Towards the end of 2019, the Havas Group acquired ‘Shobiz’- an integrated experiential communication solutions organisation, as part of its expansion. Before Shobiz, the group had also acquired ThinkDesign and Langoor in 2019.
However, as fate would have it, the pandemic struck in early 2020, disrupting the experiential and on-ground space the most. We speak to Rana Barua, Group CEO, Havas Group India, and Sameer Tobaccowala, Chief Executive Officer of Shobiz Experiential Communications, about the challenges of running an experiential business amid a raging pandemic and their expectations from 2022.
While the agency was quick to adapt to digital and now hybrid events, the upcoming year looks exciting for the experiential industry, Barua and Tobaccowala said. They also said that merging digital learnings with on-ground activities will ensure that the audience reach is larger.
“The experiential sector did go through a muted phase but emerged stronger by elevating to digital. I believe when adversity strikes, the only way is to innovate or fade out and Shobiz opted for the first. Sameer and his team took stock of its operating model and evolved towards digital adoption. Core teams were trained seamlessly towards this hybrid model. I am hoping that despite the continued challenges, 2022 will be better and will allow us to take our digital learnings and merge them with on-ground activities so that the audience reach is much larger. In 2022, we will unleash the power of renewed Shobiz, which also coincides with the company's 40th anniversary,” said Barua.
What was the vision you had in mind when you acquired Shobiz, and how has it evolved in the last two years?
Rana Barua: We acquired Shobiz towards the end of 2019. The fact that it has been a pioneer in the experiential space, since 1982, meant that it would add tremendous value and expertise to Havas Group India. Acquisitions are a key part of our growth journey, as they build an integrated model of expertise and offer clients 360-degree marketing and ROI-driven solutions. This acquisition was aligned with Havas’ global ethos of experiential (including events, sports, and entertainment) being a huge part of our growth going forward. I am delighted to say that Shobiz’s quest for innovation, impact, and results has bolstered our existing offering as a group. Witnessing how Shobiz has not only adapted but also transformed with resilience during the pandemic is a testimony to Sameer’s leadership and his fantastic team.
The pandemic struck just after Havas bought Shobiz and killed the experiential business completely, at least for two quarters. Even as the agencies navigated to digital experience, it was nowhere close to being a sustainable revenue model. How did you overcome this phase? Did you restructure/realign your team and resources?
Barua: As a network, we have managed to bounce back quickly. The experiential sector did go through a muted phase but emerged stronger by elevating to digital. I believe when adversity strikes, the only way is to innovate or fade out and Shobiz opted for the first. Sameer and his team took stock of its operating model and evolved towards digital adoption. Core teams were trained seamlessly towards this hybrid model. I am hoping that despite the continued challenges, 2022 will be better and will allow us to take our digital learnings and merge them with on-ground activities so that the audience reach is much larger. In 2022, we will unleash the power of a renewed Shobiz, which also coincides with the company's 40th anniversary.
Sameer Tobaccowala: The first quarter of the pandemic was a complete shutdown, nobody wanted to do anything in the experiential space. Everyone assumed that it would be a short-term problem, so doing webinars online in the initial months would solve the issue. However, within the first couple of months, we realised that events would take longer to return to their original state. So, as an organisation, we began upskilling/training our employees across all departments towards a digital evolution. The team anyway knew the pulse of the events industry, so all they had to do was upskill themselves to be in the virtual space rather than on-ground.
In the event space, there are two important aspects, the first is to create a great experience for the audience, and the second is to engage the audience with the brand or the company. With hybrid events, we could achieve both. In the early months, we launched Shobiz digital as we understood hybrid is going to be the future. We built studios in our offices to be ready for the virtual world.
Brands are constantly and actively reaching to us to come up with fresh and compelling ideas that can captivate consumers. It’s just that now the ideas are expected to span across mediums – purely on-ground, sometimes virtual, and in an increasing number of cases, hybrid. We successfully hosted over 500+ events and experiences for over 50+ clients (existing and new).
What does the hybrid model look like at Shobiz?
Sameer Tobaccowala: Following the pandemic, the "Hybrid model" came as a buzzword in the experiential space. The power of hybrid events is that it helps you reach out to a larger set of audience, since it has elements of in-person and virtual being woven together. Brands were looking for ways to give virtual experiences to their customers. Our task then was to apply our knowledge in curating memorable experiences for the virtual world. So, we went to studios, created entire events in-studio with the help of green screens, graphics, we got emcees (hosts of shows) too and then converted what we shot into a module to show it on websites. We went through a full 3-dimensional world to give consumers an experience to remember.
