Business Development

What Makes You Special?

brand, "brand experience", conferences, "digital marketing", "engagement marketing", "entertainment marketing", "event marketing", events, experiences, "experience marketing", "experiential marketing", marketing, "social media", "trade shows"If you search the internet for experiential marketing agencies, and peruse a few sites, you’ll notice something unremarkable. Every. Single. Agency. portrays themselves the exact same way.

Seriously. I’m not just talking about capabilities. In many cases, agencies are even using variations of the same WordPress theme. It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re a major player, or a boutique shop. Differentiation at the point of initial contact, and even deeper engagement is exceedingly rare. No wonder brands and clients have a difficult time deciding who to go with. Our industry is becoming highly commoditized. Left with indistinguishable differences, clients are forced to look at price as the deciding factor.

I recently went through the exercise of reviewing all 100 agencies on Event Marketer’s It List. Aside from a few exceptions, I was struck by the incredible similarities. Most sites look something like this:

  • Opening page showing the work in photos or videos, energized audiences, trade show booths, colored lighting, speakers on stage, people smiling in group shots, a few “engagement” views,
  • About us page which provides a quirky description of the agency’s history, a description of their approach — which is the same approach with a different name that everyone else uses, and a list of the same capabilities every other agency has,
  • Logo page showing all the brands the agency has ever worked with,
  • Case study page, with some semblance of a deeper dive of the work agencies has done — seldom accurately describing the business problem or opportunity, with a lot of focus on what the agency executed, and very little, or completely missing results of the work — if anything, outputs, not outcomes,
  • Team page with creative shots showing the personalities of the leadership team, and in some cases, everyone in the agency, including the some random fun facts or quotes, and of course, the obligatory picture of someone’s dog who is the adopted agency mascot,
  • A map of where all the remote agency employees live disguised as office locations,
  • Links to press releases, and often poorly managed social media sites, including: a blog, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, sometimes — Slideshare, YouTube or Vimeo, and for the really cool — Instagram or the exceedingly rare Snapchat,
  • Careers page with creatively written job descriptions for open positions,
  • And, a desperate contact page, pleading for you to submit an RFP to the agency’s new business development person.

Looking at this from a potential client’s eyes, and having participated in dozens of pitches in my career, I’m wondering why it is so hard to be different? I’m reminded of that scene in Monty Python’s, “The Life of Brian”, where Brian proclaims, “You are all individuals!” and the audience shouts back in a monotone voice, “We are all individuals…”

What’s more, the way in which agencies present themselves is redundant. The website = the RFP response = the pitch. We do not do a good job of telling different chapters of the story at different stages in the relationship.

So what makes you special?

I’m convinced there are indeed differences, but we do not exploit them appropriately.  Typically, there are a few areas that agencies tend to talk about, but often, we try to pontificate on all of them instead of picking 1 or 2 to really focus on. Here are some thoughts on how to make this work

  • Work — cool, creative work using the latest technological and cultural trends: Most agencies have this part figured out, the challenge here is showing relevance to prospects. Sexy wears off when real-world budgets come in to play. Also, what works in entertainment, may not translate into banking.
  • Brands — marquee, recognizable companies: The challenge here, is brands change agencies, and over time, every agency will one day have the same list of Fortune 500 brands on their website.
  • Industry Expertise — specialty in certain verticals: This is seldom exploited, and the fear here is it may limit an agency’s chance of winning a client outside of their vertical wheelhouse. I believe if you are good at something you should stick with it, exploit it, and become THE go to source. That said, it is also not unheard of to find relative verticals that can be exploited based on expertise in another. Clients are often looking for new thinking outside of their industry to leverage.
  • Approach — strategic creative process: Every agency has some POV, perspective and strategic creative process they use. What about other approaches that matter? Is your financial approach different? What about your production? Think beyond the sexy.
  • People / Culture / Talent — mostly award-winning creative talent. There are other people in your agency who should also be celebrated. Keep in mind it takes a village. A client is not a singular entity, but a collection of people in different roles — each who will hold some sort of relationship with someone at your agency. What if you promoted that you had the best event producers in the business? The people who make it happen where the rubber meets the road. Also don’t pay lip service to this. Make sure your people are actually the best, and involved in the process.
  • Size and Scale — local, national, global, fabrication and warehousing, etc.: There is no better or best here. There are different clients who have different needs. Sometimes being global is great, other times, it is a liability with way too much overhead for a client to want to bear for a project.
  • Effectiveness — impact made on client’s business: Almost no one is doing this. Huge opportunity for the right agency to prove themselves based on brand business results.
  • Efficiency — resource, process, accountability, and financial acumen: More and more, brands are looking for results, and more importantly, optimization.

