Several weeks ago, I posted a provocative LinkedIn post that openly questioned the rule of engagement and power dynamics in the live event industry. It questioned the supplier/buyer relationship and the systems that exist to support it. Admittedly the post was crudely written which served a purpose. Why be crude? People love to correct ignorance. I hypothesize; a well worded, eloquent post will not garner the same response as one that appears poorly thought out. Notwithstanding, a post also gets “airtime” if it makes people uncomfortable and/or angry. If a post seems reasonable and well written, people do not feel obliged to agree or correct it with their opinion. The post is viewed as standing up for itself and disappears into the online noise. To be successful the post needs to either take a diametrically opposed stance to most respondents’ opinions. Or, be purposefully lacking. Leaving out specific elements that explain and/or back up the poster’s position in the discourse. The desire to correct ignorance is strong and will drive a (digital) social animal to interact with a specific post in an ocean of content. Content that may otherwise go ignored through the incessant up swiping of thumbs.
Many studies have been done on the topic of provocation in art and its place in social change. Over the last 30 years we have seen mass media and the rise of digital communities that thrive on divisive and factional content. Many arguments can be made for and against these new rules of conversation and discourse. I ask you what does the future hold in the digital world? Is this behavior an unchanging and embedded construct, inherently necessary for social media to work? Can we evolve past this arguably destructive form of discourse enablement? Should we evolve? Is it more constructive than we realize? Have we, the poster’s, become a modern equivalent of the provocative artist pushing social norms and challenging the establishment. Or, is there just too much content for us to create any real change through digital discourse?
On to the post itself…
In the post I raised a discourse that our present buyer/seller relationship structure and process does not suit the modern live events world. Our industry’s established Request for Proposal (RFP) system is better suited to buying widgets than designing experiences. Although the idea of creating a “level playing field” is honorable in nature. It does remove the possibilities for suppliers to articulate their true value by lowering the dialogue to line item commoditized (widget) transactions. To understand the broken nature of the RFP process we must first understand the difference between a widget and experience.
I propose that a widget is an unchanging good or service. It can be delivered by any supplier and is only differentiated by price. No matter what venue, event type or desired outcome and the widget’s elements or benefits do not change. A tablecloth is a tablecloth. A public address speaker is a speaker. An apple is an apple. They serve a purpose in and of themselves. However, on their own, none of them create an experience. They are contributing parts to an experience. However, by their presence they do not dictate a successful experience, they are a part of it. In that context it is undeniable that many of the goods and services in our industry are commodities. You rent a specific chair cover with a pretty bow picked from a website and the company sends a team to set them up to match the image on the website. That commoditized good and service becomes a constituent part of the overall event experience, designed by the buyer.
When does a commoditized good or service (widget) change states to become a higher value experience transaction? I proposed that a widget becomes a higher valued non-transactional experience, when change becomes part of the process or outcome of the widget. If there is no change to the widget during the life of the transaction it remains a good or service that is open to commonization.
To make an example: A décor company has a range of table center pieces featured on their website, all of which are treated as stock standard off the shelf products. They are all open to be commoditized. Those table center pieces become widgets, the initial design time or intellectual property (IP) invested by the seller is amortized over the life of the product. Every time the stock centerpiece is rented a small return is obtained for the initial IP investment. However, when the supplier is asked, by the buyer, to tailor the product from the “stock standard off the shelf” form, they are not only entitled, but obliged the apply a fee for the customization.
No event market segment does this better than restaurants. They provide standard menus with tiered pricing structures. Any augmentation to the menu may result in an increased fee. These fees compensate the kitchen for the additional costs associated with obtaining the additional goods (ingredients) and services (cooking methods). Sometimes these fees are applied to compensate the chef for deviating from their established creative IP. IP that created the original menu, not the customized solution requested by the buyer. As a creative supplier, I argue that any deviation from the original intent of the product or design should have a premium applied to the stock standard commoditized price. We need to come to terms with the fact that the Live Event industry fulfils a need that is almost always customized. This means it is almost impossible for us to operate within a commoditized system.
