This week on the XLIVE Interview Series, we had a chance to chat with Chiara Adin and get her insights on the current state of experiential design and what trends to expect in 2019. Chiara Adin co-founded N/A Collective, a hybrid production meets creative shop in 2014 and in a few short years has developed an impressive client roster including Twitter, Microsoft, Tommy Hilfiger, SoundCloud, Casper and NBC. The 33 year-old female entrepreneur is known by clients and employees for her passion to create memorable, one-of-a-kind experiences and an unrivaled dedication to every project.
- Can you give us an introduction to N/A Collective and how you came to found the company?
Before founding N/A Collective, I was a part of independent creative agency, Mother New York and very lucky to work alongside some of the most creative brains in the industry, concepting and developing entirely new models for experiential programs. My experience there led me to observe how some of the most critical creative eyes look at every little detail, no matter how seemingly small it may be.
With the help of my co-founder Aaron Mason, N/A was born out of the need for a new and unique hybrid model where creative agency meets production company. We wanted to combine exceptional creative thinkers with top notch producers and technical directors to tackle each project with the appropriate team of thinkers, makers and doers from the very beginning. By combining creative, production and technical disciplines under one roof, we succeeded in building an agency that could be highly creative in their thinking while superbly realistic, detailed, and excellent in their execution.
Events are made up 1000 tiny little pieces and each one is equally as important to ensure an event runs flawlessly. We pride ourselves in having long, ongoing client relationships and reputations for being people who both clients and agencies alike would call when they need help pulling off something epic.
- This year, N/A Collective created activations for Twitter at CES and SoundCloud at SXSW. What kind of best practices should experiential companies consider when collaborating with these powerhouse brands and marketers?
When collaborating with Twitter and Soundcloud, especially at large tentpole events like SXSW and CES, it was important for us to remember who the brand is speaking to and how they want to be positioned.
You can easily get caught up in what everyone else is doing in the industry, or what is “hot” at the current moment. Always think strategically and don’t lose sight of what a brand’s specific message is trying to get across during that year or time period.
It’s also important to take a step back, forget what you’ve done in previous years and start fresh. Many companies fall into a habit of repeating event tactics from previous years. But successful results start with a clean slate; evaluate the brand and event as if it’s the first time working with them. As the agency, you are responsible for bringing new and unique solutions.
Do your research on a brand’s competitors, share what others in their category are doing and how you can help them stand out from the crowd. That’s why brands are coming to you and not doing it in house!
- “Experiential” carries a variety of meanings today and we’re slowly seeing it being replaced by the term “brand authenticity.” How does it translate into the current state of experiential?
Experiential has morphed and changed over the years– starting within the umbrella of event marketing and evolving into a catch-all of non-traditional concepts and approaches. You have traditional broadcast, print and digital (the newer social/content) and then there is everything else. That “everything else” category is vastly becoming what’s referred to as “integrated marketing” or “experiential marketing.”
I’ll admit, I haven’t heard of experiential being replaced by the term “brand authenticity”, but I have heard clients often mention experiential is how they develop authentic and emotional connections with their consumers. It’s a more personal 1-to-1 experience and is often more memorable, leaving a strong impression or creating sharable user-generated content. Consumers are much more likely to talk about an experience they’ve attended or participated in than a digital or print commercial they saw.
- Because experiential is unlike typical advertising, measuring ROI of an experience can be difficult. How do you and N/A Collective measure the success of an activation?
When I first started working in experiential and pitching clients on mobile experiences, I reached out to a lot of media companies asking them the foot traffic associated with their billboard on a corner of where I wanted to deploy my experience. But I later realized the benefits of using calculators from truck advertising websites to determine an “over the road” impression calculation. Fast forward to today, these are the same sites we use when clients need to improve the RIO of experiential with impressions beyond social.
Yes, more and more of these “old school” ways are outdated because social is the new currency. However, that’s where we started– trying to prove why experiential was just as important as traditional advertising mediums but with the added layer of human touch, voice and connection. With experiential, you are significantly more likely to remember the brand or an element of the activation that left an impression.
Most importantly, attendees are significantly more likely to tell a friend about their experience. It’s not often (unless it’s really good progressive advertising) that you hear, “Hey did you see that ad in the bus shelter?” and want to talk about it.
- What are some of the first questions you ask yourselves when you create an experience for a client? What goals need to be defined from the beginning?
The first questions we generally ask ourselves (and the clients) are, “What are the objectives?” and “What are you looking to accomplish for the brand?” We then ask, “What would the brand consider to be a success?” and “What KPI’s will they be using to measure the success of the experience?” We also like to know what other brand messaging or campaigns may be out in the world during the time period of our activation and how can we leverage or support them?
Experiences that work holistically with a larger campaign are often the most successful. We’ve created entire experiential campaigns for our clients in the past when they didn’t have any supporting outward facing comms. The basics to kicking off any brief also includes asking for brand/product style guides and assets. Even if we’ve worked with clients before, always asking for the latest and greatest is a good idea.
