Advertising has always had a reputation as a fun industry. While the long lunches of the 80s and 90s may be a thing of the past, the conferences and events are still legendary. If you haven’t at some point sipped rose on – or at least near – a yacht in Cannes, wangled a flight to SXSW on the most spurious of excuses, or rubbed shoulders with a handful of eponymous agency founders at Advertising Week Europe, you’re doing something wrong. 

But this year, all that came to a shuddering halt. As if 2020 wasn’t proving tedious enough, I bet there’s not one of us who hasn’t been subjected to death by Zoom conferences on numerous occasions since March.

Not another Zoom call

Early conference casualties had to scramble to move their content online, but in more recent months we are still seeing far too many events, conferences, webinars and panels done badly.

Our industry has always thrived on networking – we attend these events as much for the chance to get in front of potential clients, or secure a face-to-face with a would-be employer, than we do to hear the keynotes and debates on stage. Indeed, while the content is always available online at a later date, I would wager that the networking opportunities are what draw the majority of people to any event.

Cannes Lions is perhaps the networking event in the advertising calendar, and it was always going to be an impossible task for the team to make it work in anything like the same way. They did deliver interesting speaker sessions through Cannes UnCanned, but there remained very limited networking elements. Even though we couldn’t be at the Carlton or on La Croisette, there are platforms available that could have delivered something a little more unique. 

The organisers of September’s DMEXCO@Home had a longer lead time, and did provide networking opportunities, but delegates had to scan through 20,000 names in order to see who was attending, while the sheer volume of content and speaker sessions through the two days was overwhelming.

Here to stay?

Looking ahead to the rest of the year, PI LIVE should be commended for trying to do something different with chat shows and elements of interaction. The 3,000 or so (online) attendees should be able to enjoy an experience similar to the one they would normally have at Old Billingsgate. 

But what has been a huge letdown this year is the sheer volume of webinars we have had to endure. The old saying ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’ has never been more pertinent. It is as if businesses have jumped on the opportunity to organise a free event, with scant disregard for how engaging or enjoyable it would be. Zoom may be one of the biggest winners in Covid, but once this is all over I wouldn’t be surprised if many people race to uninstall the app in a bid to erase all associations with this annus horribilis.

Virtual events should not equal Zoom calls. There are platforms out there that are offering a slick, memorable and visually engaging virtual experience that can deliver everything from live speakers to group and one-on-one networking via audience interaction and entertainment. 

Supercharge your virtual events

Earlier this year The Digital Voice invested in and became super hosts of the virtual conference platform Remo. We are now licenced to run live experiences enabling engaging sessions, real-time interaction and live networking, ensuring attendees really feel as if they are actually there, being part of an experience.

There are no pre-records, no passive sense that you are being talked at for hours on end, and all the thrills of knowing there could be a technology fail at any time. (So far so good.) In September we ran the four-day IAA PAC 2020, the renowned and long-established industry training course normally held at Oxford University but this year conducted online. The event, made up of panels, keynotes and discussions, was fast-paced and fun, with TikTok challenges, mixology sessions, and people being pulled up to participate on stage from the audience. 

It’s all about the experience

It is these kinds of experiences that the industry must now focus on going into 2021. Not only will we be at the mercy of Covid restrictions for some time to come, but a virtual experience done well can go a long way to replace a live event. Business leaders will be under more pressure than ever to restrict travel going forward – not just because we are heading into a recession but for the environmental impact that non-essential travel creates. 

Furthermore, fun, interactive virtual events can be the perfect way to engage younger members of our businesses who are rarely afforded the opportunity to attend the likes of Cannes, DMEXCO and so on. 

If we are to continue to enjoy the benefits that attending industry events offers, we have to start investing more in getting these experiences right. Just because we can’t be there in person it doesn’t mean they need to be – or indeed can get away with being – boring. 

Forget flat, pre-recorded sessions that will see people switch off metaphorically and physically. If you want something to resonate, to really feel like you’re connecting with your audience, go virtual, go experience, go big.