“Power has shifted from the brands to the consumers”- Keith O’Loughlin, CEO, TRO Group


Recognized as the Agency of the Year in The Field Marketing and Brand Experience Awards 2013 and boasting of an illustrious client list including BMW, Samsung, Nike, Nissan and Google, TRO Group- a global experiential marketing agency, has made a relatively recent foray into India and set up base in the capital. During his recent visit to New Delhi, EE caught up with its CEO, Keith O’Loughlin, to hear his rounded perspective on ‘experiential’ as a trending global buzz term and trade secrets to achieving the most engaging brand experiences.

TRO emerged at a time when the term ‘experiential’ did not even exist. When was the company founded and who was your first client?

TRO agency is 31 years old. It was originally founded by a gentleman named Russell, therefore was named The Russell Organization (TRO). He was a boat builder who approached a number of car manufacturers to lend him their cars to tow his boats around to exhibitions and public display areas. Volvo finally agreed to this arrangement and in turn he ended up selling a lot of their vehicles on their behalf. Volvo then approached him proposing to handle their outdoor events work and he accepted. So TRO agency was essentially founded to work with Volvo and then took off from there. I bought the business off him a couple of years later. We are now a part of the Omnicom Group and employ close to 500 people around the world.

What is your main focus when conceptualizing an experiential activity?

In experiential our main focus is always on the outcome- how the consumers react to the activity and not so much the production aspect of it. Of course, we want everything we do to look beautiful but our main focus is always consumer behaviour because we realize that just because something looks beautiful doesn’t necessarily mean its going to work.

You position yourselves as a ‘global’ experiential agency. What can a global agency possibly bring to the table that cannot be matched by a local agency?

TRO emerged in the early 1980’s in the UK and Europe as a need that emerged amongst corporates which included conferences, exhibitions and that type of activity. But at that nascent stage it was more about production than marketing and certainly not about entertainment. During the late 90’s more marketing content came into the event area and the focus shifted on consumer outcomes. We definitely didn’t found the business to be an experiential agency, we founded it to be an events business, but particularly in the recent years we have emerged as a global experiential agency and I believe thats where the real future of experiential will be. Even in local areas the answer really lies with the global agencies. There will always be a need for local execution, but consistency and clarity is extremely important in a brand’s communication. The message may be in a localized language but the association largely remains the same worldwide.

Sometimes when people talk about experiential marketing they associate its meaning with the term ‘experiment’. Both terms, experiment and experience, originate from Latin but while ‘experiment’ is essentially a right or wrong test to see if something works, ‘experience’ is the sum of everything you’ve learnt, therefore, has behavioural connotations. These behaviours are pretty universal amongst people around the world, and the reason why brands look for consistency across borders. Global agencies cater to this rapidly emerging need.

BMW is your client in the UK. In India most of BMW’s experiential activities are driven by the Showtime Group. Now with your presence in the country can we expect you to take over?

It completely depends on if BMW believes there is a task we can add unique value to. Clients usually do not sign global contracts with agencies and many times we work alongside other agencies within an area. Some clients do want to have that global consistency right from the get-go, others don’t have that need yet. There are certain clients like Nissan or Apple who do issue briefs that are based on regional partnerships.

You claim to be an ‘auto-specialist’. What automobile brands have you worked with?

The automobile sector lends itself very well to experiential. The brands we have worked with in the past include BMW, Mini, Rolls Royce, Volvo, Jaguar, Range Rover, Honda, a few General Motors brands and Nissan.

How has the amplification of technology affected brands in recent years?

Modern retail recognizes that the power has shifted from the brands to the consumers. This power was held by retailers for the longest time. But now consumers, armed with technology, can share information very quickly with one another in the form of travel based reviews (Tripadvisor), food reviews (Zomato) or general opinions about miscellaneous subjects. People are talking about brands and, regardless of ever having met that person, others are willingly picking up that opinion. So communication has moved to the individuals and brands are having to act very fast to work with that. A great example is the Oreo advertisement that came on during the Super Bowl last year. There was a power failure for 20 minutes and the game was suspended whilst the got the lights back on. In that time Oreo managed to get a television ad placed that said ‘You can still dunk your Oreo in the dark’.

The consumer is now grown up and fully engaged digitally. People are living simultaneously in the virtual and real world because we’re all connected all the time through our smart phones. People are having conversations about their habits and needs outside the retail space and it is important for brands to be cued in on these conversations and engage their consumers outside the point of retail. In some countries in Asia we’re seeing mobile utilization as the primary web-browsing tool. It varies a little bit due to coverage but the device is undoubtedly being used as the main communications medium. When you look at the data coming behind that, you can see that mobiles are being used for very deep engagements with brands or activities, whether they are watching TV, purchasing, talking, sharing etc. So brands have to work with that behavioural reality and understand that its no longer going to be a linear purchase where an advertisement is followed by sales. The new consumer wants total value and meaningful engagements with brands. They want a brand promise to be met every time they see the brand and that creates opportunity waiting to be tapped.

