Agency Models Experiential Marketing Marketing

‘There’s a huge appetite’: how experiential agencies are navigating the great comeback


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

September 13, 2021 | 8 min read

Despite the stop-and-start economic recovery, specialist agencies are enjoying an overdue autumn of demand from clients eager to return to events and experiential marketing. As part of The Drum’s Experiential Marketing Deep Dive, we find out from agencies Jack Morton, Momentum, 2Heads and BeCore how the last year has changed the way they work – and what’s next.

adidas liquid billboard in dubai

Jack Morton’s swimmable billboard, constructed in Dubao for Havas and Adidas

For marketing agencies specializing in brand experiences, feast has followed famine this summer. Though many businesses specializing in physical brand experiences – high street pop-ups, living billboards or streetside swimming pools – saw client activity put on ice for much of last year, the gradual lifting of Covid-19 restrictions and the return of consumers has pushed them into overdrive.

Shelley Elkins, chief creative officer of Jack Morton Worldwide, tells The Drum that business has been “very, very busy”. The agency has a reputation for manufacturing extraordinary branded environments, such as an underwater dance club dubbed ‘Deep House’ for beer brand Desperado, or its recent feat in Dubai – crafting an aquatic outdoor ad on behalf of Adidas and Havas. The five-meter-high billboard with a three-meter-deep swimming pool was built from reinforced transparent acrylic and contained 11,500 gallons of water (the equivalent of 163 bathtubs).

“In terms of live, we’re definitely seeing brands dipping their toes in various ways back into the water,” says Elkins.

At BeCore, the Los Angeles indie, chief executive officer Steve Dupree says: “Yes, things have definitely picked up over the last few months. A few brands have already begun in-person activations again and many more are planning for in-person activities in Q4 and early 2022. The excitement and focus brands are putting behind in-person experiences is great to see. They know there is a pent-up demand after so many things were paused or canceled the last year and a half.”

Similarly, Luke D’Arcy, UK president of Momentum Worldwide, says clients have “absolutely” regained their confidence in the channel. “For clients, agencies and talent, the outlook is more confident. We have big plans in the pipeline already for 2022. With technology now an integrated part of consumers’ lives, we’ve seen how experiences can be enhanced by the correct use of it. We have incorporated all the learnings from 2021 into our plans and executions for clients, and there’s some really clever creativity on its way.”

And at agency 2Heads, executive director James Simpkins says demand is high but uneven. “Across all of the sectors we operate in, there’s a huge appetite to return to live and rightly so,” he tells The Drum.

“We deliver a lot of work at global trade events, which have bounced back at varying speeds dependent on industry. Interestingly, aviation – one of the harder hit sectors during the pandemic – is coming back very strongly.”

Elkins says IPG-owned Jack Morton has been recruiting new talent left, right and center to meet client demand, recently adding five new creative directors to its US team. “We can’t hire fast enough, to be honest.”

Live adaptation

While live events and in-person activations were paused for most of last year, experiential agencies were at the forefront of event experiments and the digitization of brand experiences. D’Arcy says that hybrid events led to a new, permanent service offering at Momentum.

“By listening and understanding the needs of consumers and our clients, we created Momentum VXi, a virtual experience intelligence platform. VXi has allowed us to adapt from creating in-person experiences to virtual experiences, and to now bridge the gap between physical-only and digital-only experiences. This is a long-term change.”

BeCore also launched products with an emphasis on safety. “We now know that live events can happen safely, and because everyone wants to ensure we don’t have to cancel events again in the future, they’re taking the appropriate precautions for the health and safety of their guests and staff,” says Dupree. “Our SafeSpace offering is generating more interest now than at any other time during the pandemic. Events want to ensure they have the right protocols and infrastructure in place.”

At 2Heads, the team spent the past year building up a new virtual events platform and an Unreal Engine design studio that specializes in B2B events. Simpkins says: “It was obviously a challenging year with some tough decisions being made along the way, but as a result we’ve retooled the agency into something very exciting for the future.”

With audiences embracing live events again, the next stage will see the agency push ‘blended’ experiences that combine both live and digital elements. “Globally, 86% of people are interested in attending blended experiences, so we know the appetite for live events exists,” says Simpkins.

“Not only is there an increased appetite for experiences following lockdown, but people’s expectations are much higher from brands. Consumers are willing to experiment more, use technology like never before and are open to new opportunities so this has allowed creativity to flow, especially in the hybrid format.”

For Elkins, the adaptation process was educational. Looking back, she says: “We had to immediately use our least favorite word, ‘pivot’.

“We had a big program for Facebook – we were three weeks out when lockdown happened – and we had to quickly figure out how to do it virtually.”

It was as story repeated throughout much for 2020. Now, though, the agency is putting lessons learned during its period of recalibration to use: “I think one of the big differences between last year and this year is that we’ve learned so much.” Even with its offices only open on a limited basis, Elkins says “production is back” at the agency, and that its production studios are operating once again.

Delta blues

There is a final, major obstacle lying in the way of an experiential recovery – the delta variant. Elkins notes that health and safety concerns, while already factored into its work, are now paramount to any planned activity. “Health and safety is always something we think about in experiential – especially when we’re building dance clubs underwater,” she says.

“It’s something that’s at the center of our thinking. We’re doing a greater amount of contingency planning than ever before. It’s a lot more flexible.”

Elkins continues: “Delta is scary. And people’s comfort levels vary. That’s something we’re thinking about too as we plan experiences – how we can be inclusive and facilitate participation, no matter where your comfort level might be?”

At BeCore, Dupree echoes her point and says clients now want greater flexibility from partners. “There is also more emphasis on the nimbleness and agility of agencies, as we’ve seen how quickly we need to shift in the planning process as guidance on Covid safety continuously changes and evolves.”

D’Arcy suggests this state of affairs may be permanent. “Moving forward, enhanced health and safety will be built into all activations as a standard procedure. Across markets, the level of Covid-19 restrictions may fluctuate but there will always be a standard base level that will be required to make sure events are as safe as possible for people attending. As restrictions change, consumers’ comfort level with being back in ‘normal’ event situations ranges massively and we’re able to tailor events to suit all levels of confidence.”

From festivals to retail installations to unmissable activations, we examine the avenues open to marketers to reach consumers enjoying their newfound freedom in The Drum’s Experiential Deep Dive.

Agency Models Experiential Marketing Marketing

More from Agency Models

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +