child of our times that is digital.

Posterscope state that this is 28% of all out of home revenues. This is an absolutely massive spoonful, especially when you consider the Advertising Association and Warc’s Adspend Forecast predicted that over £1 billion would be invested in Out of Home advertising during 2015. Open wide!

Sit down next to me!

At this juncture you might be thinking that this has zilch all to do with your life as a purveyor of quality experiential services. In which case, I am politely requesting you think again for here beckons a table you may want a seat at. To build on a theme I explored in my previous blog piece Experiential Architecture; that of new opportunity, we practitioners are best placed to help nurture the DOOH infant into a fully-formed and well-adjusted adult!

At some point in the glorious future, all outdoor will be digital. A jury of media’s finest will take a long time to return a verdict on precisely when that will be but, while the experts are deliberating, we have enough coverage presently to get cracking.

All digital is inherently interactive – there is no point in it otherwise!

Folk are definitely more inclined to engage with interactive advertising whether through their mobile devices or through touch screen. This means there is a very fuzzy distinction, or rather no distinction at all, between the creative on the digital panels, and the live space in front of those panels. Is it bought media or is it experiential or both? A savvy operator may want to lay claim to a chunk of this space before it’s too late and in so doing start a gold rush. Indeed, some prospectors have already staked a claim. Are they using it to its fullest potential though?

In a recent article on interactive outdoor, the Pepsi Max augmented reality bus shelter was cited as a good example of the form. Unarguably, the idea is envy arousing, and it’s certainly famous around our meeting room table as the thing clients most want a variation of to adorn their own campaigns, yet it was a one-off tactical execution; as opposed to being the fulcrum of a genuine wide-scale media plan. Most of the other examples cited in the piece are similarly tactical by design.

Join the crew!

There are real world examples where the medium is pushed further: In the bottom right corner of the below photo, (from way back in 2012) people are queuing up to see content they had moments earlier created with a Canon Ixus after first picking up the camera from a pop-up showroom and taking it on a ‘test drive’.

This in itself is a revolution. Up until that point, people did not queue to see creative on a poster panel – even if they had really uneventful social lives! Fast forward to 2015 and the people you see ‘joining the crew’ in the Captain Morgan advert on the Piccadilly One site in Piccadilly Circus are, right at that moment, taking part in a bar promotion in Yates’s just around the corner in Leicester Square!


Both instances are giving people their few minutes in the spotlight in spectacular style, therefore building on the fame social media users seek each time they share content, and both are broadcasting content to outdoor media bought in day-parts as part of a wider geo-targeted media plan that is scaled nationally.

As interesting as these examples are, and I must confess a partisan bias in that the Canon and Captain Morgan works were both done by psLIVE, there is still so much more you can do creatively in this constantly evolving medium. Once you factor in real time data streaming you can really catapult the ante skywards.

Turning up the heat!

Last winter, British Gas used real-time data about travel from public transport arrival and departure boards to trigger contextually relevant messaging in airports, bus and rail stations to travellers and commuters about Hive, a smart product that allows people to remotely adjust their home heating with their mobile devices. For example, if the number 50 bus to Croydon showed as due in 20 minutes then OOH messages were triggered to prompt relevant use of the application.

Dan Douglas, the founder of Liveposter, the company who developed the technology that enabled British Gas, among others, to use live data and content to effect campaign messaging explains the potential his platform may provide for experiential activity…

“The opportunity is to bring together the power of experiential to engage and involve consumers in brand advertising with the scale and speed of DOOH media to amplify it in real time to a broadcast audience. Real time data adds an extra dimension to both the targeting and display content ensuring the most relevant content is shown at any moment.”

Adam Cherry, Liveposter’s digital director, adds: “We know from recent research that data driven dynamic campaigns add value to advertisers in terms of increasing awareness and message recall. Using data to optimise the creative around experiential activity will strengthen the live work e.g. brands associating with sports could pull in live scores or even tailor the creative based around social sentiment in a particular location.”

Such work threatens to put experiential at the heart of a media plan, a switch from a tactical to a strategic medium. This places us practitioners at the centre of the mix, and potentially changes the old order, in particular the ad agency role: If this really is the glorious future then could the logical end point see all content, for any creative campaign, flowing from, and out of the live experience in real time fed by data? As I stated earlier, a seat at the table of this particular opportunity awaits us. Perhaps we may even sit at the head of it!

