Reimagining events in B2B

With social distancing, remote working and bans on gatherings seemingly here to stay, is the marketing event dead? Or does it simply have to be reimagined? alan. Creative Director Benedict Buckland discusses with Ruth Rowan from NTT Ltd.


Benedict Buckland Welcome to The CMO Show, the show where we ask some of the biggest questions facing the marketing industry to the industry's leading lights. Today, I'm really pleased to be joined by CMO that has an absolutely exceptional experience within the technology sector, having held senior positions at Oracle and the team and now being the CMO of technology services company NTT. And that is Ruth Rowan. So thank you very much for joining us here on The CMO Show.

Ruth Rowan Hello, Benedict, thank you for having me.

Benedict Buckland Not at all. Thank you very much for joining me. It's probably one of your busiest times. So for those people that have tuned in who perhaps aren't as familiar and haven't picked up on those sorts of very, very carefully located jerseys which are hanging behind her on the wall that are very, very heavily involved in the Tour de France, which is I think most of us know is currently underway. Now, I know that the NTT lead rider, I think is Michael Gogl is he's closing in on the top 50 excuse me for the bad pronunciation of my research before starting this off. But what I am interested in actually briefly is and I appreciate we'll get on to this topic probably later. How has this tour for you? I should imagine it's been very, very different from the experience you've had in the past years.

Ruth Rowan Yeah, so it's exactly right. We're right in the middle of the Tour de France, which is one of the sporting partnerships that we are very privileged to have in NTT. We're the official technology partner for the tour. This is the sixth year that we've been the official technology partner and we also have the title sponsor of a cycling team that cycling in the court. they're happy to take any questions on that, actually, because that in itself is quite interesting, that we have two partnerships in cycling. Yes, we're right in the middle of the Tour de France. It's an incredibly busy month for us. Just as a marketing community, we know when your brand is in the spotlight, you know, when you're in the middle of crazy anticipation. It's lots of pressure, but it's also huge fun. So we're busy both delivering the technology and making sure obviously works because that's how we all consume sport today with all the data that's around sport. But also busy activating all the marketing things that go alongside it that bring it to life. But it's a pleasure to be here and to talk to fellow marketers as well.

Benedict Buckland Absolutely. For those people that haven't engaged with the tour and obviously this year, it is more of a virtual tool than it has been previously. But NTT and of course, other brands as well, are doing some fantastically innovative things when it comes to developing a fan experience, albeit one probably from the comfort of your living room in this particular instance. Which is a really perfect segue for us to talk about what the big topic of today is, and that's to understand what is the effect and really the long term effect of Covid on marketing events.

But before we dive into it, just a very quick bit of housekeeping, we want to keep this as interactive session as possible. So for those that are joining in from home, please do not hesitate to use the question box, which I think would be fairly intuitively located on the platform. So ask any questions. Now, that can be questions to sort of follow on in terms of what we're talking about. Any independent questions that you might have for Ruth. And of course, she has just given you the licence to ask anything about the Tour de France. So we're very, very happy to take a little bit of a detour to pardon the pun and explore some cycling things as well. So now with that covered, as I say what we're here to talk about... We are now in a time where we have become very, very accustomed to social distancing, to remote working and not being able to see people.

For those of us joining from the UK this week has seen the start of the implementation of the rule of six, which very much feels that this virtual existence is here to stay. So with that being the case, Ruth, what I'm interested in, does that spell the end of the marketing event? Is that the death knell to marketing events?

Ruth Rowan Yes, challenging, isn't it? Because events certainly certainly in our sector, in technology and I think in many sectors events have been such a critical part of our marketing mix. I've always worked in business marketing and that human connection is really important for all of us in selling. In developing our rapport and building trust and positioning what we do and then ultimately in selling. Events have been a critical part of that, of that mix as a result of that. So this year was definitely disruptive and I think we've all taken our hands with them up and gone back to the drawing board in many ways this year. Because we've just not been able to to execute events in the way that we have done previously.