There are a million more questions we could or would ask to kick off our internal planning and response. We like to understand as much as possible to ensure we are providing the most thoughtful, creative and strategic responses. And if that response doesn’t include experiential, then we’ll tell clients because in the end, we want our clients to do what makes sense for their brand.
- Some brands ‘activate’ and create physical experiences often, and others do not. Which industries have the most success creating physical experiences, and what would you say to someone who is on the fence about creating a physical experience for their brand?
Physical experiences are often beneficial for brands looking to connect more personally with their audience. Those needing to demo or sample a product, change brand perceptions and host clients in more approachable ways, create content or provide a useful service that would keep consumers coming back. It’s not so much the brand, but more the objectives and message that determine whether or not the brand should create a physical experience.
There are a number of reasons why experiential makes sense for brands. But not every brand problem is best solved with an experience. It’s important to evaluate and determine the best approach for each industry, brand and challenge. It’s important for the brand to understand what they’re trying to accomplish and develop a plan accordingly.
- What are some of the biggest shifts you have seen in the industry?
Every couple years, someone changes the industry with a new type of experience that is referenced in every client brief for the next year or two after. It started with Sleep No More and it truly changed the experiential landscape as the word “immersive” became the new vernacular. Brands started creating a variety of immersive experiences to bring the consumer into their world, keep them engaged and excited while providing endless amounts of UGC and shareable content.
A few years later, Refinery29’s “29Rooms” burst onto the scene as the next iteration of immersive experiences, this time creating individual rooms that were a mixture of art installation meets photo opportunity. This was the next evolution of experiential and seems to be in every brief we receive now starting with, “We want to create a 29Rooms style installation but better and on a $150K budget.” 29Rooms cost millions of dollars to create, the detail is what made it so unique and different.
Everyone has copied this approach and hence we now have a “museum” for everything (cue the New York Times article that recently came out). This fad is on its last legs. Even Refinery29 is being called a “sellout” because the experiences feel very sponsored and no longer at the crossroad of art and culture. So what comes next for experiential? I’m not sure. But at N/A Collective, we’re on a mission to develop it and build it. You have to have your finger on the pulse of social and technology in order to create something groundbreaking. It takes adventurous agencies with bold risk seeking clients and it’s coming soon.
- What’s the best part of your job, what’s the most challenging aspect, and what keeps you up at night?
The best part of my job is being able to work with amazing brands to create new and unique experiences with my team. I love being in the trenches with them and seeing their ideas come to life in the real world. Pretty much taking dreams and turning them into reality.
The most challenging aspect is managing different client personalities, where some understand timelines and budgets while others don’t. There are always going to be last minute changes, multiple deliverables and unrealistic asks that can take a toll on my team and their schedules which can be very difficult to manage. So to protect our team, we simply have to say “no” if we receive proposal requests, for example, on a Friday before a long weekend with a due date of Tuesday morning.
What keeps me up at night is finding great talent and keeping them happy while doing top notch work for our clients. It’s an ongoing, balancing act and a challenging one that I love. But it doesn’t mean it’s not stressful!
- Was there one experiential activation you have been most proud of in your career and why?
Absolutely. I was brought on by an LA-based agency to build a skate park on a barge in less than five weeks for their NYC client, Nike SB (Nike Skateboarding). It’s still one of my favorite projects to date because it was challenging, interesting and the first of its kind. There wasn’t an N/A Collective team in NYC at the time. So I put one together and proceeded to navigate through all the red tape and road blocks.
No one had created a public experience on a barge. The closest was a Red Bull installation built on a barge in Florida that was on a closed video set. With that in mind, I needed to have the public on our barge skateboarding for multiple days. We even brought on a Coast Guard consultant who was my ace in the hole. So together he and I, along with my team which included my N/A co-founder Aaron Mason, worked through all the proper approvals.
One of the more interesting days during that project was spent at Brooklyn Bridge Park watching our boat execute a bathymetric survey– measuring water depths and determining if the location was free of debris that could damage our barge, then reviewing the data and hiring a crane boat to remove those items that looked dangerous. Let’s just say I know A LOT about barges, ballasting, gangways, bathymetric surveys and permanently moored vessels!
- What kind of experiential trends do you see on the horizon for 2019?
I truly believe the sky’s the limit in 2019 and beyond. Experiential will continue to connect brands and consumers by creating unique content opportunities and the ability to experience things we never could have imagined. But as technology continues to break barriers, consumers are spending more time and money on experiences, travel and entertainment. The brands are becoming more adventurous, less conservative and more open to standing up for what they believe in.
With these advancements in technology and social/digital media, we are constantly creating new ways to engage consumers. I think immersive technology will continue to evolve by pushing the boundaries of the five senses alongside connectivity. But I also hope the “instagramable moment” tempers a bit as a superficial sharable piece of content. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good instagram photo and consumers curating their feeds rather than just posting aimlessly. But I think the trend needs to be expanded to account for more robust, deeper experiences.
I also hold out hope that analog experiences will not die because there is a time and place for bespoke, curated, non-technical moments. There remains the ongoing need for balance between connectivity and the un-connected.