My start in the agency world was simply by chance. I hadn’t really thought too much about it because my real passion coming out of college was music. I wanted to work for a record label — a production company or something down those lines. I wound up getting a job directing the marketing efforts for a major music festival in upstate New York about a year after I graduated college. It was a dream job, despite the minimal income. Through this experience, I hired a start-up street team company out of Boston to help me put together a field marketing effort to promote the festival. The start-up company was a one-man show at that time, and once the festival was over he and I started talking about a partnership. I wound up joining his company as an early partner, and over the course of the next six years we built that two-man shop into a multi-million dollar, nationally recognized, non-traditional/experiential marketing agency. I’ve been in the agency world ever since.
Tell us about the philosophy at Antler. What differentiates your work from other agencies?
Antler has a unique foundation in that the two partners both come from a non-traditional agency background. Neither of us has worked for a large or established agency. So we’ve created our approach and built our processes from scratch in the mold in which we believe would be best for our vision. Similarly, because our roots are in non-traditional and experiential marketing, we come from the grassroots/guerrilla mindset. Everything we have done and built is organic in nature: created not to meet corporate structures but to achieve real results for the businesses and brands that we work with. We were also one of the first agencies in the country to jump head first into social media. We began experimenting with early communities like Friendster and MySpace in 2004 and built a strong understanding of these platforms very early on. Now, as a full service marketing agency that specializes in social media, experiential and interactive, we can authentically think about and provide solutions that truly take into account all of the ways modern consumers communicate in today’s landscape – offline, online and mobile.
Antler specializes in experiential and event marketing, working with clients such as Liberty Mutual, Vitamin Water and Magners Irish Cider. In an industry where so much of the focus is on digital, do you think that in-person events and brand experiences are becoming more important? Why or why not?
The majority of our work these days is actually rooted in social media and the digital landscape. However, the interesting shift for us when it has come to experiential marketing is that our offline services are growing more and more in line with digital and interactive. Whenever we create a new experiential marketing program, social media is always a part of the strategy from the beginning. In fact, we recently worked on a number of projects where, instead of strictly creating an offline experience, we’re creating the interactive/social component of an offline experience. But, do I think that in-person events and offline brand experiences are still important? Absolutely. People still need to touch and directly experience a product. Especially in the food and beverage space where we tend to do a lot of work. You can tell someone all day how great a new beer is, but if they don’t get to actually taste it for themselves, they’ll never truly know. The important part is to integrate social and interactive into every offline, in-person experience so that you can get more bang for the buck and reach more people than you would at an offline experience in a silo.
What are some of the greatest challenges when concepting and pulling off a successful event for a brand?
It really depends on what kind of event experience we’re talking about. In some cases, getting the word out and making sure people come is the greatest challenge. In other cases, it’s about creating a memorable experience. We always ask ourselves, how can we create an experience that will be truly memorable and that goes above and beyond consumer expectations? Is there technology we can bring in that will surprise people? Is there a social component that we can bring in that will engage and empower people to share? Another major challenge of offline events is measuring action. In most cases, we’re looking for a digital tie-in that can capture data and user actions before, during or after events to complete the circle and engage the consumer beyond the offline experience.
How do you work with brands to continue the momentum from event to an online space?
I think the key here is to think about before, during and after instead of just thinking about the event itself. There is a terrific opportunity to create online experiences that can engage consumers before an event. Whether it’s creating a community for people to talk, a contest or crowdsourced action, or a place for people to access content, there are plenty of strategies to get people involved early on. At the event, the creative integration of interactive technology is often the best way to engage people and get them to go back online. Offering exclusive content, giveaways or contests can also get people to act at an event. Furthermore, the amount of user-generated content that people now create at events is only increasing. Creating tools that capture this content and allow people to engage with it after the event in an online setting is another great strategy.
Has the increase in smartphone adoption changed the way you plan an event? How do you work to increase the interactivity of an event?