I think for most of us, our marketing plans have had those regular events that have always been part of our world and part of the furniture that we had to go and rethink. So I wouldn't say it's the death toll for events. Absolutely I think that's still got a role to play. But we definitely are all being challenged to rethink. How do we achieve those same marketing goals and that same time experience, that same user journey, that same emotional connexion, but without the ability to prosecute? Yeah, maybe you've as an example of that at all.

This is our fifth year, as I mentioned, of being a part of the tour. And every year we mix up what we do. But actually this year, because we physically not been able to be in some spaces on the technology side and the marketing side. We had to really think very differently about how do we still achieve what we need to to deliver the technology, although albeit fully remotely, achieve the same marketing goals that we've had, but without actually anybody being on the ground. So it's quite a way of actually bringing to life what we've all had to rethink.

Benedict Buckland In many respects and I think this is something we can explore today, but yes, it's represented a huge challenge. But actually with every challenge, it means that you have that opportunity to not have to be burdened by the past and actually rethink things and do things differently. So I think it is an opportunity. I know that's a trite thing to say, but it is an opportunity as well as a challenge. Very quickly, just to give us an idea, I suppose, of the scale of the impact for you as an organisation, roughly what proportion of your marketing budget would have been allocated to events or experiential marketing?

Ruth Rowan Yeah, it's a really good question. And it's it's it's not an easy question for me to answer directly. But roughly, we probably spend about 25 per cent of our total investment in face-to-face engagement. So it depends on your definition of an event because of the different types of events and everything from the large exhibitions that that we go to to all the way down to the one on one meetings that we support facilitates the investments that we put into showcases in our own offices to bring to life what we do. Obviously, all of that at the moment is pretty much off the table in terms of what we do now. We've pivoted a lot of that spend into the virtual space and we can come on and talk about having a face to face. Physical meetings and events have been a very critical part of the mix in in NTT and I think across the whole technology sector. And we have to spend as well, which I have.

Benedict Buckland That's an interesting thing. Have you managed to pivot all of that, or is it actually just some activities that you've had to "write off" for want of a better word?

Ruth Rowan So I think like most organisations this year, we've pivoted. We pivoted the tactics to other kinds of execution. To take the same offline objectives, figure out how you achieve those objectives but without physically being with someone. A little bit like we're focused now in the virtual space rather than being in a room on stage. But also, I think like most organisations, we've also given some of that investment back to business. The technology industry in the context of that has been fairly well protected because most organisations move into a home working environment.

Most organisations have had to figure out "how do you operate remotely?". So technology industry's really, really stepped up to help support most organisations with that. That's a lot of sales online. So as compared to many in 2020 that we've been very fortunate that we've been fairly well protected through this crisis. But like most industries, we've also been very conservative around spend. Some of that spend has gone back to the organisation. You know, we kind of put it back in our purses to protect for the future. But a lot of that has created more individual functions.

Benedict Buckland I'm sure that you probably give me a diplomatic answer to this, but I'm going to ask the question anyway. So that money that's being returned to the business, was that a marketing-led decision or was it a business-led decision? What's your reflections on that?

Ruth Rowan Yeah, it's interesting. So, I mean, I'm fortunate that I sit on our expense. When we stepped into Covid, and again, NTT's a big global company, we operate pretty much everywhere around the world, you know, so we have operations in Asia. So we were able to see and predict very early on in 2020, you know Covid's arriving in China and Asia and the impact on those markets. So quite early on, we were we took a very conservative approach to firstly how do we protect our own people? How we made sure we've got resilience and place to provide services for clients and you can continue to deliver.

Yeah, but I think that we have to deliver. But also what we thought the impact on our business would be. So quite early on, we said "Let's let's be very cautious with our investments". Now, that was happening at the same time we were writing budgets for the financial year. We have an April start to our financial year. So at that point when I was writing the budget, I was able to to look at, well, the budget looks this big. In the context of we know we're we're going into a very... What could be a very disruptive year turned out to be a very disruptive year for all of us. How do we prevent a lot of the execution away from the events  into other channels? Also, how can I  contribute to the business in terms of being conservative with some of our investments? So we were able to kind of get ahead of that. It wasn't so much budget reform when we gave it back. It was that I was able to write a budget that kept marketing funding back until we could really understand the full impact of Covid on our business.

