Verb's Yadira Harrison on building an experiential business in a pandemic
Few areas in marketing have been hit harder by COVID-19 than experiential. Not too long ago, Land Rover had created its own festival in the Coachella Valley and SAP was marketing its experience practice with pop-up installations on city sidewalks.
Tactile interactions between brands and consumers may have halted in March 2020, but, as Yadira Harrison, co-founder at Verb explains, the spectacle and grandeur of brand events were also due for a realignment with purpose and authenticity.
Verb was founded in 2018 by Harrison and Shannon Simpson-Jones. The agency, with offices in Los Angeles and New York City, has built programs for Airbnb, Netflix, HBO, Everlane and Nielsen.
The pair met at Civic Entertainment Group, where they specialized in experiential marketing. They started Verb to flex all their skills—Simpson-Jones worked for sports and event agencies, and Harrison had spent a decade in marketing roles at Macy’s, including working on its Thanksgiving parade and the 4th of July fireworks show.
Ad Age spoke to Harrison about the value of more intimate brand events and building an experiential business during a pandemic.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Verb was in business for only two years when the pandemic started. How was your business going until then?
Pre-COVID is a whole other time, I can barely remember. Verb was really birthed out of the notion of wanting to use all the tools in our toolbox. At our previous agency, we noticed we were getting a little pigeonholed, doing more of the event-production side, not always the branding and social side of it. As COVID hit, we were just getting back to working with Airbnb, who we had not worked with in two years. We had just done the 2020 AMC Network’s SundanceTV House at the Sundance Film Festival, plus planning other conferences and events. Things were good.
How have you kept Verb developing and growing this past year?
We thought we could ride things out, initially, that things would be a little bumpy but go back to normal by June. Once we started to see cancellations, we leaned into our social and digital backgrounds, pivoting from IRL to URL campaigns. We needed to blend the flashiness, razzle-dazzle and aesthetic of “in real life” while also thinking about the people watching the events and how to include influencers, not as an arbitrary add-on or afterthought, but really getting them involved.
Clients were very open to exploring new things as well. HBO had a new show coming out, “I May Destroy You,” and in the middle of working on something really different with them, we had to pivot to Instagram. When you are approaching people virtually, digitally and socially, it is about keeping their attention as they’re in front of their phones and computers. Also, we were not always so reliant on influencers in the past. We had to find ways to make them more authentically part of the campaign.
Verb’s website is just a simple slide stating “by referral only.” That’s bold in this climate.
We get a lot of questions about this. We’ve built up a wonderful network, and I believe we have a wonderful reputation. For the folks we work with, it is important for us to ensure that when you are working with us, you have trusted partners. We work with a lot of people in tech and entertainment and they refer us to their networks when they have a specific remit or are looking for a new partner. That automatically brings their stamp of approval and we can go straight to talking about business challenges.
What are some of the things you have learned about consumers staging virtual experiences?
Engaging with an audience can go beyond IRL and should build connection. Because now consumers are sitting behind their phones and computers, and there are tons of things they can tap into, you have to bring value, where the consumer is learning something or you are building a community, to make them stay.
Pre-COVID, the industry was getting a little jaded, a little snarky. I heard comments like ‘What’s next? The Museum of Photo Backdrops?’ Everything was bigger, but a little surface-level.
How will events be different when things go back to normal one day?
We are seeing that intimate can be a good thing, you can have a few people participate and still make a huge impact. There was an activation that was done last summer with our partners at Airbnb and “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” House for the show’s 30th anniversary. Our challenge was to make it cool, an interesting space, do some content and programming. While we were only able to host a few overnight guests, to be safe, the program got a lot of attention. COVID protocols will continue to be a priority to reassure clients and attendees alike. Trust is key.