Agency Leader CEO Q&A Event Marketer

Agency Leader Chats: Changes, Investments and the Economy

From acquisitions to strategic hiring to acting as consultant to the new faces in client organizations, event agency leaders and their employees continue to ride the waves of economic and cultural evolutions. What we’re learning: Partnerships between clients and agencies are viewed as even more valuable than ever on the corporate side due to changes in the organizations. Agencies are reporting less turnover in their ranks. And leaders have discovered that hybrid work life continues to work.

To gain insight into the state of the agency business so far in 2024, we invited three event agency leaders to participate in a quarterly pulse check. Here, we present their insights.


Event Marketer: Tell us how your agency has changed this past year.

Deb Lemon, CEO, On Board Experiential

Deb Lemon, CEO, On Board Experiential: Over the past year, our agency has undergone significant evolution, reflecting our commitment to innovation and adaptability. One notable transformation has been the expansion of our portfolio to encompass a diverse range of offerings. OBE-incubated agency Think True—that’s minority-owned and multicultural-focused—continues to grow by leaps and bounds, not only broadening our reach but also serving underrepresented audience segments. We also kicked off 2024 with the acquisition of London-based agency Playmaker Experiential, reinforcing our commitment to serving clients on a global scale.

While navigating our agency’s growth, we have remained steadfast in our dedication to nurturing talent within our ranks. Despite industry challenges, we are proud to have maintained a remarkably high retention rate of 94 percent. However, we continue to feel the impact of an ongoing scarcity of executive-level producers in the market, a trend that seems to have been exacerbated by the aftermath of the pandemic. As we continue to grow, attracting top-tier talent remains a priority to ensure experiential excellence for our clients.

EM: Biggest headcount additions are going into which department and why?

Debbie Kaplan, Managing Director, Mosaic: Our biggest headcount additions are within our innovation and business intelligence department. We are continuing to evolve and drive digital transformation and innovation to achieve business results for our clients and our agency. We are also adopting emerging technologies to strengthen the power of our activation ideas, measurement capabilities (return on experience) and internal operations.

Maureen Ryan Fable, Global CEO, FIRST

Maureen Ryan Fable, Global CEO, FIRST: We’re hyper-focused on the development of our internal teams for targeted growth. We are not adding headcount for the sake of it; with the continued uncertainty of the market, we’re keeping a close eye on our headcount and cost base.

This year our team member increases are primarily stemming from client needs. For example, two clients where we already have embedded teams have had expansions so we’ve onboarded new event planners, producers, and technicians to support that growth. In terms of a single-client delivery department, the largest growth area of our team over the past few years has been in our event technology team. Clients are increasingly in need of support interacting with their audiences using tools and technologies and managing attendee data. This has been across our project-based teams as well as our embedded team delivery models.

Internally, the top investment focus is IT, including the addition of our chief information officer, to drive automation, systems connectivity and operational efficiencies.  We’ve also added a few other leadership roles including a chief of staff, chief legal officer, and chief learning officer.

EM: Are hard costs still hurting pricing or are you seeing the light at the end of that cost tunnel?

Debbie Kaplan: Though hard costs increases are leveling off, prices have not really come down in any specific area so they’re still significantly higher than in years past (no different really than inflation for consumers). Challenge with this is that client budgets haven’t kept up with the rate of increase. Many of our clients have similar budgets in 2024 for hard costs as they did two years ago and yet expectations remain the same.

Deb Lemon: There seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. While there is a gradual easing in the increases related to hard costs, clients are noticeably more price conscious. This heightened awareness necessitates a deeper dialogue around the intrinsic value of experiential marketing. If clients don’t understand the value we’re providing them, they won’t be willing to pay the going rates.

EM: How are you onboarding new employees who may not come from events or experiential?

