How Are Experiential Marketing Agencies Grappling With Coronavirus?

Agencies consider timely pivots and how they might change their strategy in the future

Lighting person setting up an event
Livestreamed events could become a new normal for experiential until the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. Agency EA
Headshot of Ian Zelaya

Key insights:

There is plenty of uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic, but one thing is very certain: Live experiences that require physical interaction won’t be an option for brands and marketers in the foreseeable future.

The outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the pathogen coronavirus, has killed more than 6,500 people globally. To help reduce the spread, global health organizations and local, national and world leaders are urging people to stay home and practice social distancing, which means limiting in-person interactions. On Monday, the White House advised people in the U.S. to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

The unprecedented crisis has also led cities and event organizers to cancel or postpone gatherings that include massive industry conferences, tech summits, music and film festivals and daylong brand pop-ups.

As coronavirus has upended the experiential world and the ad industry as a whole, agencies are now trying to find effective and, more importantly, safe solutions for clients that had planned physical activations in 2020. Should agencies scramble to create and push out digital or virtual experience to connect with an audience? Or should they wait until it’s safe enough to hold a physical event again? And does a mass audience even care about engaging with a brand during a time of unprecedented crisis?

While there isn’t one correct answer for how experiential marketers should handle their future client projects, pros from U.S.-based experiential agencies shared how coronavirus has impacted their business so far, ways they might pivot their planned physical events, how to view the situation in a positive light and how it could change the way the experiential marketing handles pre-event precautions and contingency plans in the future.

“Pivot” is the experiential buzzword of the moment—but what does it mean, exactly?

With physical experiences temporarily not an option, agencies are looking for ways to pivot to alternatives. The most obvious option is going virtual or digital, but most agencies and brands have been tight-lipped on the details of specific alternative projects they have in the works with clients.

Los Angeles-based creative production partner Tool of North America creates activations and content for brands like Netflix, Amazon Studios and Twitch. Tool president Dustin Callif said the agency’s expertise in content creation will come in handy for the next few months, as clients want to offer ways to engage with audiences virtually.

“The biggest challenge is that the beauty of an event is bringing together a certain amount of people, of a certain mindset, in one place,” Callif said. “Now that events aren’t happening, the challenge is targeting that audience in a similar way, virtually or digitally. How can we accomplish that for clients that unfortunately were part of events that were cancelled?”

Livestreaming is an option, but Callif said agencies and clients will have to think beyond that if they want to achieve an emotional connection with consumers on par with an IRL event. While he couldn’t share specific digital solutions his team is considering for clients right now, he noted the agency might translate learnings from their previous livestreamed experiences that took learnings from esports, such as one the agency created with Amazon Prime Video.

To promote the second season of reality road trip series The Grand Tour in 2018, Tool worked with Amazon to create a global gaming event broadcast on livestreaming gaming platform Twitch. Amazon Prime Video tapped Twitch influencers to participate in a life-sized game of Battleship, where each game board square was rigged with different levels of explosives to destroy cars. For the two hourlong livestreams, Twitch users could participate in the game through custom extensions, and could choose a team to support by selecting squares on the grid to destroy. More than 170,000 Twitch users actively participated in the broadcast, which drew 3.3 million views. Ian Zelaya is an Adweek reporter covering how brands engage with consumers in the modern world, ranging from experiential marketing and social media to email marketing and customer experience.