100 percent yes. Smartphone adoption means that every person is now equipped with a tool to capture content in real time and share content online while they’re at an event. Brands and companies need to understand that offline experiences are no longer stand-alone and in a silo. They are connected to the rest of the world by smartphones. Understand this. Empower this. Thinking of ways to encourage people to capture and share more content is a big part of how we approach events these days.
What have been some of your favorite projects to work on? Tell us about the initial concept and results.
In the summer of 2011 we created a month-long, pop-up event series for vitaminwater. We converted an open retail space into the vitaminwater uncapped lounge by bringing in local artists to recreate the space using vitaminwater as the inspiration. During the month, we hosted more than 20 events, from live music to fashion, dance and sport. Then we invited the public to enjoy the space and the events for free. Not only was it a really fun project to work on, but we were able to bring in thousands of target consumers to enjoy vitaminwater through an authentic and buzz-worthy experience that created a ton of online content.
Another cool project we worked on was just recently for AEP Ohio. The Ohio-based energy company built out a tour vehicle to travel around Ohio and educate consumers on energy usage and efficiency. We came in to build the interactive experience that users would go through in the tour vehicle. What we wound up creating was a multi-kiosk setup in which consumers interacted with each kiosk, answering questions in a fun, game-like manner. As they went through each station, they would build up a custom profile of their energy habits. Through RFID technology, we created a connection between each kiosk so that consumers could port their data from one kiosk to the next, and at the end, they were given a custom evaluation to improve their energy usage in their own life. Consumers were also able to share the results so they could access them post-event. This is a great example of how interactive technology can dramatically improve a user’s event experience and create a link with the post-event experience.
One last project I’ll mention is the Magners Comedy Festival in Boston. We actually produced and promoted this event for three years, but for the last two years we created a really cool online experience that preceded the event. About three months out, we did a call for comedians around the country to submit videos to participate in a comic standoff. We created a Facebook app on the Magners U.S. Facebook page and invited people to view and vote on the videos. Last year, nearly 50,000 people voted and shared, creating a huge buzz for the event in the lead up. The top 10 comedians went on to compete at the festival. The five-day comedy festival was a huge success, and the standoff and buzz generated online through the contest was a big part of the experience.
What brands or companies do you think are succeeding in experiential marketing? What types of marketing are failing?
How will experiential marketing evolve in the next three to five years? The line between offline and online will continue to blur. The companies and brands that will be most successful will be the ones who understand that offline experiences are just the starting point for consumer engagement. Every offline experience can be used as a catalyst for empowering user generated content, for capturing content, for engaging consumers in online dialog and for building an online community. I also suspect that we’ll see some really creative and innovative uses of technology. I think we’re just hitting on the tip of the iceberg for what interactive and event-based technology can achieve.
What is the biggest challenge for you as an agency CEO?
Two key challenges: constant growth and staying ahead of the curve. Antler is a forward-thinking agency, and clients come to us because we’re constantly staying on top of trends and ahead of the curve. It’s my role to make sure we constantly push the envelope and not get comfortable. Facebook, for instance, is the biggest area of social media marketing right now. But, if we get too comfortable with Facebook and put all of our eggs in that basket, we miss out on the waves of change in society and technology. Growth is the second biggest challenge. Needing to continue moving the ship forward, bringing on new clients that allow us to push further and constantly innovate.
One reason you love what you do: Constant evolution. The social media and experiential marketing space is in a constant state of evolution, and the clients we work with continue to push the boundaries on creativity and strategy. It’s always exciting.
Mentor: Because I started my own business not too long after college and have been leading the charge ever since, I haven’t had any direct work mentors. It’s one of the downsides of owning your own business. But, a number of my clients over the years have taught me a lot about business, relationships and thinking smart.
Must-read book: Anything by Neil deGrasse Tyson or Ray Kurzweil to remind us that we are just blips and that the human race still has a long way to go.