Benedict Buckland Yeah, but it sounds like you managed to... well, firstly, there was that... not creation, that's not the right word. But you had that understanding early on and therefore you were able you were able to plan with your peers within the wider marketing community. So I'm talking outside of NTT. Do you think marketers have managed to do that successfully or actually do you feel that marketing has been sort of ultimately a "loser" in this situation and not successfully made the case for why that budget should be pivoted rather than withdraw?

Ruth Rowan Yeah, it's a really good question, isn't it? So. It's really hard for me to comment on other organisations, of course, because there are millions of organisations out there and millions of different marketing, marketing plans. I would say though, you know, as marketers, we're incredibly fortunate in the role that we do because we have one of the key parts of the business that really does look strategic into the future. We're often thinking 12 to 24 to 36 months ahead. We're often the department that's thinking about how do we take this business into the future in terms of pivoting, you know, pivoting based on our clients requirements for pivoting based on what markets. So I always think that as a community, we're great at just responding to markets.

Our job is to understand what's going on in the market and understand how that's changing and to stay very close to our customers and our clients and understand how their needs are changing. And I always think whatever happens and I think this has been the most incredibly disruptive period that any of us have made, our job is actually to pick up businesses to respond to that. Yeah. And so I think most marketers and in most companies have done that and done that successfully, albeit lots of different companies in different industries have been had to really respond to very different market conditions, like a friend of mine working travel. And that's hugely impacted right now.

Benedict Buckland I think it's a potential is a topic for another day. But that idea of marketing-led transformation and the empowerment of the marketing department in terms of understanding both the market and the customer needs and shaping strategic direction. These are really, really interesting. But to bring it back to events... I mean, this is a slightly tongue-in-cheek question. Hopefully it can be. But now of the virtual event. So the pivots that we've seen over the past six months, and I'm not just limiting to NTT here. Of those virtual events, what made you smile in terms of, "That's spot on, they're doing that well" and equally, I suppose, what made you grimace in terms of being there? We've watched it hopefully people and companies today watching this, but where things are just a little bit awkward, it's a bit clunky and it's not working. Well, I'm really interested in your perspective on that.

Ruth Rowan Yeah. You know, we've all spent so much time, haven't we, on these platforms, including in the last six months, because we don't make enough. I mean, I feel incredibly lucky that I am back in the office this week at the moment. Yeah. I mean, there are some of the basics on there that we will remove that bad lighting or bad connectivity or it's really, really coarse. You know, I think we've all got a bit tired of going on to events where it's a little bit "broadcasty". You know, there's very little interactions, great questions coming through. Actually, this is one level of interaction and that personalisation of experience. So I think we've all we've all logged on and then dropped off where it just felt a bit bland. Yeah. And I think we're also learning about how we how we can improve it in terms of kind of what's really what's really made me smile.

I think it's a lot of that very human interaction and seeing people's kids hopping into the background of wherever they are because they're all here today. And my dog has a habit of breaking into whenever I'm on something that feels really important. And then he'll just break into the study and in the background. And so for me, it's those moments and reconnecting to humanity, I think, as humans were all desperate for kind of a sense of fulfilment and personal connection. We've all been so isolated for so long. So any opportunity to see that that sense of humanity. We've had a lot of debate in NTT about virtual backgrounds. If you've got on a corporate branded virtual background or not. Increasingly, we don't think we should. It's actually relaxing. It's love to see your home environment and what your plan in the corner and your picture in the corner. You increasingly want to see that because we want to feel connected to each other.

Benedict Buckland It's not something I've properly reflected on, but authenticity. I suppose what we're talking about there and the importance of that. Now, hopefully we are going to emerge from this big world that we're living in and we're going to be able to enjoy things in a more sort of human and directly interactive way. But do you feel that sort of need for authenticity and the humanity is going to be with us and we're going to carry that forward and we're going to translate that into future events interactions?