Many clients started opening up to the concept of hybrid to keep their experiential marketing activities ongoing. So, while events were being hosted on-ground (without audiences), the audiences were able to watch them online.
It is said that the future of experiential lies in the hybrid model. From an agency’s perspective, how good or bad is it, especially keeping the topline numbers in mind?
Sameer Tobaccowala: The hybrid model must be taken positively as it has added a revenue generation model for the experiential world. It's a misconception that your audience can either take part virtually or in person, hybrid events allow you to expand your engagement and reach by gaining more attendees across countries and demographics.
The role of agencies like us is to ensure both sets of the audience- virtual and on-ground- get an equally enriching experience. Incorporating the virtual dimension has opened more options for interaction. The virtual audience constantly engages on different devices and discuss, share, like, and do much more in real-time. However, the experience and memories that get created during an on-ground event can never be replaced by the virtual or the hybrid model.
Earlier, organisations like Fountainhead used to be your competition. Now, it has expanded to brands like BookMyShow. How do you see this working in your favour?
Sameer Tobbacowala: If there is more competition, that means the space is growing. Having competition helps you to further advance your capabilities to come out much stronger in the market. Shobiz has been in the business for 40 years, which means we've seen and survived a lot of competition.
When do you think the experiential business will bounce back to its full potential?
Sameer Tobaccowala: The market is still volatile in terms of health, but not in terms of potential. Marketers are already on the ground, and we're ready to handle any event, whether it's on-ground, virtual, or hybrid. I am extremely bullish about 2022 and my take is that we will witness exponential growth.
Which categories are back in the business and which are expected to re-start investing in experiential in 2022?
Sameer Tobaccowala: Automotive, BFSI, Healthcare, FMCG- these categories are already back on the ground. Most of the brands, in my opinion, are ready to return. Clients who believe that events add value to their businesses will definitely make a comeback. Several categories require touch and feel, and they will return. For instance, IT truly believes events are the largest marketing spends for them, as they get to meet people and they can sell their products and services directly. Even for the automobile industry, people want to sit in a car, experience it; be it for the comfort or space or even the entire feel- before purchasing the product. So, the conversation on digital will always be there but there are these categories where you need touch and feel, they are going to come back big time.
Do you feel this acquisition by Havas right before the pandemic came as a blessing in disguise?
Sameer Tobaccowala: We are pleased to be a part of a network that is familiar with our business. We liked Havas Group's comprehensive approach to brand building and entrepreneurial attitude, which led to our association. The transaction could have gone the wrong way because we were acquired in December 2019, and the pandemic hit us in early 2020, causing the business to suffer and revenues to dry up. Rana and the global leadership team have been very supportive during these unprecedented days. They understood that our business was not down but needed a facelift and digital transition.
Corporates are still apprehensive about the ROI from on-ground events. Moreover, they are not able to plan for their events much in advance. How long will this continue hampering your business?
Sameer Tobaccowala: It's a return on engagement rather than a return on investment when it comes to events. Every event occurs for a variety of reasons, sometimes it happens for a celebratory purpose, brand launches, brand building, just coming together, lead generation, sales, and for multiple other reasons. So, I truly believe that clients these days understand that engagement is something that matters the most, only then comes ROI, particularly when it comes to events.
What are your expectations as we enter the new year with the hope that the worst is behind us?
Rana Barua: We are coming out of a very successful and buoyant festive period and the overall market sentiments are extremely bullish even though there are enough mixed reports again. While the challenges will not disappear so easily, as a network we are entering 2022 with a lot of clarity in terms of vision, expansion plans, and business growth. The market has undergone a massive transformation, which helped us take stock of our strengths and therefore I feel extremely confident about the new year.
Will Havas be adding areas of new expertise under its belt similarly in the future?
Rana Barua: In the last two years we grew exponentially on the back of many new client wins, acquisitions, launching new global expertise like CX and CDG, among others. It helped us create meaningful brands, solutions, and media and be the most effective partners to a diverse set of clients. The growth is also a testimony of our differentiated products and services, and I am happy to share that we are definitely shaping into one of the most agile, integrated networks in the country. We will continue to strengthen our model of offering an integrated slate of expertise and therefore keep adding newer functions either organically or through acquisitions.