Unfortunately, our industry finds it very difficult to differentiate a widget from a customized solution (experience). The reason, I believe, is the intangible nature of creative and analytically responsive design. It is easy for us to understand why adding chicken to a salad will increase the cost. Or why changing carnations to roses changes the price of the centerpieces. It is also obvious why adding supplementary PA speakers to cover a larger area is a required additional expense. For those transactions to remain commoditized seems reasonable. The grey area arrives when we understand the IP required for the deviation. What IP did it take to know the additional speakers are required? This is problematic for our entire industry and knowledge of acoustics is only one selfish example of the blurred lines that exist.
We are seeing an awakening in our industry. We are realizing the true power live events have to change the world. We recognize the design of a live event needs to be humancentric. But that presents a big problem, it takes a lot of IP. We invest more IP because human nature is intrinsically more complex than the constituent parts or widgets in event design.
In my world, technology is developing at an exponentially rapid rate. It is supercharging our ability to understand and empower positive behavior change through creating meaningful experiences. It is also enabling us to measure and understand the changes we are creating. Unfortunately, tech suppliers struggle to understand pricing models that will be embraced and allow us to invest in customization. Making it financially viable to engage in a process of strategic, transformation focused design.
These are just growing pains in our industry. Although frustrating, it is also encouraging that we are growing in our status. Commonization is a hallmark of economic progression. All impactful industries go through it at one time or another. However, if left unaddressed, it threatens to hold us back.
For many reasons, most of which sellers are all too aware, we are locked in a buying process that focuses on the widgets in our industry. There is a widespread demand for tech companies to combine the modalities of engineering, design, art and science. But our RFP system dictates we sell goods and services within the constraints of the widgets. Only factoring customization and analytic driven evolution as a tertiary or at best secondary decision criteria. Superseded in importance by the most affordably widgets. This diminishes, and at times, sabotages our ability to create and represent the true benefit of memorable experiences; intentional and purposeful behavior change.
Through this article I would like to reposition my initial statements in greater context.
· Is it reasonable and sustainable to make the primary decision criteria cost of widgets?
· Is it reasonable to ask a supplier to apply cross modal strategic creative services as “cost of doing business,” only allowing them to charge for the widget?
· Is it reasonable to ask a supplier to provide free consultation that enables the buyer to better articulate their needs and desired outcomes?
· Is there intrinsic value in a supplier who helps the buyer articulate their requirements and desired outcomes to a higher level than offered in the RFP?
Some argue that it is just the cost of doing business and it should be a free “value add” service offering. I feel passionately that position is the fastest way to achieve mediocrity. Almost every time I have encountered a free or value-added service, the benefits have diminished over time. Or even proven to not be the value it had first appeared. This decline in value is driven by the economics of cost and “corner” cutting. Driven by a suppliers need to find efficiencies to lower the burden of undervalued commoditized services (both good and bad efficiencies exist, but that’s a bigger conversation)
Therefore, I question can the purchasing criteria shift from the price of widgets we offer to the behavior change we create through collaborative design and execution? Then at a higher level, the measurement of the lifespan of change and its evolution powered by a continuing co-creation buyer supplier relationship.
I’ll admit it is a scary concept, I am asking if we can re-think how we all represent all value in our industry. It doesn’t matter if you’re a supplier, buyer or provide an ancillary service. This way of viewing our perceived value in the wider world in contingent on how we perceive the value within our industry. How we treat each other in our internal processes and systems. We must join together as an industry. Creating an inclusive and collaborative peer network. Breaking the traditional power dynamic towards a more constructive and egalitarian community. A network of humancentric, outcome-focused, intentional, creative change-makers.
Share your thoughts and opinions on this topic. I would love to hear them.