Pico weighs in on the metaverse as an event space
Tay Ling
Vice President, TBA Hong Kong

Tell us a little bit about how the past two years have been for you, and the steps you’ve taken to survive and thrive in a tough industry?
Tay: It may be surprising to hear this, but apart from some temporary measures to tighten budgets and protect staff, the pandemic didn’t fundamentally change how we operate. But it did accelerate a change that was already well underway.

The reason was that we had already seen how the divide between online and offline business was dissolving and had begun a digital transformation strategy years earlier. We had already delivered many online or integrated projects, which helped lay a foundation for a new integrated model and a new era of total brand activation. The whole Pico Group worldwide has been transforming to support it, under an approach we call ‘Experience-Led, Digital-First’.

When the pandemic created a pressing need to connect brands and people in spite of social distancing and self-isolation, we were in a good position to explore and deliver the right integrated solutions. We had already been nurturing the expertise and were developing a content creation and community-building strategy to ensure that our projects delivered value to clients.

For us, the only surprise was the cause and the timing. We are now quite accustomed to using technology to bypass and transcend the limits of physical brand experience.

When I mentioned expertise before, I didn’t just mean knowing how to use technology; it’s having the imagination to use it effectively. That’s really the essence of ‘Experience-Led, Digital-First’. Bringing activation online isn’t a matter of just approximating an in-person event online – there’s more depth to it than that. Audiences don’t behave online as they do in person. The format is also capable of different things. So, what our head start gave us was the ability to think differently – in terms of the online format and how audiences relate to it.

That, as much as anything else, has helped us retain existing clients whilst attracting new ones during those two tumultuous years. We delivered on client goals, regardless of the format. And that has led more and more clients to regard the strengths of digital as indispensable. Going forward, we are likely to see a great deal of digital content integrated into even predominately in-person events.

With markets slowly opening up, what do you think 2022 will be like for you?
Tay: I think the key to 2022 is that we can’t assume markets slowly opening up in anything like a uniform way. But reopening is everyone’s goal, so we will probably see it happening with increasing frequency. What we have already seen is that when markets reopen, more events, exhibitions, roadshows, and conferences, among others, return, with a growing proportion of them returning to the in-person format, as well as hybrids of in-person and online.

But as we have seen with Omicron, disruptions happen, and they have already dampened the signs of growth that began last year. For 2022, we are optimistic but also aware that anything can happen. So, as a Group, we will continue what worked very well for us and our clients amid the challenges of 2021 and 2020 – ongoing digital transformation, and our content creation and community-building strategy.

What are some of the new challenges you are preparing yourself for and looking to counter?
Tay: I don’t think we’re in the business of countering anything. Whenever challenges arise, they stem from new technologies, new behaviours, new social priorities, or unpredictable events such as the pandemic. Our industry’s job is not to counter these things, but to harness the new dynamics they create in order to achieve our clients’ goals.

An example of a potential game-changer is the metaverse. Nobody knows exactly what it is yet, but we have an idea of how it could work on a conceptual level. Imagine it as all the online worlds you already know – from games to shops to virtual concerts and even workplaces – brought together into one seamless, immersive whole with which you interact via an avatar. Nearly everything you can do in person – and an infinite number of things you can’t – can be done virtually in the metaverse.

Now, what are the implications for us and our industry? We are still contemplating that question. But what we do know is that if events, conferences, exhibitions, etc, do move to the metaverse, their aims and purposes will be the same as they are now, and the expertise we have developed for present-day online and virtual engagement will be directly applicable, just as it will remain relevant and essential if there is a big shift back to in-person events.

In this new world we are living in, what do you think a great event really looks like?
Tay: An event’s purpose is to create emotional touchpoints that connect a brand, product or message to an audience. A great event is probably one that exceeds expectations in that respect. So there’s really no one vision of what it would look like; it could be big or small, in-person or online or in between, virtual or live. The form it takes evolves from an understanding of its goals, its audience, and what touchpoints will be effective to attain those goals.

That said, new technologies are always giving us new tools and touchpoints. For example, we are currently exploring virtual photography as a way to connect brands to gamers within a metaverse. Gamers are already using screenshots to share significant moments of play via social media – to the point that virtual photography is becoming a significant genre of its own. Brands with an interest in gaming could then enter that space and draw on that emotional connection to build communities. That, in essence, is what a great event really looks like.

What will be the role of events in the world of marketing in the future?
Tay: As long as there are brands and organisations with products to sell, issues to discuss, ideas to convey and stories to tell, there will be a role for events. But while the need for and purpose of events won’t change, the tools and techniques they use to connect audiences with the brand, products, stories, etc, are always changing. In that sense, we’re in an era of dramatic transition.

There will probably never be a full substitute for the in-person event, but technology is enabling us to enhance the experience, and even extend it beyond the venue and even the constraints of time. The metaverse could take this a step further: events could essentially last as long as the client wishes, as a continuum, with their own communities visiting repeatedly for the latest special sub-event or new offering. A new horizon is opening up, and it’s an exciting time to be in the industry.

This interview of Tay Ling, Vice President of TBA Hong Kong, was published online by Marketing-Interactive on 11 March 2022.