You can forgive Dee Hall, 30-year marketing veteran and current Executive General Manager at agency Advantage Solutions, Chicago, for feeling a little optimistic about the state of experiential marketing. Yes, of course, Covid dealt the niche its most serious setback – one that continues to challenge its reemergence on many brand’s short term marketing budget. Not that long ago experiential was a fixation for many brands, budgets were rising, along with the ambitions of the creative agencies crafting the experiences, and client expectations.
But to hear Hall tell it, the happy experiential days are almost here again. She should know, back in the early 90s the boutique agency she founded was widely recognized for its pioneering experiential marketing for Coca Cola's now-discontinued fruit beverage Fruitopia.
“Experiential is coming back in a big way and we’re focused on helping clients plan what experiential campaigns will look like in this new world...one of the biggest, and perhaps most positive, outcomes of living through this epidemic is our renewed desire as a society for in real life human connections, which will certainly fuel live experiences moving forward,” Hall says.
We spoke to Hall -- a former agency owner known for her big agency savvy and executive leadership across diverse disciplines and industries with Fortune 100 companies -- about the future of experiential, Advantage’s expansion into the experiential tech space and where things are headed for women leaders in the advertising world.
Hello Dee! Tell us about your professional background.
With nearly three decades in the industry, I’d describe myself as an experiential marketing veteran. My journey has included media sales, Advertising, entrepreneurship, consulting, traditional big agency leadership and most recently as executive general manager, agency at Advantage Solutions. My current role is by far my most exhilarating, and challenging, leading a broad group of brand activation and experiential marketing disciplines.
What does Advantage do as well as the agency you oversee and how are you faring in our Covid era?
Well Advantage as a whole helps build brand value for manufacturers and retailers through insight-based sales, marketing and technology solutions. The collective I head up falls within our Advantage Marketing Partners group of agencies. While experiential marketing (under our Sunflower Group agency) is our core offering, our additional services include field and sales marketing, social media and content creation, demo and in-store experiences, multicultural marketing (Eventus), consumer promotions and product sampling.
Naturally, live experiences were severely disrupted during the pandemic. Advantage did an amazing job at repurposing skills, experiences and assets to meet our new client and consumer needs. This has included significant expansion into the experiential tech space, including work we have done with building an event asset management platform for clients), reimagining the traditional in-store demo as well as surging our field marketing offering to provide on-ground support to clients in this disruptive labor and logistics market.
You’re known as an expert in experiential marketing. Obviously this business has seen dramatic challenges due to the pandemic. What’s happening now? Are you evolving your business to respond to the current landscape?
Yes, live experiences were significantly challenged during the pandemic. But live experiences were already becoming disrupted pre-pandemic. Covid accelerated our opportunity to provide ‘micro experiences’ to mass audiences through the integration with influencers, content and social tactics. Similarly, our sampling and in-store demo teams pivoted to think in a ‘socially distanced’ fashion. We quickly offered new solutions, from virtual demos to getting samples into consumers’ homes without any physical contact, including through residential door-hanger sampling and mealkit partnership programs.
What are some current Sunflower Group projects and is there anything your teams are working on that represents the agency's creative hallmarks or other strengths?
Experiential is coming back in a big way and we’re focused on helping clients plan what experiential campaigns will look like in this new world, because some of the Covid disruption helped evolve experiential marketing as a discipline and we shouldn’t snap back to how things used to be. For example, the shift to experiences made for digital and social media during the shutdown should be embraced and incorporated as we begin to open up, but not without welcoming live experiences back to the fold. One of the biggest, and perhaps most positive, outcomes of living through this epidemic is our renewed desire as a society for in real life human connections, which will certainly fuel live experiences moving forward.
From a creative and strategy perspective, we are really looking to move beyond individual moments of engagement to broader campaigns that have a positive impact on the wider world. Our field sales and marketing teams have done an amazing job with our alcoholic beverage and telecom clients, developing a hybrid agency/client model that has allowed for the ability to be more reactive in a new client-obsessed, but infrastructure-disrupted, world.
We’re also seeing great growth within the plant-based world and are proud to have new clients in that space, where experiential tactics are critical in introducing a new and exciting product category.
We noted you received recognition from the Chicago Business Journal as a “Woman of Influence.” On that note, have you seen progress for women leaders in marketing?
This subject, along with broader industry diversity, is very close to my heart and I was immensely proud of this recognition. The industry has certainly moved on in leaps and bounds with more women taking on executive leadership roles but there is always room for improvement. I think it is extremely important to invest the time to mentor, inspire and teach women leaders those lessons that we’ve learned during our own professional journeys. It’s actually quite rewarding to pay it forward.
I’m fortunate to be part of an organization that has female leadership from the highest tier, starting with our CEO Tanya Domier. We are also seeing female leaders advance on the client side in c-suite marketing roles. This is important as brands are now living the purpose-led messaging shown externally to consumers.
Any thoughts to add?
Our people remain our No. 1 asset. We have been faced with incredible adversity over the last 12 months and our ability to think in a scrappy and entrepreneurial fashion has led not only to client retention but expansion, as we continually look at the wider business horizon to help provide solutions beyond brand building alone.