Don’t attempt to boil the ocean. Pick something, deliver it exceptionally, show its relevance, and tell the story in a way that makes sense to the stage of your client relationship. Your unique selling proposition is there, you just need to find it, and help it rise to the top.

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Best. RFP. Ever.

brand, "brand experience", conferences, "digital marketing", "engagement marketing", "entertainment marketing", "event marketing", events, experiences, "experience marketing", "experiential marketing", marketing, "social media", "trade shows"RFPs — The bain of your existence or a necessary business tool? Regardless of where you stand, getting the RFP right sets the stage for success for both clients and agencies alike. Before you participate in a RFP it is important to understand your purpose, strategy and desired outcome.


The major reasons for embarking on a RFP include: dissatisfaction with costs, relationship, or quality / effectiveness of work, or, creating something new (work or relationship).

If you are dissatisfied with a current agency relationship and are looking to change agency partners, the road is filled with obstacles. I can tell you from an agency perspective, the reaction to the RFP is almost always negative. Nothing gets your agency partners’ attention more than the threat of a RFP. Responses will range from executive meetings, to discounted services to value-add to promising to change out staff or approach to the relationship. Agencies usually want to keep your business. Losing business is an expensive proposition. Not only do they need to invest in the RFP process, but the cost of replacing a client is always more expensive than retaining and growing one. This is the same for brands. RFPs are expensive from a time and resources perspective, and the outcome always delays marketplace effectiveness. The truth is, the reasons for going to RFP should be addressed long before the RFP is considered. Far too often, the RFP is a cop-out to having really difficult conversations, and working as a true partner to invest in and improve a relationship, or the output of a relationship. Recognize that sometimes, relationship problems start with the brand.

If you are looking to try something new, and you don’t already have a relationship with an agency, this exploration can take your business in exciting new directions, or leave you sorely disappointed. Here is where understanding and articulating what success looks like is most critical. It is easy to fall in love with the sexy creative or effervescent personalities of agency representatives during the pitch. It is also easy to have an inflexible list of requirements driven by procurement. The magic happens in achieving the balance between capability and relationship.


There are several approaches that can be taken to finding an agency.

Agency search consultants — I’ve found that these are valuable for major (multi-million dollar) reviews of comprehensive, retained relationships. Note that this approach can be time consuming, and expensive. Agency search consultants are paid a fee by the brand (usually a percentage of the total budget), but other arrangements are sometimes available. For smaller programs, or in niche areas of marketing, effectiveness can be limited. Additionally, unless an agency has approached and registered to work with a specific search consultant, or the consultant is very good at research and building / screening their database of agencies, you might not find the best fit. Here you have the greatest opportunity for being introduced to a new agency which has direct experience in your industry.

Independent consultants — These contractors are useful for smaller, niche programs. Usually paid for time spent. The challenge with independent consultants is breadth beyond their niche.

Personal networks — Going it alone with the help of some friends is the least expensive, but often the least effective at finding the right agency to meet your needs. The exercise is time consuming and their is an opportunity cost for time not spent on other activities. The lack of breadth and deep understanding of the marketplace, and ability to knit together solutions that can operate across different marketing disciplines are also factors which can contribute to a challenged outcome.

Procurement — Ensure your procurement function is skilled in, and specializes in marketing. In some cases, the role of procurement is simply to drive down price. In marketing, this can be difficult, as the company is not buying manufactured widgets, where increased volume reduces costs. Marketing is often the opposite, the more work required, the more cost. It is an investment in human capital. That said, of course there are approaches that can be taken to reduce costs if necessary, these include flattening organizational structure on the account, working with more junior-level talent, or entering into retained relationships.

Organizations which engage in Strategic Sourcing vs. Procurement often see the role as achieving higher quality work and gaining better value out of a relationship, not reducing costs, per se, but getting the most for the money.


