Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Jul-Aug 2015

Activation agencies need to come up to speed or be left behind

Social media has given activation platforms a new lease of life; activation agencies must now learn to take advantage

Somewhere along the line, activation practitioners in Pakistan have lost their way. After the gloss of this ‘new and exciting’ marketing medium wore off, brands realised that they had to justify their spend on activation compared to their spend on ATL. This realisation bought into question the infamous ‘cost per contact’ metric that drives the activation landscape today. Agencies responded by designing simpler, sharper marketing activities optimised to deliver the biggest bang for their buck in terms of cost per contacts. In all this hoopla, we collectively managed to critically wound, if not kill, the ‘experience’ part of experiential marketing.

Walk into any decent grocery store today and you will see this in action. In every aisle there is a brand ambassador waiting to take two minutes of your time to tell you about this and sell you that. In-store sales promotion is the official term of such activations, although ‘physical person-to-person spam’ would be more appropriate.


The crème de la crème of activation channels, the mall, also saw a sharp decline in the engagement factor and potential ‘contacts’ had to be lured in with prizes and other incentives. Most consumers, including myself, started avoiding activation campaigns like the plague.


At the same time, the stars aligned and social media took off in Pakistan. Suddenly, every millennial was taking selfies, the number sign evolved into the hashtag sign and Instagram-worthy became a powerful indicator of an experience’s value. By 2014, most brands had a year or two of social media presence and had become increasingly confident with the medium. They had gathered a sizable number of likes on their pages and needed content. This paved the way for a new addition to the activation brief; the social media angle. Today, almost all clients want a social media element to their activation so that they can amplify the activity online as well.

The evolution of the hybrid social + activation campaign The social and experiential relationship has grown over the years in a number of ways.

The first was simple captive integration. The idea is to create an activity that inherently allows people to connect to their social media accounts and post stuff (ideally branded) about the activity and their part in it. These days, this is a fairly dinosaureque way of doing things, although some social integration is better than none. The problem with this approach is that it is restrictive, even with the help of customised software that can make the posting process smoother. In simple words, participation is low because no matter how engaging the content is, it is a chore to post from a system you are not familiar with.

For privacy nuts, it is an even bigger source for concern to enter sensitive login details from an un-trusted location. Our learnings in this category come from an activation we did for Capri for Valentine’s Day 2012. We set up a large wall full of fresh roses that showcased Capri’s logo. Participants were encouraged to have their pictures taken and upload them on their Facebook page. The online footprint of the campaign reached 280% more people than the on-ground figures, a fact that was well received by the brand and an eye-opening preview of the power of social media leveraged via on-ground activations.

The second phase came with the advent of 3G and 4G technology. Now, people could do more than just check-in from their phones. This independence of social posting became a huge opportunity for the activation industry. The formula for most activations was adjusted accordingly; custodians realised that if the activations were engaging, people would post about them, thereby enabling a multiplier effect online.

The cost per contact was now being addressed by an online footprint as well, thereby unshackling it from strict activation targets. This helped agencies and brands refocus on creating a richer experience, even if it came at a higher cost. This paved the way for visually engaging activations able to convince people to whip out their phones, take a picture and post it on their social networks.

Flash mobs worked wonders. Selfie booths started to become a regular feature of activation setups, with brands like Sunsilk going all out to create experiential zones that gave audiences a reason to create visual social content from their experiences, with pre-suggested hashtags used to unite the content under a singular stream online and link it back to the brand’s social media properties.

The third stage came in the form of social-maximised campaigns. This is where an activity is executed on-ground with the sole purpose of acquiring word of mouth on digital and social platforms. The idea is a limited experiential marketing campaign that targets only a handful of people on-ground, but is then fed online and spread from influencer to influencer due to its viral content. This sort of experiential marketing is the rage internationally, but has only been exhibited a few times in Pakistan so far.

A simple and powerful example of this was recently executed by Olper’s. Rallying around their campaign concept that memories are best made around the dinner table, they surprised couples dining in a restaurant by footing their bill and giving them a heartfelt message. During this activity, video content was created around their surprised expressions of joy, showcasing a range of emotions and even short interviews. The video was released on their social media properties. Although the number of contacts for the activity remained minimal, the seeding of this on-ground campaign along with its feel-good viral factor helped it spread fast and wide online.

Some of our best moments happen around the dining table. Watch as Olper’s surprises its fans on Valentine’s Day to create several such moments at some of the country’s best restaurants.Thank you for choosing Olper’s Milk. Thank you for letting us spoil you this Valentine’s.

Posted by Olper's on Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Globally, Coca-Cola seems to be a pioneer in such hybrid activations, with a string of ideas executed on a limited scale on-ground but seeded virally with a strong engagement hook. My favourite is the stunt they pulled for their ‘Wish upon a Coke’ campaign at Dubai airport, where they offered special Coke bottles to people struggling with excess luggage worries. The labels on the bottles doubled as baggage tags which helped them solve their dilemma. The content was produced in a video and shared via social media, triggering a social domino as people shared the initiative over and over.

In their ‘Wish Upon a Coke’ campaign, Coca-Cola offered special Coke bottles to people struggling with excess luggage; the bottle labels could be used as luggage tags for extra bags.
In their ‘Wish Upon a Coke’ campaign, Coca-Cola offered special Coke bottles to people struggling with excess luggage; the bottle labels could be used as luggage tags for extra bags.

Another way activation and social can merge revolves around the changing of roles. What if the activation itself were featured on social media in a way that is engaging and exciting? This pull factor was captured beautifully in the US by Nike recently. They remixed that old activation classic – the road-show – and tweaked it for the digital age.

The campaign, called #RiseAbove, featured a truck that made stops across basketball courts and public locations in major US cities. What was interesting is that the truck was given a social media persona; it had a Twitter handle, it posted on Facebook, and its current location and status could be tracked via their microsite.

People got into the habit of following the truck, treating it like a celebrity. By creating the initial momentum on social, the activation helped to start conversations and engage people on a local level as the truck passed through their towns, and they were alerted about it via local social media channels.

Nike’s #RiseAbove campaign remixed the activation classic – the roadshow – and tweaked it for digital.
Nike’s #RiseAbove campaign remixed the activation classic – the roadshow – and tweaked it for digital.


A future with better experiences
As SoLoMo (Social Local Mobile) gains traction throughout the world, Pakistan is still playing catch-up. With our massive 140 million mobile phone user base and a strong data liberation movement from our telecommunication operators, conditions are perfect for brands and agencies here to move towards better integrated experiential campaigns that seamlessly harness the power of social.


An obstacle standing in the way is institutionalised thinking and a strong affection for the status quo. We need to take greater risks and encourage social to be a frontrunner instead of an add-on.


The other big hurdle is disconnected campaign planning. The trust deficit between agencies working on different aspects of the campaign needs to be addressed and multiple partners need to work in tandem, not in silos.

The experiential marketing industry must quickly shape up and provide a pivotal and supportive role in this transformation. If we stay silent and limited to doing just ‘our bit’, we will become the ‘necessary nuisance’ that ATL has become and be chucked out in favour of a better online experience.

Umair Kazi is a partner at Ishtehari. umair@ishtehari.com