Debbie Kaplan, Managing Director, Mosaic

Debbie Kaplan: As an integrated brand experience agency, we seek out talent with capabilities to create holistic, human centric brand experiences that move people across physical and digital touchpoints building brand affinity and driving purchase. In other words, our approach to talent attraction, onboarding and training is rooted in a way of thinking (humanity is the starting point to every solution) and ability to develop the right idea to be delivered at the right time and place. Experiential “how to” logistics, production, and execution training is secondary and tailored to specific experiences we create. That experience builds over time. We have well documented training guides across all types of activations. Nothing substitutes training in a live environment.

Deb Lemon: Hiring talent without an experiential background is not a regular practice for us, although we recognize the potential for skill transferability, particularly in the creative realm. Our onboarding initiatives are tailored to provide comprehensive training and mentorship, equipping individuals to thrive in our fast-paced world of experiential marketing. Most important is imparting the urgency required for time-sensitive deadlines, versus the flexile deadlines that can be afforded in the branding world.

EM: How have you brought people back to your office(s) and was that an easy lift?

Maureen Ryan Fable: At FIRST, we have a unique set up in that we have teams based in our agency offices as well as teams embedded at client offices; over the past few years our embedded teams have continued working on-site. For our agency-office based team members we moved to a structured hybrid model in the fall. At least two days a week, our New York-area, London-area and Singapore-area team members are physically present in their respective offices. So, it’s flexible but also purposefully designed in overlapping time in person for live collaboration.

The return to office certainly hasn’t been a simple or straightforward lift, especially with the various waves of COVID pushing our timelines. It required thoughtful change management: identifying solutions for team members who were changing their remote-work routines, clear and transparent communication, and a lot of empathy. People were being asked to shake up their schedules, get out of their comfort zones, and commute again—and our Leadership wanted to be sensitive to this, while also remaining focused on the end goal.

Agency Leader Working Stock 2024Now we’ve gotten to a place where the hybrid model is functioning, and people seem to appreciate and value the time together. We still do have team members outside our Hub locations who were granted remote working arrangements. And while I don’t see FIRST ever requiring team members to be in the office five days a week again, I do think there is a long-term gap for the learning, collaboration, relationship building and critical thinking benefits that come from teams being together full time. But I’m very glad we made this move to a hybrid scenario; we’ve seen the positive impact on the work and a reinvigoration of the culture of the team.

EM: How are you feeling about agency margins?

Maureen Ryan Fable: The reality is the margins are what allow us to function as a business and we need to know our worth and consistently demonstrate that to our clients. There are challenges presented by inflation, which has notably increased operational costs. This has required adjustments in our pricing structures to ensure we remain competitive to sustain the business. We always have been and continue to be transparent with our clients about increases and how hard costs impact their budgets.

We strive to bring top level service to our clients and the goal is that they see price adjustments and margins as not just being about cost, but an investment in quality. Similarly, for new business we pursue, we are very clear about our pricing model, mindful of our business’ economics. We are strategic about each opportunity aligning with our core capabilities to ensure our margins are positive and clients are getting the best experience.

We’ve also been transparent with our internal teams, and how inflation costs relate to individual compensation and business affordability. FIRST has been around for almost 28 years, and we aim to remain competitive with how we compensate our people.

EM: Finish this sentence and explain clients now need event agencies to…

Deb Lemon: Clients now need event agencies to serve as more than strategic partners, they need us to truly be extensions of their teams. As clients navigate the aftermath of layoffs and organizational restructuring, we step in to bridge the gaps, providing invaluable expertise and support to augment their capabilities. With that comes the need to educate partners on all that goes into driving meaningful engagement and long-term success.


Have an agency business story idea? Send us your pitch.

Image Credits: iStock/Man As Thep/CA-Digit

Rachel Boucher
Posted by Rachel Boucher

Rachel joined Event Marketer in 2012 and today serves as the brand's head of content. Her travels covering the experiential marketing indust ry have ranged from CES in Las Vegas to Spring Break in Panama City Beach, Florida (hey, it's never too late)—and everywhere in between.
View all articles by Rachel Boucher →

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