Experiential agency NA Collective closes as a 'casualty of the pandemic'
A team from experiential agency NA Collective had barely finished setting up a week-long installation for the Atlantic Coast Conference Football Fanfest last March in Greensboro, N.C., when it received word to dismantle it 24 hours later.
“The NBA had just stepped away [from live playing] and we knew something could happen. Still, everyone flew there and we set up this big fan experience. We moved forward with it for the first 24 hours and it was canceled the second day,” recalls Krystle Loyland, co-founder and CEO of Preacher, whose agency worked with NA on the event. “One day it was filled with fans and the next day it was empty and everyone is breaking down and taking their last flights for a year.”
Just that quickly, the pandemic began claiming live events, drying up business for the companies like NA Collective that specialize in splashy and creative interactive experiences for brands. It took less than a year for NA—which had a robust business working with brands like Nike, Tinder, Facebook and audio and headphone company Sennsheiser on activations at places like SXSW, Stagecoach and Bonnaroo—to officially close its doors last week. The 7-year-old agency actually outlasted some others that shuttered as a consequence of the lockdown: We’re Magnetic folded in August; and Fake Love, the New York Times’ experiential agency, closed in summer 2020 after “10 years of creating immersive experiences,” according to its website.
“We’ve all been grieving the inability to do experiential [marketing] in real life,” says Loyland, who has had a long relationship with NA, including a collaboration for Nike during the Boston Marathon. “It is sad that great companies like NA have fallen victim to that.”
The suddenness also came as a shock to NA. “We were having our hands-down best year in 2020. It was off the charts,” says Chiara Adin Moore, co-founder and chief marketing officer of the agency, which employed 35 in New York and Austin, Texas. “We went from firing on all cylinders to coming to a screeching halt.”
At first, the agency was comforted by the thought that the pandemic wouldn’t last long. “We thought we could close for two weeks and work from home. Then it went from two weeks to two months, six months, eight months and almost a year,” says Moore. “We were a casualty of the pandemic.”
In the first few months, NA Collective turned its attention to using its organizational skills to provide food and transportation to front-line workers. It helped rally the industry, which she says “was primed and ready with tons of vendors and skilled laborers” to organize donations of trucks and drivers and iPads to allow COVID patients to communicate with their families.
By June, NA Collective started seeking new lines of business, creating yak.live, which Moore describes as a “TV guide for livestreams.” The site aggregated livestreams from Zoom, Instagram, Twitch, Vimeo and more and “put them all together under one roof and one schedule to make it easy to find what you are looking for,” says Moore. There was some synergy, as yak.live pointed the way to digital events like concerts and entertainment that NA had helped to produce live. “It wasn’t a paying initiative, we were looking to see if we could turn it into something,” says Moore. But while it was a “really fun exercise,” it ultimately didn’t prove sustainable.
Moore says that pivoting to digital events wasn’t an option. Not only were those smaller-scale initiatives sufficiently profitable to maintain the shop, going digital simply wasn’t in the DNA of NA, which specialized in activations like a colorful 30-foot Pride Slide for Tinder—one each for the 30 states without non-discriminatory laws to protect the LGBTQ+ community—or a staged striptease in New York's Bryant Park to promote Tommy Hilfiger underwear.
“It wasn’t our bread and butter,” says Moore. “We made our decision based on who and what we wanted to be, and [pivoting to digital] felt too far out of our comfort zone. We can only do what we can knock out of the park and do well.”
Moore says she learned a lot about her company and the industry in the past year. “I have never seen so many of our fellow agencies band together and partner up,” she says. For example, agencies were recommending their furloughed employees to shops fortunate enough to hire freelancers or full-timers.
Some of NA’s employees have since found positions in architecture, interior design and digital production. Moore herself is working as a consultant for an Austin-based startup named Spot, which markets on-demand injury insurance. “It’s been an interesting year,” says Moore, who predicts a return to live experiences in the fourth quarter. “I’m super proud of all we accomplished.”
“It’s saddening to see the challenges faced by our partners, especially for those who have had to make the tough choice to close their doors as a result of the pandemic,” says Droga5’s Director of Interactive Production Tasha Cronin and Director of Creative Innovation Justin Durazzo, in a statement.
Droga5 worked with NA on promotions for IHOP and Dixie, the latter of which was for the brand’s "#BeMoreHere" campaign to discourage phone use during meals by finding cellular dead spots in Los Angeles. The effort helped NA Collective notch a nod in Ad Age’s Small Agency Awards in 2017. “We wish the best to our friends and shops who’ve suffered from the plight of this pandemic, but we’re confident that we as an industry will always find new ways,” continued the statement. “It may be the unfortunate end of a chapter, but not the end of their experiential practice.”
For now, NA's website remains active. Its homepage reads, “It is with heavy hearts we are announcing our closing. And it's been one hell of a ride.”