Ruth Rowan I think we will, and I think that the positive from this year has been we have all personally ripped up legacy plans and there's all the commission to throw away the stuff that is just for always in our plan. You know, whether it's the chairman's event or in some way that we do things. We've all been disrupted and are we've all been forced to learn more about the virtual world of digital channels. I think we've all become more literate, whatever stayed in our homes and platforms and techniques and opportunities to do things differently. So I do think there's a real opportunity for us all now to think differently, planned differently, to execute differently. I think we will go back to face-to-face contact because fundamentally are humans. We're not robots. You know, what makes humans human is we like physical connections. We've got greater psychological requirement together. That's why we live in communities, not in isolation. Although it feels like we lived in isolation. I think there's going to be a new balance that will bring digital and physical together.

Benedict Buckland I think that's I think that's really, really exciting. You're touching upon it there in terms of understanding humans, understanding audience. One thing that I've been interested in is the sort of the different behavioural insights that have been generated over this sort of period, because I think a lot of assumptions in terms of the way that people would behave and interact with content actually would proved to be unfounded. So I'm interested in your perspective now. We are six months into this stage and you've got a vast experience of running virtual events. What do these behavioural insights that have most surprised you that you've taken on board and use to shape your programme?

Ruth Rowan Yeah, it's a really good question. So I think firstly, just to say again that that need for that emotional connection, a very personal level is absolutely there. So what we're finding is even if we're doing a really big event with lots of people coming, we actually ran one earlier today with about a thousand people. I mean, what would have been a big exhibition centre with multiple streams and keynotes and an exhibition area lounge. But we also want people to hangout, with a virtual whiteboard and doodle together to get in that sense. So providing that opportunity to network and make connections and actually speak face-to-face, virtually like like we're doing now and I think is one of the insights. But I think there are also some some, I guess, tougher learnings that it's so much easier to drop off an event that's going to physically work out, you know. So I think we've learnt that maybe Germany got seven minutes maximum to hold someone's attention, otherwise they'll go. And it's really easy just to click the button on the platform on if what you're saying isn't engaging or relevant or personalised. You've got to get to the point really quickly and you've got to be engaging and and etc. with that.

But I think we've also learnt there are some really cunning tricks that you can deploy to meet that need. Which is you don't need to be live, if you like. Just pre-recorded conference, were not pre-recorded by the way. If you've got something really important to deliver, you can pre-record. Have the speaker there to do the Q&A. But that's that's quite a trick for individual's space, isn't it, just just to capture that and unedited. So it's it's brilliant. You know that. And we've also seen one of those harder comments is people are much more willing to be quite rude when they're write their comments or asking that question in the virtual space, because there's that lovely anonymous option on a lot of these platforms that you actually you get great feedback. You know, we've done a lot of internal events where we've been asking how are you doing? What are people worried about? And we had much more direct feedback because we give people an option to be anonymous around topics that they perhaps wouldn't be comfortable putting their hands up and asking if if they were there in person, but you have got to be ready for that. You get some pretty brutal feedback on this platform.

Benedict Buckland Unfortunately, I think everyone that's asked a question so far has been extremely polite. But I think it is interesting about actually this is this is almost sort of democratising a little bit in terms of people's interaction with content. That should be a good thing because it means that people can't rely in the same way on the sort of the trappings of an event or the food or whatever else it might be. There is a real focus on the substantive quality of the content, which I suppose is ultimately a good thing and a positive thing. Just very quickly, I know its a bit of a tactical question, but I'm just intrigued. Now, you mentioned that you had networking. How does that work?