Michael Brown is MD of psLIVE.

Experiential architecture

Michael Brown, MD of psLIVE, pops along to Google’s retail experience inside Curry’s flagship store in London’s Tottenham Court Road for his first blog for Event.

The Google retail experience inside Curry’s in London’s Tottenham Court Road has reached the grand old age of over a month! Which is a time frame well beyond the life expectancy of your average pop-up.


Tottenham Court Road Store

A few weeks on from launch, I thought I would drop by to see whether or not the experience is still alive and kicking: Do we need to pension it off or are we, as I believe, seeing the evolution of a new opportunity to diversify our services; to build on the notion of retail experiential to become experiential architects?!


Google Portal in the London store

Vend: The online POS software provider predicted that more web brands would be setting up in bricks and mortar in 2015 – they pointed to Birchbox’s shop in New York as proof of this. The launch of Google’s store in March backs up their clairvoyance and other earlier precedents might include eBay’s in-store partnership with Argos and the fact that Microsoft are rolling out ever more retail outlets – their latest in São Paulo opened this week.


Moreover, they say that in order for these online brands to compete with the established players on the high street, they will need to focus on the experience, as opposed to plonking stuff on a shelf in a supermarket and expecting people to buy it. This mirrors long held views about the shopper experience. As far back as 2006, the seminal book Retailization spoke about shoppers only being loyal to the superior shopping experience and asked marketers if shopping for your brand was a fun-filled and exciting thing to do.

Experiential doubters

Almost a decade later, and there is still much marketing theorising about the point of engagement getting ever closer to the point of purchase, which is particularly salient for the future of our discipline: For, while we all know and love the myriad benefits of doing experiential, who hasn’t come against the odd cynic in a pitch for instance, or at a chemistry meeting who is an experiential doubter?! The sort of person who darkly mutters something about how you can’t link what we do to actual sales uplift, despite your best persuasive efforts. Which is actually a fair enough reaction if we practitioners cannot actually prove a correlation!

While there is plenty of research linking sales uplifts directly with experiential – the EventTrack 2014 Study out of the US for instance – Google, Birchbox, eBay et al are plumping for the safest option it seems and setting up shop err… in a shop. Which makes the point of engagement and the point of purchase so close that they risk getting hot and steamy, and we should perhaps draw the curtains.

If, then, in the future, every online brand wants to build a retail experience around their core offer, then forget hiring a shop fitter! Who better to design an engaging consumer journey through a store than an experiential practitioner? Who better to dictate how the experience will impact on the structure of a store and the customer journey through it?

This is not so much “Retail Experiential” but “Experiential Architecture”. It is different from the pop-up, which in terms of design and experience has to fit into a designated or pre-existing space, and often has to be mindful of any co-partners brand guidelines – as in the case with Google and Curry’s PC World.

In other words, the ambition of the pop-up or retail experiential risks compromise by the limitations of the space whether brand led, physical or regulatory – ever tried to build a wall higher than 2.5 metres in a mall space?! Is anyone else seeing the opportunity here?

Experiential Architecture

Agency TRO certainly do. On its website they state that they are leading the way in retail experiential. Could they become architects?!  Michael Wyrley-Birch, chief operating officer for TRO EMEA, outlines his view here:

“As sales move online, every brand interaction is a retail opportunity. Consumers are therefore looking for something different from the physical retail space – be it education or entertainment. We are in the business of creating face-to-face live experiences that stand-out, and are relevant and authentic to the brand and product story.

“It is not surprising that this is more and more within the retail environment. We are excited about the future of retail experience and continuing to offer innovative ways for brands to engage physically with people taking it beyond a purely transactional relationship.”

London’s Green Bridge

In my opinion, this opportunity is not limited to the retail sector only: It’s potentially everywhere you look e.g. The Mayor of London’s office rubber-stamped plans for an, admittedly controversial, green bridge on the Thames last year.  This initiative will effectively turn the river into a green playground. It is an entirely experience-led proposition that could sell London as the green city of the future, and add more experience led visitor attractions to the Capital, as well as being useful to Londoners.

I bet they have not even thought about engaging an experiential consultant to help design the experience, the user journey and advise on how that should impact on the architecture to have the best impact on the people participating in the experience. In a world where people actually value experience over product, it won’t take much imagination to identify many other opportunities where consultants like us can get involved.

I don’t know about you, but I fancied becoming an architect as a kid. I may just do that now.