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April 4, 2008

Nick Adams: The human touch

It doesn’t take much effort to unearth internet forums full of promotional staff airing their grievances about how they have been treated during campaigns by companies and agencies. With the rising popularity of experiential activity, this is one area where our industry needs to be called to account.

While companies are recognising the power of having real people representing their brands, few will interrogate agencies on key issues surrounding their field staff about how they monitor these people, what they do about health and safety issues, how they ensure what the teams of field staff are doing is responsible and on brief, or how they care for, train and support these staff.

Regulation's what you need
It’s not that experiential is a discipline let loose to do what it wants, but there needs to be some sort of regulation around this area. With the talk of the need for standards and self-regulation within the experiential sector, this is one area that companies need to show a certain level of competence in terms of how they manage these people in the field. But it’s a tricky area. After all, you can have literally hundreds of people out on the street representing a brand and saying what they want to consumers about it. With printed or above-the-line advertising you can have a third party watch or read every bit and pass judgement on its suitability. But, however tightly you brief promotional people, they are human beings and can potentially deviate from any given script. This is something, I believe, that companies will start to pay more attention to.

When we did the Great British Bean Poll for Branston, we were faced with Heinz threatening to send out undercover journalists to check what our promotional staff were doing and saying, so we had to be very careful how we briefed our promotional staff. We needed to be sure they referred to the competitor product in a particular way and were aware of certain phrases or words that they could and couldn’t say. Although this was peculiar to this job, it is the sort of thing that is likely to become more commonplace.

Staffing is not a commodity

Some agencies are still providing the same staff with the same briefing as they did five to 10 years ago. But also companies need to stop thinking about brand ambassadors as a commodity that can be purchased as cheaply as possible. Clients should be aware of the damage that bad ambassadors can do to their brand. Too many clients demand the best quality of promotional staff, but also want to drive down the price.

Human beings can’t treated like robots, but we will have to ensure that they work within certain guidelines, which raises questions about the people you have as field staff. Being able to do this requires a certain level of competence, which in turn demands a certain rate of pay. Of course, the ideal would be to employ a dedicated team of full-time field staff, but the realities of the market are that this is just not possible because agencies cannot guarantee the necessary levels of work.

Embodying the brand

If anything, we have made a rod for our own backs by raising the bar in terms of client expectations in this area, if nothing else by simply referring to these people as brand ambassadors and not promotional staff. We are the ones telling clients that these people are responsible for communicating their values and that they will embody their brand. We now need to rise to that challenge, deliver against what we say, and look at how we can push the quality of the people we deliver.

Set standards as to the care and training of promotional staff will be invaluable not just to the agencies and staff themselves, but also to purchasing departments and companies who will know that they are buying into a defined quality of staffing. On a closing note, with the rise of corporate social responsibility, this could be set to become an extremely important issue for us all.

Nick Adams is managing director of experiential agency Sense

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