EN guest editor Simon Parker talks to Informa VP Anna Knight about the success of her brand licensing portfolio
In the last two articles I have explored the art of creating amazing customer experience and how our understanding of data and the data strategies we adopt will manifestly shape and define what we do. This week rather than taking a lofty, theoretical approach I thought I would get the perspective of a practitioner – someone that is working with the harsh realities of life as it currently is and is having to reconcile the “here and now” with the future and how we will re-emerge into the sunlit uplands of the post Covid event world.
Anna Knight is VP at Informa responsible for the high-profile, brand licensing portfolio. The portfolio consists of both events and content platforms with the two biggest events taking place in Las Vegas and London. The shows work with massive brands such as Disney, Nickelodeon, the big Hollywood studios and the BBC; I start by asking Anna to describe the portfolio:
“We have four trade shows, conference products and also a media brand that’s still in print and also online. As you say the biggest event takes place in Las Vegas, which is Licensing Expo bringing together 400 exhibitors and 15,000 attendees. We also run Brand Licensing Europe which I’m sure a lot of you readers will be familiar with. It runs at London Excel in Autumn and we also have two other major events in China and Japan.”
She then explains how the community operates and by defining ‘Brand Licensing’ gives a great insight into how the events work:
“So, I think licensing is a little bit of a hidden art that no one really understands until you get to know the industry, yet all of us own “licensed” products, and it therefore touches us all to some extent. Our exhibitors are brand owners, IP owners and agents that represent brands who are effectively renting or selling their IP to manufacturers who want to lease or rent those IPs to put on a product.
“In a very basic sense think Mickey Mouse on a t shirt and in a slightly more innovative way think maybe Crayola doing some kind of deal with a makeup manufacturer to create a range of lipsticks using the pencil colours. Retailers are a key customer group as attendees because obviously all products have to sell via retail at some point. We have high street retailers and online retailers, but the transaction generally is between the brand owner and the manufacturer.”
So that is clear and as Anna says this is a massive and global industry that covers everything from Lunch Boxes to High fashion – how has the industry faired during the last 12 months, I assume it has a certain in-built resilience?
“Yes and no. I think it depends on which part of the industry we’re talking about; retail has obviously had severe challenges with store closures pre Covid and then many stores haven’t been able to open. That contrasts sharply with online which has done really, really well. In the brand space, it really depends on the category that you’re in – if you happen to be producing home or garden related product you are OK, if you were focusing on movies, or anything in areas that have stopped their live experiences then you haven’t done so well, because all of that’s been shut down.
“But the great thing about brand licensing is its cyclical nature and it cycles very quickly. An example might be a film release, millions of products are sold over a short period of time but then it goes away. Contrast that with the fleet of evergreen products that are constantly there that people are buying year-round like Sport Club products or Bentley products to name two.”
Festival of Licensing – four weeks of meetings and content
As Anna and I discuss how the industry works it becomes apparent that unlike some shows, events in this space have a very clear and apparent reason to exist – they facilitate the conversation that ultimately becomes a transaction between the seller (in this case the brand) and the buyer (the manufacturer or retailer). Of course all shows have to have an element of this but given the demonstrable and highly visual nature of the product in this space and the dispersed and fragmented nature of the buying community – this surely is exhibition gold and not only that, there must be great potential to extend the brand digitally? How have you approached the last twelve months, I ask her?
“So, gosh this is bringing back some painful memories! After the cancellation of Licensing Expo in March last year we decided that we wanted to bring the community together digitally – we had two platforms in play which looking back now was not a good idea. One platform showcased exhibitors whilst the other did the matchmaking and we tried to string them together. Despite that it was actually, pretty successful because ultimately there was an underlying need and desire from the industry to meet and connect.
“Our events facilitate meetings which are all about relationship building and finding out what the latest IPs are in the market. Making those connections is the number one need and not running the physical event in Las Vegas allowed us to stage something far more progressive that represented the whole industry, not just the US market. So we created a virtual event called Festival of Licensing which ran for over a month with four different events run weekly that were focused on a different region.
“Week one was Europe, week two Asia and finally the US in the third week followed by a virtual conference that ran in the last week. Matchmaking was a key component and we worked with the supplier who provides that service at our physical events to re-create that virtually.”
There have been lots of examples of creativity across the events industry and amazing virtual events but something that is truly global and lasts a month – it must have been a gargantuan challenge; how did it go?
“We learnt a lot, but It was successful with 250 exhibitors and over 8,000 attendees, and a massive number of meetings; we ran 5000 over the course of the first three weeks. On balance it was it was really good for us and it definitely connected the industry when it needed it.”
So, what is the plan for the festival when we return to physical event?
“We’ve definitely met a need, but it certainly didn’t replace the face-to-face event. I am not sure I have a fully formed answer yet as I am not sure any of us know how our community needs will evolve and develop as we return to physical person to person events. I do think we will continue to develop our thinking but the plan for this year is to run the live event (in the UK) followed two weeks later by an online event but wrap the digital platform around it so that customers can book meetings before hand. The aim is that buyers can see who’s exhibiting, search the directories and get the full digital experience. What is clear is from exhibitor feedback though is that they don’t want the physical and digital running at the same time as they really want to focus on doing business whilst at show.”
