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Once considered a fringe component of larger marketing plans, today experiential campaigns and activations are driving the strategy of small consumer events, massive festivals and global B2B conferences. That’s because the savvy public, particularly younger consumers, doesn’t want to be marketed to—they want to be part of the experience, says Joanna Badamo, creative director and lead strategist at Agency EA, a full-service brand experience agency. She notes that experiential marketing offers consumers a tangible manifestation of their favorite brands and creates an inclusive feeling of community. “It provides them with things they can touch and feel and be a part of, and that access is more immersive than just interacting within a traditional advertising dynamic.” But as more brands jump on the experiential marketing bandwagon, how do marketers distinguish their activations and events from a crowded and growing field? The most successful experiential campaigns are intentional, meaningful and geared toward the audiences they're serving. Rather than isolated events hoping to drum up buzz, brands are producing layered activations that are interesting, organic and authentic. They’re harnessing the power of technology, music and art to create multi-sensory experiences. They’re considering the social consciousness of fleeting events and integrating philanthropic elements to leave a lasting legacy. And they’re embracing media and live-streaming to include the broader public in the conversation. Successful efforts lead to even deeper relationships between brands and their customers, creating a bond that’s measured more by loyalty and community than by clicks and views. “Instagrammable moments are great,” says Badamo, “but at the end of the day, it's more about connecting with audiences while being authentic to brand culture.” In just the past few weeks a challenge greater than the perception of peak experiential marketing has emerged: the outbreak of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. Every day brings news of brands and companies pulling out of conferences, and events being canceled. According to a recent Agency EA blog post, the Global Business Travel Association has estimated the coronavirus outbreak could cost the industry up to $47 billion a month. “As brands continue building, and now shifting, their 2020 marketing strategies, it’s more important than ever to connect with audiences in authentic and meaningful ways,” Agency EA writes. “Virtual or streaming events have always offered significant benefits, most notably amplifying reach to a wider audience. Amid COVID-19 concerns, it’s critical to consider how to leverage both live and virtual event formats to deliver the biggest impact.” Indeed, rather than cancel their conferences completely, some of the biggest events—including the upcoming Adobe Summit, Google Cloud Next, Facebook F8 and Google I/O—have elected to cancel the “live components” and instead will live-stream the proceedings online. As the world at large adjusts to current, and unforeseen, realities in the coming months, it's more important than ever to amplify the marketing strategies that stood out from the pack so that the industry can adapt to the changing times. Here are the top 10 experiential moments of the past year. Winners were selected by Ad Age Studio 30 in partnership with Agency EA. Given the wide variety of activations and events, the winners are presented unranked. Download Agency EA's Trend Report
Best Influencer Party

REVOLVE Festival

Dates: April 13-14, 2019
Location: La Quinta, CA

 
 
Each April, hundreds of thousands of people flock to Indio, California, for Coachella. But in-the-know attendees and influencers set their sights on a concurrent event that’s even more exclusive: the much-hyped Revolve Festival, a two-day party in nearby La Quinta that draws some of the biggest names in fashion and music. “We always saw our customer coming to Revolve for her [Coachella] festival looks,” says Raissa Gerona, chief brand officer of Revolve, a Los Angeles-based clothing site. “This made us want to invest in a large event because our customers were essentially already participating, and the festival is so close to our home base. Our customer can really live out the brand, wear all the clothes that she got from the site and share with all her friends through social media.” Of course, you can’t just walk in off the street. “Revolve Festival is exclusive, but we always want to be inclusive as well,” adds Gerona. “That means including our network of influencers, the many artists we work with, our top customers and even fans on social media who win tickets through sweepstakes.” Its powerful network of attendees—about 3,000 people in all—have helped the activation gain more than 5 billion impressions across press and social media. They had plenty to post about. Those that joined the party enjoyed food, drinks, music and plenty of Instagram-worthy moments. Revolve partnered with TopDawg Entertainment to curate Saturday's lineup, complete with performances by artists including SZA, Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock. And Sunday saw a surprise performance from Cardi B, who jumped onstage with Offset to help close out the day. “Our guests know they're coming to Revolve Festival to live their best life,” says Gerona, “and we aim to create memories and experiences that will last a lifetime.”
Most Immersive Pop-Up

Sonos “The Brilliant Sound Experience”