  1. Prioritize what’s important to you. Is it quality of work? New capabilities? More industry experience? Better relationship? Cost? Creative? Marketing effectiveness? Understand you won’t get everything, and some objectives can be accomplished by focusing on the current relationship.
  2. Consider scope creep. All marketing is synergistic. It works together. The lines are blurred between marketing disciplines and channels. Are you looking for an agency that has breadth across disciplines? An agency that is part of a holding company? Or, an agency that plays well with others?
  3. Think beyond the current ask. Assume you will use this agency again in the future for other things. Can they be that kind of partner?
  4. Recognize your faults. Be upfront with yourself and your potential suitors about what you do well, and what you don’t do well. Where do you need help? Do you have the time to effectively manage an agency relationship?
  5. Be honest. Please don’t talk about dream budgets, incorrect timelines or grand plans that will never materialize. It causes agencies to mis-align resources with needs, drives up long-term costs and always sets up the relationship for eventual failure.
  6. Don’t Cheat. If you are planning on going to RFP when you have an existing agency, please don’t cheat on them and try someone else out. Your current agency will find out (they almost always do – we work in a very small world) and it only damages the relationship you have. It also builds false hope with the new agency and causes them to over-invest in a relationship that may never materialize. If you are concerned about how expensive agencies are, know that these are the kinds of tactics which drive costs up for everyone.
  7. Be a partner. Vendors sell hot dogs. Suppliers have warehouses full of widgets. Service providers fix your plumbing. Partners work together to achieve desired outcomes for the brand.
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What the F*ck is Strategy Anyway?

brand, "brand experience", conferences, "digital marketing", "engagement marketing", "entertainment marketing", "event marketing", events, experiences, "experience marketing", "experiential marketing", marketing, "social media", "trade shows"

According to, it’s “a method or plan chosen to bring about a desired future, such as achievement of a goal or solution to a problem.” For marketers, it can mean so much more. As I think about experiential marketing, the act of strategy or planning incorporates a significant number of inputs to drive the desired outcome. The challenge for many is defining what success looks like, understanding the operational environment, and creating an actionable plan.

Strategy starts with measurable objectives

Be careful here. We’re talking about outcomes vs. outputs. In other words, you want to know about the reaction to the work, not the quantity of things that were done to achieve this reaction. Some measurable objectives might include: increasing awareness, driving purchase consideration, generating sales, or creating advocacy. There are many others of course. It’s important to understand what your goals are, and measure them to determine degrees of success. Objectives should always be SMART. Also, don’t attempt to boil the ocean with brand experiences. Try to narrow focus to 1-3 objectives.

So. Many. Inputs.

In experiential marketing, the major inputs include:

Brand – Your company, what you stand for, where you are and where you’re going — Who are you? What is your position in the market? What is your brand personality? What are your business objectives? How is your business performing?

Audience – Demographics for sure. More importantly, psycho-graphics, interests, passions, media consumption habits, digital behaviors, etc. — Who is your audience, and what drives them rationally and emotionally? How do you reach them?

Culture – Arts, sciences, sports, celebrity, politics — What is happening in the world of your consumer that you might consider, include, or avoid?

Marketplace – Industry trends, competition, socioeconomic considerations — What macro-industry forces are at play? How can you leverage these? What impact might they have on your strategy?

Marketing – Tools you, or other brands are using in both similar and different industries to engage with their audiences. — What’s working? What’s not? What might work for your industry / audience?

Point in time vs. ongoing relationships

Keep in mind, an experience is a point in time. Experiences can be physical, digital or human. Experiences are omni-channel. You are playing the long game and the experience you are creating is only part of an ongoing dialogue with your audience. In some cases, you will control the experiences, and in others you will not. The discipline of focus on what to accomplish at this particular interaction in the relationship is what will build a platform for success. There are different approaches, and different tools for each stage of a relationship. Broader, multi-tactic strategies, such as those used in Portfolio Planning, will help ensure meaningful, sustainable relationships with your audiences.

Operational considerations

Timing, budget, agency capabilities, partnerships, resource availability and allocation, quality vs. quantity and other factors should all play a role in strategy development. If there are mission critical requirements to your strategy, or even minor nuances which are dependent on any of these things, it’s important to recognize them up front, plan for them or shift to an alternate strategy. Strategy that is not truly actionable is not a strategy at all. It is time and resources wasted. That which can go wrong, will, and contingencies must be accounted for.

Do your job

The role of an experiential strategy is to achieve objectives by motivating audiences to act on these objectives through the use of tactics which activate emotional and / or rational triggers. Your strategy and the tactics which bring it to life, must make them think, create understanding, make them feel something, and above all, persuade them to do something.


To quote Ram Charan, “Execution is the only strategy consumers see.” I’ve worked with dozens of strategists in my career, and the best of the best know that a strategy must be able to be simple enough that it is clearly understood and actionable above all else. There is a great deal of work that goes into setting measurable objectives, understanding all necessary inputs and crafting a brilliant plan. That said, your team need not read a 100-page dissertation to understand the strategy. Get to the point. Create a hypothesis, be able to support it, share the plan, articulate outcomes, and show how the plan can be executed. The best strategies are “tweetable”.

So for me, strategy is establishing measurable objectives, interpreting the marketplace, and creating an effective, executable plan that everyone can understand. What’s your perspective?

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