The MAD//Fest Story: virtual, in-person, and hybrid event success

You’re about to read the story of MAD//Fest, a “marketing, advertising, and disruption festival,” which ranks as the largest marketing festival in the UK. Created by Dan Brain and Ian Houghton, MAD//Fest began with a simple yet powerful goal: to challenge the status quo of events and bring the global marketing community together. 

The two co-founders launched MAD//Fest to bring excitement, innovation, and a bit of edginess to the traditional in-person event format. Boring conference centers and expo halls? Forget it. Brain and Houghton wanted their in-person to feel more like a celebration than just another in-person event on marketers’ to-do lists. Through their immersive events and epic brand experience, MAD//Fest became a true events trailblazer, fostering a dynamic community of marketers.  

MAD//Fest 2021 Hybrid Event

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, MAD//Fest expertly reimagined their iconic in-person event as a five-day virtual experience featuring over 700 speakers. In 2021, Dan and Ian took their event program to the hybrid stage, seamlessly bringing together a UK in-person audience and a virtual audience from around the world.  

Implementing a hybrid events program has emerged as a key strategy for event pros, highlighting the components of virtual and in-person events that planners, attendees, and sponsors love the most.  

In this case study, you’ll learn how the MAD//Fest team have uniquely positioned themselves as trailblazers of all three event formats: virtual, in-person, and hybrid, all while providing immersive attendee experiences and driving sponsor ROI.  

About MAD//Fest: A marketing, advertising, disruption festival

Dan Brain and Ian Houghton, Co-founders, MAD//Fest

MAD//Fest is where marketers from around the world come together to share ideas, introduce new innovations, and network with fellow industry influencers. 

The festival has captured the attention of a global attendee base, but its origin story isn’t exactly typical. It was founded by Brain and Houghton over a couple of pints and a couple of questions:  

  • What if we created an event that packs a punch with no-nonsense, relevant content?  
  • What if we created a space that transforms the traditional concept of an event into an immersive experience that generates excitement, fosters connection, and drives ROI?  

Dan and Ian were tired of in-person events that lacked energy, inspiration, and creativity. They knew they needed to launch an event of epic proportions to bring marketers together for an unforgettable and meaningful experience.  

 “We really felt that having worked in the industry for a long time, we’d seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of live events. A lot of people were saying to us in the marketing and advertising sector that the crop of events at that time wasn’t really delivering in terms of value, in terms of experience, in terms of vibrancy. They had become a little bit staid… So, Ian and I did the only sensible thing. We quit our jobs, we raised some money and in five and half months, and we delivered MAD//Fest London,” Brain says.  

Dan Brain, Co-founder, MAD//Fest

Transforming the in-person event status quo with MAD//Fest London

Picture this: you walk into an event space that’s nearly twice the size of a football field. In front of you, there’s a massive indoor garden with vendor booths doubling as pub tables. Around the venue, mini lounges gather attendees to network and enjoy food and drinks. To top it all off, cheers are erupting from attendees and exhibitors who are crowded around foosball tables as they partake in some friendly competition and ample networking opportunities.  

You might be thinking, “This sounds more like a party than an in-person conference or tradeshow.”  

That’s exactly what MAD//Fest set out to do.  

In under six months, Dan and Ian launched their first-ever event where attendees engaged in a two-day experience that exuded excitement, innovation, and connection. 

“[Attendees] came to the show because of the amazing speakers, but they walked into the show and it felt like their real life, like they were going to do something fun on the weekend, and it just happened to be surrounded by business people as opposed to their friends. That made a big difference in people’s emotional reaction to the event and how they enjoyed that space and how they relaxed,” Houghton says.

Networking at MAD//Fest 2021

Dan and Ian are determined to take a human approach to hosting events. They truly put themselves in their audience’s shoes and crafted an experience that provided tons of great content and fun.   

“We think by treating [attendees and partners] like humans and creating a fun environment for them to be in, they will have better conversations, enjoy themselves, and do better business together,” Houghton says.

Up For the Challenge: The art of “Wow-ing” marketers

Dan and Ian know better than anyone that marketing to marketers in any industry can be a major challenge. After all, marketers are typically the ones that think up creative and compelling ways to get people interested in event content.  

But the MAD//Fest co-founders saw this challenge as an exciting opportunity. They were up for the task of impressing an audience of marketers with quick thought and a bit of charm. When a royal baby announcement hit the press in the months leading up to MAD//Fest, Dan and Ian didn’t waste any time putting a MAD//Fest twist on the nation’s most talked-about story of the day.  

