When Barclaycard, Next and Ikea all proclaim inside 12 short months that the experience economy is now fully underway, it's easy to see why the respondents to this year's Brand Experience Report are overwhelmingly positive. An overtly confident 78% of agencies forecast profits will increase in 2017 while 89% expect headcount to rise in 2017.
This year's report, our third edition, pools the results and trends from 150 opinion formers within the brand experience community. The league table has grown by 50% and now features 45 agencies ranked by experiential billings while new sections include a focus on pitching and payment terms, an open letter from the IPM calling for industry support for their new measurement scheme plus interviews with brands including San Miguel, Time Out and Volvo on their experiential strategy for the year ahead.
Healthy business levels
The survey reveals that business levels and budgets were on the rise across 2016, as 84% of agencies said the number of pitches they took part in increased last year compared to 2015 and several reported record levels of new business. Amplify was among the agencies enjoying a surge in new activity. Founder Jonathan Emmins says: "We had 14 new client wins in 2016, which has set us up for a strong year ahead with a series of new journeys with new clients, plus new journeys with our existing client base."
And experiential becoming more central to brand planning was widely reported by the brands surveyed this year. Vodafone UK's brand lead for sponsorships and partnerships Daniel Underwood explains: "Experiential is hugely important for us because we sell something that’s hard to imagine – it’s intangible air – so when we do events we need to show the power of our network. It is also starting to become more measurable when you tie it into digital and social."
The importance of experiential is echoed by marketers from brands including Lululemon Athletica, who describe it as their heritage, and also The Economist, who view it as key to audience engagement. Yet as the interest in experiences grows, lead times continue to shrink even further, causing an increased volatility for several agencies trying to forecast the amount of projects to deliver across a year. RPM managing director Dom Robertson reveals: "Our biggest challenge is certainly around the volatility of revenues, and trying to reflect that with the right skillset within the agency. We still have fits and bursts of activity, which makes it hard. It has become increasingly exaggerated due to the shorter lead times, yet expectations from clients are much higher. It makes for pretty tough trading conditions."
Recruitment and talent
Furthermore, as the lead times diminish, the impact on sourcing teams to deliver last minute projects is clear, as 20% of agencies believe finding and recruiting the right talent is the biggest challenge facing their business in 2017. "Due to the industry innovating at such an unprecedented rate, it is a constant challenge to ensure we remain relevant and competitive by recruiting the best talent and being ahead of the curve and spotting industry trends," says Avantgarde's managing director Stuart Bradbury.
"Recruiting great talent has always been a challenge within our sector. Where the specific problem currently lies is finding individuals who have experience in the forefront of our industry whether that’s in the latest innovations within creative technologies, digital or marketing strategies. Our industry more than any other is experiencing a time of great positive change and innovation, maintaining our competitive ‘edge’ is a priority for our management team."
Maintaining that edge is of course key to the brands looking to deliver in an experience-led climate. Pernod Ricard's senior brand manager Steve Hughes believes the sector is becoming saturated with experiences: "There’s just so much going on – brands are doing so much experiential these days, you’ve got to cut through and use the technologies that really enhance people’s experience. You have to have a really compelling idea for it to stand out and get people engaged. Competition is great – it keeps you on the ball, but if you don’t get the idea right, you’re destined for failure."
Jim Robinson, managing director of Frukt, agrees: "As brands become more familiar with experiential and expertise in the area continues to grow – and also as the whole industry grows – doing things that are different, interesting and new is always the challenge. Finding the next thing to capture people’s imaginations is always our top priority."
And in seeking out that next thing, a mere glance towards adland reveals how rapidly the marcomms landscape is converging and evolving – from the growth in branded entertainment through to campaigns such as Nike Breaking2 that transcend the traditional. Meanwhile, the accessibility of tech with everything from AI to VR on offer is creating new consumer experiences. As Lucy Basden-Smith, business director of Havas Sports & Entertainment Cake, says: "Brands very rarely approach agencies looking for a pure experiential proposal anymore. In the past year we have restructured to create an activation team that comprises one or two experiential experts, as well as members from our social, creative and PR teams. Brands increasingly want a creative solution that is experience driven, but can also be amplified easily too."
View the full Brand Experience Report 2017 here, plus the top 45 agencies list.
Other highlights of the report include:
Adland sweeps in – Why major ad agencies are turning their focus towards experiential, and what it means for the industry
Measure for measure – Can measurement ever be standardised?
Pitching and payment - key trends and challenges
Campaigns of the future – Six industry experts predict the future of experiential
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