Dates: June 7-9, 2019
Location: New York

 
Last year when Sonos added Google Assistant to its platform, customers could control their music, get answers to questions, manage everyday tasks and more, simply by using their voice. For the big launch, Sonos took things up a notch, creating a multi-sensory activation that explored music and sound from the inside out. “The Brilliant Sound Experience“ popped up in New York (and a couple of months later, in London), with dedicated rooms and activations to break down the physics of sound, the structure of songs and the emotion of music. “At Sonos, we want to inspire the world to listen better, which is why each room of 'The Brilliant Sound Experience' explored how sound works, how it layers into music and why that music resonates with us on an emotional level,” says Steven Dolcemaschio, director of global brand activation at Sonos. Attendees could walk through unique installations that deconstructed songs from Holly Herndon, the National and Slowthai, and see what happens to our minds when listening to evocative music. A light show featuring 236 strands of lights and 1,720 globes used an algorithm to produce a unique experience for each visitor. A sculpture installation using hidden speakers isolated drums, strings, keys, bass and vocals, allowing visitors to move throughout the space to experience songs like never before. And it all concluded with an opportunity to learn more about the company in dedicated listening rooms—or just turn up your favorite track. “For Sonos, ‘Brilliant Sound’ is more than just listening to your favorite song the way the artist wanted you to hear it. It’s a combination of high-quality audio, premium design and an easy way to play whatever you want,” adds Dolcemaschio. “We exaggerated these elements in a visually and sonically inspiring way that was designed for music lovers.” 
Best Storefront Storytelling

The New York Times, “The Truth Is Local”

Dates: June 10-24, 2019
Location: New York

 
How do you champion quality journalism in a time when newspapers are shutting down and the journalists are increasingly under attack from outside voices, including the president of the United States and his most rabid followers (and sometimes literally as in the case of murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi)? You focus your efforts where it matters most—local communities. In June, the New York Times launched “The Truth Is Local”—the experiential component of its “The Truth Is Worth It” campaign—which debuted alongside new ads from Droga5. Interactive storefronts popped up in all five New York boroughs depicting real-life stories that reflected how the Times’ reporting impacted local communities in the city. The Brooklyn installation, for example, illustrated how failures in the system led to the imprisonment of an innocent man and featured a jail cell that lit up to represent captives becoming free. In addition to compelling visuals, each activation included QR codes that passersby could scan to call up podcast-like audio. These recordings covered the journalists’ experiences reporting on important topics like racial inequities in the school system and injustices in the legal system. The campaign’s goal was to bring the product and the marketing together into a tangible experience for communities. The New York Times’ in-house creative team worked with an experiential design studio to conceive and execute the installations. The resulting work captivated viewers and provided them with a memorable look at some of the biggest issues facing their communities. “Some of the best reporters and editors in the world come to work everyday, all over the world, to give Times readers the information they need to understand everything from natural disasters to what’s happening in Washington,” Times CMO David Rubin tells Studio 30. “That’s expensive. The category, and awareness that you have to pay for what we do, is small. We believe what we do is worth paying for. This campaign shows what goes into high-quality, independent journalism to get more people to believe the same.”
Best Cannes Takeover

Twitter Beach, Cannes Lions

Dates: June 17-21, 2019
Location: Cannes, France

 
Each June, droves of advertising and marketing professionals descend upon the French Riviera for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. With plenty of competition among events, it takes something special to stand out in the crowd. Last year, that nod went to Twitter, whose massive takeover of the beach marked their largest-ever physical presence at Cannes. That presence was paired with a strategic approach that brought the platform’s spirit to life via thoughtful event spaces and activations. The beach oasis provided people with a place to work, recharge and connect with others. And because conversation is Twitter’s superpower, programming and design elements incorporated what people were talking about at the time, from pop music to the controversial “Game of Thrones” finale. “We always strive to make our event spaces feel in and of their time and place,” says Helen Stoddard, head of global events at Twitter. “When you are on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, you want the structure to showcase our location and support great hospitality moments.” Throughout the week, Twitter hosted several thousand people for meetings, panels and parties. Those who attended the #CannesAfterDark party could get up close and personal with Ciara and get behind the DJ booth with Steve Aoki. The #AskChrissy event featuring Chrissy Teigen was one of the festival’s hottest tickets. It was also live-streamed for those who couldn’t attend, garnering more than 6 million views. “Being at Cannes Lions allows us to connect to an active and discerning marketing audience,” says Stoddard. “Through our events and programming, we can help them understand how our service can help them tell their own stories and market their own products.”
Best Streetwear Summit

ComplexCon

Dates: July 20-21, 2019
Location: Chicago
Dates: November 2-3, 2019
Location: Long Beach, CA