Ruth Rowan Yeah, so so it's an interesting one, isn't it? You know, and I I've done it and it was a bit weird because you kind of, you know, normally you'd be hanging out in the lobby somewhere with a hotel lobby or an event somewhere, and you'd see someone that you met before. You'd see the badge and kind of get what they want to talk to you, because you look like you'd be really interesting. You're in a role that I can learn from. So it's kind of that same matchmaking that's virtually. So we're able to say, you know, who's turning up to this event? Benedict's coming to this event, you know, are you interested in... what topics are you interested in? Are you interested in meeting other people that maybe there's any we can effectively matchmake in the virtual space? Would you be interested in talking to this person? Or would the person be interested in talking to you. You can put them together in a room. I attended one event, which is not one of ours. It was an industry event where you could kind of go and it's a bit like speed dating for work. People would literally just come into the room to talk to you and leave if they weren't interested. It was quite brutal. You know, there was no let's sit and be polite and talk for five minutes before you left and somebody else is that you can you can match up on that.

Benedict Buckland That really is the sort of convergence of the sort of modern dating world with with business. So that's arguably a dystopian future that perhaps we're looking forward to. Actually one of the questions that come through from Bradley.  He was wondering whether you're using any sort of augmented reality technologies to further augment your virtual events. That's something that you have explored or have you stayed very traditional in terms of the technologies?

Ruth Rowan We have, actually. Now we're doing that right now for the Tour de France that we started started at the beginning talking about events and how we perceive events a little bit from the tour. So normally, whilst the tour is running, I'd spend a month, in fact, missing that fabulous food and wine right now. But I think it's groups to people every day to come and see behind the scenes and of the technology that we deliver for the tour and introducing them to a whole bunch of those people because we're not able to do that this year. Obviously, we can't be there and the guests that would be coming, wouldn't be able to travel. We're doing very similar programmes for virtually, you know, so we do have a virtual behind the scenes and our tech team are actually sitting in their offices. So we we're doing the same kind of thing daily but within the virtual space. But to help that, actually we've got augmented reality. So you can see the technology brought to life through an augmented reality app. Augmented reality is actually a pretty easy technology to use. If you've got a fairly recent smartphone or tablet, you can access the augmented reality and application fairly easily. So we're using augmented reality. Virtual reality is probably a little bit more challenging because a much bigger investment again this year for the tour. Normally, cycling fans love July when the Tour de France happens. The tour actually realised that there would be a real gap in cycling fans' lives in July. Knowing the tour was not going to happen in July, it has been postponed to September, we actually worked to create a virtual Tour de France for virtual reality, where the cyclists actually were peddling their bikes. They weren't advertising or actually on their bikes, but riding in a virtual reality environment to race virtually.

Benedict Buckland That's fantastic. What sort of engagement did you get with that? Because, I mean, a big part of your Tour de France engagement is its sponsorship and therefore the awareness that comes with that. But I'm imagining that corporate hospitality is a big component as well. So with that virtual experience that you put on, did you get the same levels of engagement with with the various clients and customers that you invited?

Ruth Rowan Yeah. So it's interesting that question you around democratising access. It definitely gave us the opportunity to democratise access for more people. Generally, not everybody can travel to France to come see behind the scenes. And also we're able to hire so many people at any one time because of the number of places that we have each day. So by doing it virtually, it does democratise access. People that normally wouldn't be able to travel for whatever reason and access the behind the scenes environment. We were able to host more people. One of the things I think we've learnt is that some sort of balance, because actually that opportunity to be in a small group of people feeling like they're getting something special or, you know, a VIP or money can't buy experience is required in the virtual space and that opportunity to be able to ask questions is very important.

But definitely we've done that and that's worked really well for us. But the virtual reality experience has been quite interesting because there's very few sports that are truly... that mainstream sports are engaging with right now. The virtual Tour de France and in July actually I think is one of the first sports that was carried across. Most major broadcast channels would normally carry the live event, actually carried the e-sports event. Well, here in the U.K., ITV or the broadcasting partner for the Tour de France, actually carried the virtual Tour de France. Now, I think that's partly because there's a complete lack of support in the world. People are willing to watch anything, but it was really interesting to do an e-sport broadcast on ITV.