Anna talks about how the digital opportunity has helped extend the reach of the show:
“I think for me it’s such a big opportunity to not only make sure that you’re connecting everyone that isn’t able to attend, but you’re also responding to the specific needs of these new audiences. We don’t want to ignore them when physical returns or assume they’re going to revert to the same habits – we will have to be responsive and flexible on how we respond to their needs.”
As Mark Parsons and Stephan pointed out last week – our behavioural data was based on the years pre-Covid – habits will have undoubtedly changed. Anna picks up this point:
“I think there is still a lot of thinking that needs to be done but there will definitely be digital element to our events.”
Bringing the team with you
I am intrigued to know how Anna has managed to implement these big changes and execute a fairly radical strategy with a team that is dispersed around the world and is more used to dealing with physical events rather than digital products of this nature:
“Yeah, it’s been tough, I have teams in London, Santa Monica and New York and prior to Covid I was in the US at least every month or so meeting with the team and meeting clients – being completely grounded was strange. As many people have pointed out, you really have to work on communication, weekly meetings with the whole team, where we talk about kind of main things that are happening and keep everyone in the loop. We’ve probably actually spoken to our clients more than we did pre Covid because we have so much information to get across to them.”
Another significant positive is that we we’ve spoken to the attendee, more than perhaps we would have done before which has given us invaluable feedback and the team have really embraced the change. We have spent a lot of time on coaching, particularly the sales team who are selling a completely new product set. Our teams need to understand data and digital way more than ever before which I think will be a major and positive change for the business.”
A much-needed kick up the backside…
So looking forward what’s the business going to look like in terms of revenue split and size are you optimistic about the future?
“I am definitely optimistic about the future and think this has given the exhibition industry that much needed kick up the backside. I’ve been working in events for 16 years and certainly for at least 10 of those years we’ve been talking about digitizing our businesses.
“So, I think the makeup of revenues is going to shift and I think it’s going to take a number of years for events to recover back to where they were this is particularly true if you are running an international event. Digital is going to help us recover for sure and whilst trade show revenue was by far the largest proportion of my revenue that will change for sure I can see digital making up a significant slice of our total revenue. That’s going to require a lot of product development a lot of transformation, but we’ve got a pretty clear picture of where we are heading, and we need to execute well but it’s hugely exciting.
“Digital can do things that live can’t but similarly live will continue to be hugely powerful. To deliver utopia we need to double down on the experience that our live events bring and make sure we are delivering great value for time and money. It is not necessarily treating your event as the epicentre of everything, but it is about your community being the epicentre and your event is a significant moment in time for them but connected with a whole range of other ways to keep them engaged and connected.”
So, what should we be doing to enhance experience, I ask.
“There is some basic stuff like contactless registration, ensuring our events are sustainable and using the technology that we know is available – let’s just implement them. Visitors should be able to scan straight into the show, scan the products and companies that they are interested in and access that immediately without the need to have to receive an email of downloads. I am lucky in that we work with lots of amazing consumer brands that we can work with to enhance experience but that is true of all organisers – not everyone has Disney for sure but there will be an equivalent in every industry.
“We need to think about our events beyond the three days and the exhibition hall, how are people getting there? are we looking after them when they arrive? What are they doing in the evening? We really need to be thinking about helping them through and curating the entire experience. As Rob Miller pointed out in your piece on CX it is about connecting on an emotional level with your customers and to do that you need to really understand the needs and requirements of your community.
“We need to experiment with sound, music, smell and don’t think we have to plan the floorplan in the traditional way I love the fact that there is an opportunity for us to re-invent and reimagine our events, to throw away the rule book and try new things.
“Lee Newton, the CEO of Media 10, made an interesting observation in an interview he did with Ruth where he talked about approaching exhibitions in a similar way to how they planned magazine layout. It seemed to be a more thoughtful and creative approach, equating the front page with an exhibition entrance and then subtly curating content and product so that it made sense for the visitor.”
What is really apparent is how passionate Anna is about what she does and also the depth of her knowledge about her community – I finished the discussion with a question about how she got into events:
“I did a modern languages degree and like most of us fell into events, my first role was at Centaur where I started in their conferences division on the marketing side. I then did a similar role at UBM and was promoted to run a portfolio of events aimed at the marketing community – someone thought about the radical idea of getting a marketing professional to run shows about marketing! We eventually sold that portfolio to Closer Still and I moved to Brand Licensing where I have been ever since. I absolutely love working in licensing which is pretty much a marketing term, so it ticks all the boxes given my previous experience. It is a fascinating industry you get to meet so many amazing people and you literally know everything that’s going on in consumer trends everywhere which is great.
“But I’m also passionate about delivering really great events, and delivering return on investment for customers and that is what really excites me and occasionally keeps me awake at night.”
And that seems like a logical and appropriate time to finish. Anna cares like so many of us about events, the communities we serve and delivering great outcomes for our customers. She is optimistic about the future and sees Covid as an opportunity to re-boot events and offer new and exciting opportunities for our teams and our customers alike.