 
ComplexCon merges the best parts of trade shows, music festivals and food festivals into one comprehensive, can’t-miss event. Returning to Long Beach, California, for the fourth straight year, and expanding into a new market, Chicago, ComplexCon hosted more than 80,000 attendees in 2019. “We recognized this desire for audiences to go beyond their digital connections, meet in real life and discover and celebrate everything Complex has been obsessed with since 2002,” says Isis Arias Clermont, executive producer of ComplexCon at Complex Networks. “The things that were once fringe culture are now mainstream, from hip-hop and sneakers to streetwear and art.” ComplexCon is an opportunity for the brand to connect directly with its fans, giving them exclusive access to the top trends in food and fashion, as well as forward-thinking conversation via its panel discussions. Last year also saw the launch of a new initiative called Complex Connect, which allowed attendees to connect with influential members of the Complex family in an intimate setting to discuss everything from philanthropy to entrepreneurship. For brand partners, ComplexCon means unparalleled access to coveted and influential consumers, who not only drive commerce, but can provide immediate feedback and insights. It’s the definition of win-win. For the first time in 2019, Complex also leveraged its food brand, First We Feast, and brought hundreds of the country's hottest food vendors to ComplexCon—an experience that is now spinning off into a new food-focused festival launching later this year. “We know that attendees want to walk away with more than shared memories and products,” says Clermont. “We hope to also offer new resources, skills and insights as takeaways, and in turn gain more insight into our audience.”
Hottest Fashion Show

Cheetos, "House of Flamin' Haute"

Dates: September 5-7, 2019
Location: New York

 
 
Cheetos is more than a delicious snack. Judging from its most obsessed fans, it’s become a lifestyle brand. “Over the past few years, Cheetos fans have been dreaming up and creating outrageously imaginative Cheetos-inspired looks,” says Brandi Ray, senior director of marketing for Frito-Lay North America. So, to celebrate that creativity and engage with its devoted fanbase, Cheetos dipped its orange-dusted fingers into the fashion and beauty world. In September, Cheetos' “House of Flamin’ Haute” took New York Fashion Week by storm, hosting a runway show and style bar experience in a Chelsea event space that took “lookin’ like a snack” to a whole new level. Shortly after announcing the event, appointments were booked in record time. Hundreds of people were wait-listed before the doors even opened, and those eager attendees included celebrity VIPs. “We wanted to provide our fans with the unique opportunity to express themselves with a never-been-done-before experience,” adds Ray. To make it happen, Cheetos created a style bar with Flamin’ Haute makeup, nail and hair looks to inspire its fans in a movement of self-expression. Each look was designed by Cheetos-loving fashion influencers and stylists, but also embodied fans’ interpretation of the Flamin’ Haute look. The fashion show was closed out by a one-of-a-kind Cheetos piece created by famed costume designer Ami Goodheart, who has designed pieces for Lady Gaga, Ciara and countless others. The showstopping final look consisted of 200 Cheetos bags and more than 700 Cheetos Puffs. Attendees were also treated to a performance by rapper Saweetie to end the show. Naturally, she was decked out in a Cheetos-inspired look of her own. Following the show, fans rushed to social media for details on how to create the Cheetos-inspired looks, and were encouraged to create and share their own Flamin’ Haute looks online.
Best Reality TV Fan Fest

BravoCon

Dates: November 15-17, 2019
Location: New York

 
 
The outsize personalities of reality TV stars are tailor-made for experiencing, and sometimes mocking, on the small screen, so Bravo wondered if fans of its singular programming would be interested in interacting with their favorite celebs IRL. People responded … fast. Tickets to the first ever BravoCon sold out in 60 seconds. “We've been talking about a fan festival for many years,” says Maria Laino DeLuca, Senior VP of consumer and social marketing, noting that Bravo sees incredible loyalty and engagement from its audience. “We have amazing personalities and a lot of surprises and humor in our content, and we wanted to create an authentic, surreal experience for fans that they couldn’t experience anywhere else. It deepens relationships with fans, but also with our talent, who had a great time participating as well.” BravoCon brought those superfans and “Bravolebs” together for three days and more than 45 live events. Attendees took an '80s-style aerobics class with Dorinda Medley from “The Real Housewives of New York City.” They enjoyed a “Watch What Happens Live” special at the Hammerstein Ballroom with the show’s largest-ever audience. They ate BravoPalooza brunches while mingling with talent from various Bravo shows. And they attended “Top Chef” dinners with their favorite chef-testants. At the end of the long weekend, more than 10,000 people from 45 states and nine countries attended BravoCon. The conference’s success extended to other mediums, with Bravo seeing a spike in social and digital interaction, as well as viewership and overall brand awareness. “It was an opportunity for fans to immerse themselves in the brand like never before,” says DeLuca. “The response was humbling and exciting.”
Best Seventies Flashback

Netflix, “The Irishman” Little Italy Takeover

Dates: November 22-23, 2019
Location: New York

 
 