Benedict Buckland I think there is a huge amount of opportunity for collaboration with those e-sports and other virtual providers within that space. So just to finish I'm conscious of a time here, a couple of questions. This is building off a question which is coming from Grace Chung. We spoke about focusing on outcomes earlier in terms of understand what outcomes you want and then work out the best way of delivering that as part of the pivot. So what I'm interested in is, given the outcomes that you expected to be able to deliver in the non-Covid world and the outcomes that you have been able to deliver, whether that's the metrics of leads for sales or whatever else it might be. How do those compare how how effective ultimately has your pivot been?

Ruth Rowan Yeah, so I actually think it's easier on marketing execution in the digital space than in the physical space because we get so many, so many more data points in the digital space as a marketer than we do in the physical space. Who's done what across the nurture journey in the digital space, how long they've been doing what for. And so we've got much more intelligence to inform the user journey. Whereas if you've got a person that attends a physical event, you don't necessarily understand how how long do they pay attention for in a in a session? What fans can they go to that they may or may not spend whatever. So that's really helpful in terms of marketing and marketing intelligence. So our goals have stayed the same and our commitment to the business model deliverables to the business has stayed the same and we're on track to do that.

I think the piece that we're definitely working harder at and again, we are just in a B2B space. Our sales colleagues are critical part of the user journey in the client experience, is enabling our sales colleagues with the insight that they need to understand quite what that means. If that salesperson physically, met you, Benedict, at an event and they've taken hands and touched each other and had a chat with you one-on-one in person and agreed to come see you tomorrow. They really understand what you're interested in and what they need to d. When you're personally virtually in the digital space and they've not met you, it's... You just have to work a bit harder to make sure that they really understand and that they're enabled and that an agreement is customised to what you want them to do.

Benedict Buckland So that's interesting. It's almost a mixed picture in terms of what you've described that benefits for for marketing. But actually in terms of that that handover process to sales arguable is where arguably the challenges are rising. Which leads us on to the very final question. It's building on a question that Jion Legaspi has posted here is... what does 2021 look like then? Do you think that we are going... this is all predicated on the idea that we get a vaccine, we do actually sort this pandemic out. So if we imagine that that's going to be the case... what do the future of events look like in your mind? What are we going to return to and what are we going to keep?

Ruth Rowan Yeah, so I think it's a great question, and I think for all of us, this year has been disruptive in so many ways. I think we need to take it as a positive disruption. Everything's been thrown up in the air. I think we take the best of what we've learnt in this new way of working. And then we added in the best of what we have before that we've not been able to do. But I think we've got a great opportunity now to have a little bit more of a white sheet of paper. And, you know, and there's no sacred cows anymore in the marketing plan to rethink how we engage.

I think, most importantly, to really connect to how our customers behaviour has changed because I think we are all now so different in how we're living our lives and what's important to us. I think tuning into that and then using that as a starting point around, how do we then put the right integrated plan in place with the right channels to engage, driven by that that changing behaviour? Because I think we're are all going to want to be back together with our communities and learning from each other whenever we can be. But equally, we're not going to do that in the same way we.

Benedict Buckland I think just listening to you there is a nice way of sort of summing up. We need to view this as an opportunity and actually the right way of looking at the past six months will be longer than six months. When we come out of this is this was a wonderful opportunity for a huge amount of experimentation. Some which will work, some of it won't work. But what we would have got is a huge amount of learning and understanding of behaviour. What works with a particular target audience.

And it's just as you say, it's about when we come out of this cherry picking what is going to work best because we've now had the opportunity to experiment, whereas I should imagine that the marketing events have been a little bit sort of in a period of sort of inertia for the past couple of decades. They haven't changed that dramatically. So I think that's a it's a positive story, actually, that that's emerging for that. So thank you very much for your time, Ruth. That was a really, really insightful and enjoyable chat. So thank you very much for joining us. And thank you very much for everybody that joined us online and for those that asked questions. And we will be back again, I think, in a couple of weeks time. So please look out for some contact and come through from us. Yes. Goodbye from me. And thanks again, Ruth. That was a pleasure.

Ruth Rowan Pleasure.

Ready to provoke the truth?

Get in touch.
Group 3Created with Sketch.
Group 3Created with Sketch.
Group 3Created with Sketch.
Fill 1Created with Sketch.