Marketing Agency Culture COVID-19

Industry festivals say they’re ready for Omicron, but agencies are wary


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

January 12, 2022 | 6 min read

As festivals such as Cannes Lions and SXSW work to persuade guests to attend in person, agencies are reconsidering their involvement.

advertising week new york

Last year’s hybrid edition Advertising Week New York. Will agencies be able to return in person this year?

After almost two years of pandemic, many agency staff had begun to hope for the resumption of trade shows, conferences and festivals – and the networking and partying that went with them. Amid the January cold, many agencies are already planning on enjoying a bit of sunshine on the French Riviera at Cannes.

But the return to the grand tour of conferences may have to be postponed further, with the emergence of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 and its attendant travel restrictions, staff shortages and risk calculations.

Concerns among attendees over the latest variant meant that the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas went ahead this month with 30% of the turnout its organizers are accustomed to.

Meanwhile, The Drum learned that Advertising Week Europe will be postponed until May due to the impact of Covid. A spokesperson for the conference said: “We can confirm that Advertising Week Europe will be returning to London – live, in person and online – from 16-19 May, 2022. After two years of virtual events, we’re excited to deliver the full Advertising Week hybrid experience for our partners and delegates.

“Having run a hugely successful and Covid safe hybrid event in New York back in October 2021, we will be bringing that experience and the lessons learnt to London, whilst working in line with any and all government legislation and guidance in place at that time.”

Events such as Cannes Lions, held at the beginning of summer, might reasonably hope to be spared disruption.

A spokesperson for Cannes Lions tells The Drum: ”We’re continuing with our plan for a physical festival in Cannes and we look forward to bringing the global creative community together again in June.

”Due to the constantly changing global situation, we will be announcing our specific safety measures nearer to the time. Safety at the festival will be our top priority and we will ensure that Cannes Lions is safe for all of our employees, attendees and partners.”

But South by Southwest (SXSW), held at the end of March, is keeping a closer eye on developments. Organizers say it hopes a combination of hybrid access and on-site Covid requirements will ensure safety for those making the trip to Texas.

A spokesperson for SXSW tells The Drum: ”SXSW is moving forward with an in-person event with additional online viewing and participation options. Recognizing that the Covid landscape is changing rapidly, our best path is to continue working with both the City of Austin and Austin Public Health on our steps forward.”

Attendees will be need to provide proof of vaccination (or a recent negative test) to get in, though the festival didn’t rule out instituting further rules closer to launch.

While industry events have sought to meet audiences at home with hybrid and remote programs throughout 2021 and 2020, the businesses behind these banner events depend, in part, on the biggest agencies showing up in force. When Publicis announced it planned to skip Cannes Lions in 2017, the festival was so alarmed that it cut entry fees by over 20%.

But the long absence has led to some agencies re-evaluating their approach.

At R/GA, global chief marketing officer Ashish Prashar says a change was overdue. ”It’s no secret the events industry is one that has been hit hardest by Covid. However, I can’t help but feel that Covid has broken what was an already slightly broken attitude towards events.

”Within our industry there was previously a behavioral cycle that existed where people might have felt required to attend events. There was almost an unspoken mandate around certain conferences. Now, companies need to prioritize two things – their own people and their personal comfort level, and what’s going to make an actual difference to your organization.”

Steve Scutellaro, managing director at Engine, says his team is planning a reduced presence compared to previous years. ”Right now our point of view is that we are going to have less activity but invest and participate in the bigger moments.

”Cannes, for example, is one that we – as of now – plan on attending, especially since it’s very flexible and a lot of the activity takes place outdoors. But some of the smaller things, we’re just going to have to chuck for the moment.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Prashar says R/GA has looked to reproduce the opportunities for education provided by industry festivals by hosting more of its own virtual events. ”Having ownership of the narrative and creative license of these events has been a valuable platform,” he says, though he adds the agency is still determined to take part in conferences and festivals in-person.

”We’re excited to see people in real life again. From a purely human point of view, it’s almost impossible to replicate that environment perfectly in a virtual format, so events like Cannes and SXSW have an important role to play in offering up those rare touchpoints where you can connect again on both a human and business level, and meet with talent, clients, prospective clients, colleagues and press.

”We’ve also got long-standing relationships with many of those events and their organizers, and feel there’s a responsibility on agencies and brands to show support at some level.”

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