American Express VP Deborah Curtis on Award-Winning, Outstanding Experiential Marketing


American Express Panorama Music Festival 2016 in New York

Deborah Curtis, vice president and head of global sponsorships and experiential marketing for American Express, spoke at the 2017 Experiential Marketing Summit in Chicago, hosted by Event Marketer, where she gave a keynote address sharing her  advice for the experiential landscape, what it means today and the appetite to explore the future.

Deborah Curtis - vice president and head of global experiential marketing and partnerships at American ExpressOnce again making the Billboard Power 100, Deb categorizes her experiential marketing advice not as commandments, but as planets in a solar system—eight of them, to be exact, providing goals for her team to bear mind so implementation remains firmly constant while constantly in motion and in space.

These tenets of experiential marketing will come to life at upcoming activations and partnerships for the American Express brand including the U.S. Open—both golf and tennis; the Panorama music festival (at top) on NYC’s Randall’s Island, which is now in its second year; and Miami’s Art Basel exhibition in December, where the immersive Platinum House will pop up on the beachfront of the Miami Beach Edition Hotel.

To give an example, the 2016 US Open American Express Fan Experience to engage tennis fans last August was a 20,000-square-foot interactive area located in the south plaza next to Louis Armstrong Stadium.

With spectacular amenities, digital content and meet-and-greets with current and former players including Monica Seles, below, who surprised fans inside The American Express Pro Walk at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center—just one of many thrilling moments for American Express card members and tennis fans alike.

American Express US Open Tennis Tournament - Monica Seles surprises fans inside The American Express Pro Walk at The 2016 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 29, 2016 in New York City

Fans were also able to take a seat (and selfies) in the Chair of Champions, a glass-enclosed area featuring a throne made up of tennis balls and rackets. There was also the Fan Court, a full-sized tennis court with tools that gave fans of all ages the ability to enhance and improve their game.

In May 2016 Curtis received Event Marketer‘s prestigious Grand Ex Award for raising the bar for the previous year’s US Open Tennis sponsorship activation, shown below, making her one of only two marketers to win the Grand Ex twice.

American Express 2015 US Open tennis activation

With that in mind, here is Deb’s advice to other marketers about how to craft and execute outstanding brand experiences at the 2017 Experiential Marketing Summit, in her own words:

Think long and hard about who you are as a brand. Are you Pascal? Or are you another character? Whether you are at a longstanding company or a startup, really understand your core. The force of change may be at different rates, but the best brands in the world—the ones that endure—always have a center. And you must understand what yours is to understand what experience you should create, and how to ignite the power of partnership. It comes from knowing yourself.

Your customer is the hero. Listen to her. Understand his needs. Be curious. Anticipate. For us, the customer will always tell us what we are doing right, what we can be doing better, where they like to spend, and what they love to do. We benefit from a significant amount of insight and data that is our compass into a better experience for them. What is your compass? If you don’t have direct access to insight, how do you get it? If you feel you’re not doing enough, push for more. It’s great to have instincts, but the best instinct comes from acting on the golden nuggets of undeniable truths.

We don’t get to do what we do without partners. Whether it’s our industry partners in sports, entertainment, fashion or our agency partners. Think and treat them as part of your team. Understand them. Ask them questions. Be as curious about them as you are about your customers. Because at the end of the day, in experiential marketing, it’s about relationships.

As so many of you know, while there may be thousands of us in this room, these industries are small. It’s a small world, after all—a song that I will have in my head for months to come. But I do find the truth in it, again and again. Your reputation matters, both personally and for your brands. Respecting the relationship is paramount. The best ideas flow from there.

This solar system of experiential marketing is changing every day. Sometimes the pace seems exhilarating. Sometimes the pace seems exhausting. But it’s always for the curious. For the unrelenting experimenters. We all get asked about the ROI of experiential, but what’s the ROI of not trying new things. Place calculated bets, sometimes take the licks, and then adapt. Anticipate that the planets are moving. Do you want to be a planet or do you want to be like poor Pluto, downgraded among the millions of stars? And how do you get ready for change?

Your ability to be ready for change—to understand and create the most powerful experiences—is to surround yourself with really smart people, with passion for what they do, and most importantly that bring diverse perspectives. My team has moved my mind in places unimaginable and helped me dream big, or sometimes tell me when I need to come back down to earth. But they are all different from me, come from different backgrounds, and different points of view. Foster it. Seek it out.

Appreciate it. There are very few jobs in this world where you get to see the reactions on people’s faces in direct response to what you create. What we do ADDS to people’s lives. They choose to spend their discretionary time with us—and there is great responsibility in that. But also savor it. We are really lucky. We make people happy.

Every day I read a music blog by a man named Bob Lefsetz. He wrote something in one of his recent musings, and it struck me to my core. He said do what satiates you. Like never before, I would give my younger self this advice, particularly when I’m wrapped up in moving around, moving up or like any company of two or more people, the politics. At the end of the day, the week, or your life, you have to do what matters to you. Do what you crave. Do what you love.