Last year's Oscar-nominated Martin Scorsese epic “The Irishman” was a landmark event in every way: the reunion of the legendary director with the stars of his most acclaimed films, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel; the pairing of DeNiro and Al Pacino, two of the greatest actors of their generation, who go all the way back to 1974's “The Godfather: Part II”; and the next stage in the evolution of Netflix as a major Hollywood studio power. The film tells the story of Frank Sheeran, a real-life truck driver turned hitman who becomes involved with the mob and the infamous union boss Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1975. “With a highly anticipated film and well-known filmmaker and iconic cast, we were looking for a special way to celebrate ‘The Irishman’s’ release with the public,” says a Netflix spokesperson. “As this film is a look back at a life, we decided to bring Scorsese fans back in time and enable the public to immerse itself in Sheeran’s story.” Working with the city and local businesses, Netflix took over eight blocks of New York's historic Little Italy, transforming the neighborhood into 1975 with period-specific designs and activations. Residents, visitors and passersby could score free food with a Hoffa-related password, sit in vintage Cadillacs with drivers dressed in period garb and engage with the film’s characters through vintage interactive phone booths. They could even read custom newspapers while getting a haircut. “We wanted the public to feel the historic fabric of the film, so everything was designed to transport you to a different era and make you feel part of ‘The Irishman’ world,” adds the Netflix spokesperson. The takeover garnered coverage in outlets including Reuters, Travel & Leisure, Eater and TimeOut. And fans were impressed by the authenticity of it all, rushing to share their experiences on social media. They were also impressed by the cannolis—more than 14,000 were consumed over the course of the activation.
Best Music Festival re:Invention

Intersect by AWS

Date: December 6-7, 2019
Location: Las Vegas

 
History has shown that first-year music festivals are a risky proposition. But not for Amazon. The company has been in the music business for 21 years, from selling CDs to streaming audio through Alexa devices. The internet giant upped the ante in 2019 with Intersect. Intersect was born out of re:Play, the official after-party for AWS re:Invent, one of the largest developer conferences in the world. In the past, the event was only open to the re:Invent community. But last year, Amazon wanted to extend the unique event into a two-day music festival, with headliners Kacey Musgraves, Beck, Foo Fighters and Anderson .Paak, open to everyone, not just those attending the conference. More than 16,000 people took them up on the offer. “With Intersect, we’re trying to be intentionally inclusive by making something that appeals to a wide variety of audiences and create an environment where there’s something for everyone,” says Jennifer Hartford, director of global events at AWS. Beyond the music, Intersect attendees had access to a million-square-foot playground full of games and activities, including a video arcade, post-apocalyptic dodgeball stadium and mega-sized ball pit. Everything took place in a futuristic, custom-designed indoor/outdoor environment full of lasers, video screens and immersive art and design. And in a first-of-its-kind performance, Musgraves directed 500 Intel drones for an immersive light show programmed by an all-woman team as a tribute to women’s contributions in technology. That fun display was backed up by a donation to the nonprofit educational initiative, Girls in Tech. “The mission of Intersect is to cultivate thoughtful points of intersection between musicians, storytellers, artists and innovators,” says Hartford. “We wanted to create something that builds genuine human connection.” 
Best Holiday Pop-Up

Target Wonderland!

Dates: December 13-22, 2019
Location: New York

 
In mid-December, locals and visitors near New York’s Chelsea Market were greeted by a larger-than-life snow globe, complete with swirling snowflakes. It took a team of two dozen creatives, producers, planners and strategists to develop and execute the ambitious pop-up, which spanned 16,000 square feet and featured 19 distinct experiences. “We’re constantly thinking of how we can inspire our guests and help all families discover the joy of everyday life,” says Rick Gomez, Target executive vice president and chief marketing, digital and strategy officer. “With Wonderland!, we wanted to bring the magic of the holiday season to life in an immersive experience where guests could make holiday memories together.” When building out the concept, Target worked with brands like Marvel and Lego to co-create fun activations throughout the venue, giving guests the opportunity to star in their very own comic book cover and take selfies with a Lego version of Bullseye, the lovable Target dog. In addition to the fun and immersive happenings, Target designed Wonderland! to highlight the company’s holiday offerings in engaging ways and be a hassle-free shopping experience for guests. Once attendees found something they wanted for the holidays, they could simply scan the product’s barcode with the Target app and select their preferred shipping and delivery services. Best of all, thanks to the help of the thousands of attendees, Target donated more than $920,000 to Toys for Tots. When guests shared their holiday wish, Target made a donation on their behalf to help more families experience joy during the holiday season. 
Ad Age Studio 30
Ad Age Studio 30 is the creative content arm of Ad Age. Built on the same bedrock of journalistic integrity, Ad Age Studio 30 specializes in multichannel membership content for Ad Age subscribers, as well as custom and sponsored content that resonates with our audience.

About Agency EA
Agency EA (www.agencyea.com) is a full-service brand experience agency. We unite brands with their target audiences by creating exceptional user events, worldwide event programs, summits, conferences and B2B experiential campaigns. Founded in 1999 as Event Architects, Agency EA has worked with esteemed clients such as Hilton, Intuit, Google, Samsung, Molson Coors and the Obama administration.

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