How important is integration of technology within an experiential activity?

A significant development over the last few years has been that technology has played a pivotal role in determining what can be achieved through experiential before, after and during an activity. I am not using the term ‘digital’ deliberately because people have technology with them all the time and are thoroughly engaged in experiences with their smart phones. This technology is improving the return of investment that brands get through an experiential activity, so we’re seeing a further swing in the budgets dedicated towards experiential campaigns. Technology has been hugely responsible for bringing the focus onto experiential in the recent years.

To give us a bit of differentiation TRO has founded its own digital agency by the name of ‘Knit’.

Please illustrate a campaign you’ve executed that fittingly integrates technology with an experiential activity.

We perceive technology as a crucial additive to most of our campaigns. In a recent marketing drive for Vauxhall Motors UK, we placed its car ‘Adam’ in shopping centres and when people interacted with the vehicle we used projection mapping to create a bit of theatre and played a little piece of music that lasted for about 45 seconds. The outcome was that people videod it, talked about it and shared it with their friends.

We took the activity a step further and besides putting up the installation we also set up a pop-up shop within the mall. A pop-up shop is essentially a makeshift store that is set-up for a very short term when a space is available between leases. So we created interest with the installation and people could go and satisfy their desire to browse further, and possibly purchase the car, in a real store. The shop was then simply picked up and taken from one shopping centre to the other. Pop-up shops are a growing trend internationally and it works exceptionally well when the focus is on one single product or one particular model, rather than the entire product range of a brand.

In another campaign for LG we took the brand experience outside the store and into the shop display windows. Using surface mounted speakers the shop window acted like one huge speaker and using voice recognition technology a simple command such as ‘Hi TV’ would make all the TV’s in the display window come alive. Similarly ‘Bye TV’ would turn them off.

The earliest stages of experiential marketing began with sampling of products as a way of engaging consumers. How has this activity evolved over the years?

The staff, planning and creativity are all key components of a sampling experience. Our endeavour is to create a bit more space for a piece of brand communication- it may be the length of the engagement, quality of the production or the planning and differentiation aspect of the activity. For example, when we do sampling for a brand of apple named ‘Pink Lady’ our main focus is on presentation and taste. So we have trays of optimally chilled apples served on a little pink flannel by a crew that has received at least a days training on why the apple is served the way it is. Therefore people conducting the sampling are very important as is the production of the handover.

One of our clients is an orange flavoured energy drink named Lucozade. We looked for target audiences and developed a campaign based around the youth with a focus on situations when they would need an energy drink. We zeroed in on music festivals which is a rapidly growing property in several countries around the world. But every brand wants to be part of a cool music festival or set up a stall there. Unfortunately many times this association may not be as relevant or effective as desired. We particularly  looked for touchpoints where we could have a genuine presence.

We conducted various activities one of which was a silent disco. Most festivals are licenced to play music upto a certain time of day but we realized people might still want to party after the cut-off time. So we introduced what we call a silent disco where people were given individual headphones and they can continue dancing after hours. In festivals where people camp on festival grounds overnight we actually delivered the product to their tents early morning to infuse them with a burst of energy when they most needed it. We also distributed glow sticks and other little tidbits to keep the focus on the brand.

As an experiential agency what is the basic principle you follow?

Every activity we do should be engaging, beneficial, engaging, memorable, mobile and it should be human.

How is the Indian market positioned with respect to experiential marketing?

India is a rapidly growing and changing community. Over a billion people and great metro opportunities positions it very well for brands wanting to engage with its consumers in meaningful and authentic ways. If not from a financial standpoint, from a communications point of view it looks like a great opportunity to do some work here. Another thing particularly interesting about India is that it possesses a huge wealth of indigenous creative arts that the world can certainly learn from.

How should advertisers leverage experiential in the year 2014?

There will always be a need for broadcast media to rapidly share information whether it is through television, press, poster, traditional or digital. Experiential plays a tremendous role when brands wish to create long-term meaningful loyalty. However, brands need to be mindful of communicating with the consumer of today and the consumer of tomorrow. For instance, there is a value in talking to the youth about Mercedes Benz because one day they could be the purchasers of the car. The space for experiential certainly continues to grow and it will grow through 2014, 2015, 2016 and presumably after.

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