How a start-up snared big clients with innovation

Theatrical events at product launches no longer cut the mustard. One start-up, Sense Event Group, is winning big clients by taking an innovative approach, based on combining marketing, branding and ‘intelligence’. By PATRICK STAFFORD

By Patrick Stafford

Mark Bennedick Anthony Halprin Sense

Theatrical events at product launches no longer cut the mustard. One start-up, Sense Event Group, is winning big clients by taking an innovative approach, based on combining marketing, branding and ‘intelligence’.

Providing clients with a unique, original experience for their product is only one of the challenges in running an event management business.

When Mark Bennedick (left of picture) and Anthony Halprin started Sense Event Group, they found that merely obtaining a client’s trust was the highest priority.

In just over a year, their events company has exceeded revenue goals and designed, produced and implemented events for large companies such as Kimberly-Clark, Heineken, Google and YouTube.

Bennedick, co-founder and co-director, says a large part of their success was the result of innovation – combining marketing and branding elements and providing an intelligent, co-operative and experiential approach to their industry that other event production providers had ignored.

Bennedick and Halprin, both 31, had held events and product launches in Sydney for 10 years through other firms. Frustrated with working for advertising agencies, they decided it was time to offer services other companies were not even considering.

“We were looking to come up a company with more intelligent and engaging ideas in terms of live event experiences,” Bennedick says. “Others are rolling out the big dollars, but not getting original, great events every time.”

Having worked together as a creative team for two years, and knowing each other personally for 15, they started Sense early last year. The start-up process was easier than expected – the initial investment was less than $10,000 and only required telephone, computer and internet access.

But attempting to take their previous clients from established businesses into a fresh new company had problems of its own. The major challenge was earning the trust of clients.

Clients need to be convinced that the capital spending needed for a large event or product launch will see their product take off. That’s a hard task, Bennedick says, when clients often prefer to spend that money on TV advertising.

Also the pair wanted to take a completely different approach, which so far has worked well. Sense has been successful in every pitch it has paid, Bennedick says.

“Traditionally events have been very theatrically based, and might not really connect with an audience,” Bennedick says. “We take a lot of our influences from things like design, the arts, film, global culture, technology, etc. That’s something a lot of event companies don’t do well… it’s something uncommon.”

Bennedick attributes this success to not only the innovative manner through which Sense designs its projects, but also the personal approach they provide for each and every one. Keeping a hands-on mentality, he says, ensures every client gets what they paid for.

After Bennedick and Halprin receive a brief, they arrange a creative team of professionals from a variety of industries they think can provide input.

“We draw upon our network of contacts we have worked with in the past, people that are experts in their fields. If we decide there is someone specifically we think would have a unique point of view relevant to the job, then we’ll pay them for their time and input in the brainstorm process.”

The ideas can come from a wide range of specialists including designers, architects, even anthropologists. After a brainstorming session, led by Bennedick and Halprin, the pitch is developed.

Sense produces what Bennedick calls a “full event experience”. Some of its larger events include recreating web sites on a stage and using actors to bring them to life, organising corporate dinners on islands, providing satellite broadband to a sales event far from any network and developing entertainment and logistics for sales events.

For example, Heineken hired Sense to create a launch party for one of its products. Rather than more drinks and handshakes, Bennedick and Halprin wanted to make Heineken’s customers believe they had entered another world entirely.

“We recreated an ‘artificial’ world… the idea was to give guests ‘an artificial taste of the virtual world’ before tasting the real thing. We incorporated actors, scripting, themeing, audiovisual, make-up artists and even optometrists to get the look right,” Bennedick says.

“We designed and manufactured ‘fake’ beer which guests had to purchase with ‘fake’ money. The guests loved it as it really gave them an immersive experience; they really could have been in another world. Heineken was very happy with the result, considering most of the guests were still dancing while we were cleaning up around them!”

So how much does it all cost?

“Live event experiences are recognised by marketers as being highly effective in terms of ROI compared to other marketing tools, so budgets have been on the increase in the past two to three years. Budgets can range anywhere from $20,000 to $500,000, but can be much more depending on the scope of the work.”

But they also organise sales conferences, road shows, award dinners, festivals, community celebrations, staff parties and, if necessary, talent management and script development. And while Sense only employs three full-time staff, hiring can range from anything between one or two full-time producers for an event, to managing 50 or 60 staff for a day’s work.

“If a client says ‘we need to put on an experience’, and we come up with an idea that requires talent, we’ll hand pick them and make sure we get what we need. In terms of services we provide, it’s the concept, development, production and then execution.”

Realising that experiential marketing was becoming the norm, Bennedick says, was the catalyst for providing the full production service and adopting a business model that offers intelligence rather than theatricality. By merging the methods of both branding and marketing groups, Sense is attempting to get a head-start on the competition.

“There’s the traditional marketing such as television, advertising and radio, but people have become a little bit immune to that. So now… you can engage them with an experience. Companies see the value in that,” he says.

Sense achieved its first year goal of $500,000 in revenue. Bennedick says their three year target was to gain double-digit growth each year, a forecast Sense has already reached in 2008. This growth, he says, helps bring them closer to becoming one of the major events companies in Australia.

“It’s been a whirlwind of a first year. As a new company, the difficulty is just trying to convince companies to give us the opportunity to pitch on a job. People don’t like to stray from their relationships. It’s the type of industry where when clients find a company they trust, they tend to stick with them for a long time,” Bennedick says.

But Bennedick says the others are catching up. “We’re competing with numerous people at the moment. There’s mainstream advertising agencies, there are traditional event companies… then branding companies. We sit between them. We think that’s unique.”

So is Sense’s advertising – or lack thereof. Sense uses no paid promotion other than its website. No magazines, no newspapers, no corporate brochures.

“We just go out and talk to people… we draw upon contacts, knock on doors. It’s very direct and very hands on.” But this connection with individuals, although a large part of what Bennedick thinks keeps the company running, is also the most difficult aspect of the business.

“Clients are seeking someone who can really create great ideas and connect with the people they want to talk to… but that’s been the hardest part. It’s a lot of calling, a lot of e-mailing, a lot of speaking to people and a lot of talking on the phone.”

Bennedick uses networking to learn a lot about the clients. He says he then tailors a pitch that’s suits the client needs. Individual approaches, he says, are the key to success.

This also helps Sense decide which businesses to work with. “Any companies we want to approach are the forward thinking companies,” he says. “If you’re willing to take that risk, there are big rewards. People who have that line of thinking are the ones we want to deal with. Our clients rely on us and place a huge amount of trust in us. There’s a huge satisfaction in being able to bring an idea to life.”

Ultimately, that relationship is something Bennedick believes will always give them more work, and is part of what they want Sense to become.

“We want Sense to be known as ‘the event company’ in Australia. If clients want a high-quality event – we want them to think of us first.”


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