January 21, 2017

Building Event Experiences That Express The Future Vision

How we built a conference experience that top Merrill Lynch advisors describe as fun and impressive.


ML Bull

Over the past three years, Sullivan has become an increasingly integral part of the Merrill Lynch Advanced Education Symposium (AES). AES is a three-day long conference held five times a year, during which hundreds of Merrill Lynch financial advisors come together to hear from company leadership on new directives and practices and to share ideas on how to better serve clients. Given that the advisors operate across the country, AES is a rare opportunity for Merrill Lynch to communicate with and educate its large advisor community on new offerings and tools for counseling clients on financial wellness.

For AES in late 2016, Sullivan was asked to convey Merrill Lynch’s technology forward, future-minded approach to financial advising in the event experience. We understood the importance of building digital-first activations that were true to Merrill Lynch’s human-focused thinking, and we also knew it was about more than just displaying some information on-screen.  

There’s always learning from any event, but here are four principles we followed to ensure the event went smoothly, inspired the advisors, and communicated Merrill Lynch’s vision for financial advising.

Details matter

While digital signage, an app, and a large interactive wall helped create a tech-enabled environment at AES, we knew that advisors would spend much of their time in presentations and breakout sessions–so we also touched each individual presentation. From the content of a talk to the look and feel of the breakout rooms, our strategy and creative teams worked hard to ensure the presentation experience aligned with the overall space and in turn, underscored the larger conference theme of a tech-forward Merrill.

Infuse personality for a human touch

Beyond the directive we had to create a digital-first experience, we also wanted to create moments that showed personality, highlighting Merrill Lynch’s human-focused, goals-based approach to wealth management.

One of the places we did this was in signage found around the space. Screens pointing the way to breakfast read “All this talk of nest eggs is making us hungry” and “Waffles. Bacon. Hash browns. It’s good to diversify.”

Extend the experience

Conference attendees are often hurrying from one session to another, eager to get the most out of the event, so building ways to extend a message or lesson can be the difference between a message heard and a message learned.

To ensure there was ample opportunity to absorb the material and reflect, we conceptualized an interactive wall to showcase event videos and live poll results. Additionally, we collaborated on a digital hub that houses videos and resources, offering advisors the chance to catch up or re-watch long after AES wraps.

Have a plan A, B, C, and D

The biggest lesson of any experiential marketing initiative is to be prepared for the experience to go awry and be ready to pivot quickly.

For instance, the day before AES was slated to begin, we received a call that the 800-pound Bull pictured above was too heavy to be transported to the event site by our production crew. It took a combination of quick thinking, an available flat-bed tow truck, and a lot of charm, but ultimately – despite Murphy’s Law –  that centerpiece made it to AES.

No matter the specific goal or purpose, for an event to engage attendees in the brand’s message, it’s important to consider three points: the functional needs of attendees and speakers, the objectives of the event, and the special sauce that makes a brand unique. By carefully balancing these three pillars, attendees will come away with a specific understanding of your brand’s mission, and more importantly, why it matters to them.

Leah Kiel

executive producer


Building Event Experiences That Express The Future Vision


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