Updated: May 1, 2020
While the entire experiential marketing ecosystem grapples with how the COVID-19 pandemic has and will change our industry, I would like to throw another log on the ponder pile: How should the pandemic influence how agencies are screened?
To answer that question, we should start with a more fundamental question. What is the objective of the screening process?
The agency screening process should – at a minimum - help brands select partners who have the strategic acumen, operational capabilities and infrastructure to provide experiential services that address the brand’s marketing objectives at an acceptable price.
Of these core elements – strategic acumen, operational capabilities and infrastructure - the pandemic should not change how brand’s screen for operational capabilities. Pre or post-COVID, an evaluation of an agency’s operational capabilities is a matter of determining whether the agency has demonstrated the ability to execute against its strategic recommendations.
However, the pandemic should certainly influence the questions that brands ask as they evaluate an agency’s strategic acumen and infrastructure.
Sound experiential strategy requires the ability to identify the appropriate target audience, gather relevant insight about that audience and apply that insight to the brand’s challenges and objectives. Application of sound strategy will yield recommendations on how, when and where to best reach that audience in service of the brand’s objectives.
Post-COVID, brands should want to know what actual and specific insights the agency has about how their target audience’s behavior has been or will likely be impacted by the pandemic. Is this specific audience likely to avoid an event over a certain size? Is the audience looking for certain operational safeguards, such as sanitizer stations, controls for crowd spacing or temperature screenings? Is this audience particularly motivated by brand activations that are more community-minded or altruistic in nature?
As with any insight, this pandemic-specific insight should then inform the strategic and tactical recommendations that the agency puts forth.
The pandemic’s devastating impact on the experiential industry has resulted in many agencies laying off or furloughing staff with impacts often seen in event production and critical operational support roles. Those agencies that have lost staff will need time to put the pieces back together.
Brands should anticipate that agencies may have suffered personnel losses. With sensitivity to that reality, brands should dig a little deeper than normal to get a true understanding of current infrastructure gaps and how an agency plans to bridge those gaps. If an agency is using freelancers or outsourcing to third parties, the brand should want to know what specific steps are being taken to ensure continuity of service and accountability for service outcomes and contractual requirements.
Note additionally that many master service agreements prohibit or in some way restrict the use of freelancers or subcontractors. So, if the brand learns that an agency needs to rely on third parties to deliver their services, the parties should make sure the master services agreement is appropriately modified to capture this understanding.
At the end of the day, the best selection processes are grounded in clarity and transparency.That fundamental truth is not changed by COVID-19, but the pandemic should modestly influence where a brand points their microscope in their examination of an agency’s ability to deliver value.