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Derse Challenges the Industry to Ask the Hard Questions

Mark Travers (EIA) spoke with Eric Preston, Vice President, Sales and Marketing, Derse, at the EXHIBITORLIVE show in Las Vegas.


EIA: Tell us about your business.


Preston: Derse started as a traditional exhibit company over 65 years ago but we’ve evolved with an agency mentality. By that, I mean we drive business for our customers. Our sole business is to help our customers have better conversations with their prospects and customers to help accelerate their sales. All of the program management and the design and build of the structure is important, but what really matters most is driving business for our customers.


And how do you do that? What’s the process?


We know the most important outcome we can achieve for our customers is to help them have the best conversations with their prospects and customers. So we start by developing the right knowledge base. We have a department called Client Strategic Services that’s made up of business analysts, program strategists, researchers and others. Getting that knowledge first is what helps us develop strategy. Strategy then feeds our creative process.


We’re about 35 strong in our creative department and they’re divided into holistic teams across disciplines. They’re made up of 3D designers that develop the environments, multi-media designers that are in charge of messaging and branding, and experiential designers that help shape the conversations. So, we start with research, we get to know the target audiences, we understand what they care about, and what their needs are. We start by creating the conversations and then we develop the messaging and the environments that will help our clients have those best conversations.


There’s a thread that pulls across the entire engagement. For us at this show, it’s ‘Unwrap the Truth.’ So once the conversation is created – and there are specific conversations for each of the client’s target audiences – we expand that thread before the show, during the show, and after the show, where it is truly building momentum and accelerating the sales cycle.


That’s the principle structure: Strategy + Creative = Results. And it’s accountable to business objectives….period.


You have strong opinions about the tradeshow industry as a whole, and the relationships between clients and vendors. Tell us your thoughts.


We believe face-to-face is the most effective form of marketing and we have the ability to prove it. Take any other form of B2B marketing – digital, print, anything else – their end-game is to inspire a prospect to interact with their product and / or company representative. But with face-to-face marketing, that’s where we start – with the interaction of prospects, customers, reps and, most of the time, with the product itself. There is already a genuine interest in a product or service by the people who are showing up. They’re spending their own time and money to come. It’s a motivated audience. We do that so we can control sights and sounds; we can even control smells if we want. All 5 senses are involved. You can’t do that with any other form of marketing. Not only that, but we can control the conversations. We can pull in every other type of marketing through the choreography of the experience. We can pull in digital campaigns; we can push them to digital campaigns. And it’s all about conversations, relationships and person-to-person interaction. There is no other form of marketing that is able to do all of that. So how can it not be the most effective?


I sense there’s a ‘…but…’ coming.


But the problem is that clients and vendors are not doing it as effectively as possible and they don’t expect enough in results. On the vendor side of the industry, we’ve traditionally been seen as ‘order takers.’ We facilitate the tactics of what our clients want instead of talking about what’s really going to help them sell more product. We take orders about how many counters, how many towers, how many conference rooms the client wants, rather than asking questions about how to drive sales. And until we do so, we’re going to continue to see happening what we see at most of these industry shows: Budgets being cut, spending being scrutinized, questions about ‘what we’re getting out of these shows?’.


You can walk around the floor at any show and see how marketers are wasting money. We see event objectives not aligned with business or sales objectives. Clients and their vendors end up building monuments to the brand instead of building a selling environment. As a result, we think there are billions of dollars wasted every year in face-to-face marketing. So until we can show them how we’re creating real selling environments that produce real results, the trend for the vendor side of this business is going to become tighter and more commoditized.


What happened that brought about this view?


We’ve held this position for quite some time, but I recently had an epiphany about a basic root cause that hit me like a bucket of cold water. We were involved in a large RFP. Their total spend, all in, was pushing $20 million. I’m in charge of my company’s marketing department, so I see about 120 RFPs a year. And I would put this particular RFP as one that was well written – they put a lot of thought into the content. As I’m going through it, I’m looking for cues that will allow me to help them sell their products and services. So I really scour these documents.


About 8 pages into this 32-page RFP, I was pleased to find Executive Leadership Objectives. But when I read them, they were things like ‘Show Breadth of Product,’ ‘Drive Sales,’ and the like – just three sentences. And these objectives were neither actionable nor measurable. But in that same RFP, there was a page and a half of text telling me how to build a crate. So a page and a half on how to build a crate and only three sentences on how to help them sell their products and services. That’s when I sat back and realized the disconnection that most client-side companies have between the C-suite, who are the drivers of business, and the people they’ve authorized to pick their experiential partners. I think this exemplifies the biggest problem we’re facing.


On the client side, I break it down like this. I categorize 4 specific target audiences – these are the stakeholders within a typical organization:


-- At the top, I call them Business Drivers. What are they concerned with? Business outcomes for the investments they make.


-- There’s a middle tier I call Marketers. What they value is a brand or customer experience. That’s what they’re concerned with.


-- There’s Procurement. They’re concerned with the best economic value.


-- And then you have the Tacticians. These are the event planners, the front-line people. Generally speaking, what they value is peace of mind. They want to be able to sleep peacefully every night knowing that ‘my vendor partner has handled every detail that could cause me problems.’


As vendors in this industry, our clients are most often the Tacticians. This is where we function. So most of our involvement is, ‘Yes, we’ll get it there on time. We’ll get it there on budget. If a problem happens on the show floor, we’ll have it fixed within the hour. Trust us, we’ll take care of it.”


What’s wrong with that?


So here you have a company that spends $20 million a year that has handed the keys for the choice of their vendor to a Tactician, who mostly cares about things getting to their destinations on time and making their life easier. Don’t get me wrong – sound tactical execution is essential – but they haven’t addressed the most critical questions because the business drivers weren’t involved in the selection process. And as a result, the vendor is chosen based mainly on technical needs. The C-suite later looks at the results and asks: “Why are we going to these shows? What are we getting out of them?”


I look at it this way: If the C-suite was choosing a new ad agency or PR firm, they’d be sitting at the table, making sure the company they were about to hire was going to be in tune with what they wanted to accomplish as a business. But since it’s just tradeshows, they hand the keys over and wonder why it’s broken. That’s what’s wrong.


What’s Derse doing to change that?


At Derse, we have the tough conversations and make people aware of the problem. We don’t scratch at the surface, we scratch through the surface. We remove all that clutter. We challenge. We ask the hard questions. We show past results. We have the resources and the focus and the interest to make success happen. When clients and prospects dig deep, they often find that the only company that’s doing this is Derse.*


*(Derse is pronounced der’ see)



You can reach Eric Preston at 414.290.3034 or For more information, visit

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