Brain drew from the royal press release to quickly draft MAD//Fest’s own announcement and spread the word about their upcoming marketing festival. 

Keynote at MAD//Fest event

Later in 2021, when a news story broke that a group of people had been snowed in at a pub with an Oasis tribute band, Brain drafted yet another clever marketing email to the MAD//Fest community that drew comparisons between the pub-goers’ incredible experience and MAD//Fest attendee experiences.  

“A lot of the [event] emails you get, they kind of look the same. They sound the same, and some are trying to sell you a ticket. We thought, how can we do something that is completely mind-blowing? If you can be creative and do something distinctive to disrupt a crowded market, it’s incredibly doable and people really love it,” Brain says.

Are you loving the MAD//Fest story so far? It’s one of our favorites. That’s why we created an exclusive case study all about MAD//Fest’s virtual, in-person, and hybrid event success. Download it here!

Bringing the MAD//Fest brand to life through the Webex Events Branded Event App

Overview page in the Webex Events Platform

The MAD//Fest brand reflects the festival’s dynamic event experience. Hot pink and bright yellow are the brand’s signature colors, bringing life and excitement to every interaction they have with their attendees.  

For MAD//Fest’s 2018 and 2019 in-person events, they leveraged the Webex Events Branded Mobile Event App. The app was built with key features that enabled attendees to easily navigate the event space and level up their networking opportunities, including a festival map, event game, social Wall, and agenda.  

Announcements in the Webex Events Platform

“Everyone is searching for differentiation at the moment because lots of apps and virtual events look the same but working with [Webex Events] has really helped us customize and make the MAD//Fest app different from everything else that’s out there,” says Brain.  

Dan Brain, Co-founder, MAD//Fest

MAD//Fest’s first-ever event went on to win several UK Conference Awards including Best New Launch and Best Networking Event.  

On winning Best Networking Event at the UK Conference Awards:  

“Obviously, networking is such a big deal at MAD//Fest–– we really try to encourage people to form those relationships. Aside from giving people great content and lots of nice food and drink, technology has a really important role to play in that, and that’s where Socio [Webex Events] comes in. Using the app and the digital platform that Socio [Webex Events] provides to make MAD//Fest a richer networking experience has been really important,” Brain says. 

How MAD//Fest partnered with Webex Events to become a hybrid event trailblazer

Entering the world of virtual events: How to fit 23,000 attendees into a virtual pub

Overview page in the Webex Events Platform

After the huge successes of their 2018 and 2019 events, Dan and Ian were eager to build upon their event structure in 2020. But in March 2020, the outbreak of COVID-19 shocked event organizers around the world, giving them no choice but to close the doors to their in-person event and pivot to a virtual format.  

The MAD//Fest team didn’t have time to waste. The only way forward was virtual, so Dan and Ian jumped right in and began brainstorming what their iconic marketing festival would look like as a completely virtual event.  

A few months earlier, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, Webex Events had shifted its product focus to meet the needs of virtual and hybrid events, leading the charge in a new era of events. 

“We went back to the roots that we had for MAD//Fest. We thought, ‘We need to do something virtual. Who are we going to speak to? Alright, we will speak to Socio [Webex Events], our partner since the beginning –– let’s do something virtual with them. We know we’ve got a platform that works, that our people like,’” Houghton says. 

The beauty of virtual events is that event organizers can launch them at anytime from anywhere. Instead of packing all of their speakers and content into a one or two-day event, Dan and Ian decided to take a different–– or as they would put it–– “completely mad” approach. 

In June 2020, MAD///Fest was back with the 99 Club Virtual Event, powered the Webex Events virtual event platform, but this time, it returned as a five-day virtual event with a global audience of 23,000 attendees and over 700 speakers who each had 99 seconds to speak. When each speaker’s time was up, a horn went off and the next speaker began.  

Agenda view in the Webex Events Platform

“It was like watching a radio show, but on your laptop, it was compelling…The format was really different. And the technology to make the format work and allow people to network makes a difference, too. You’ve got to get all of the aspects right,” says Houghton.  

Why choose such a drastic event format? If you ask Ian and Dan, after they tell you it’s because they’re completely “bonkers,” their reasoning speaks to the strategic and creative marketers they are.  

“At that time, everybody was doing sort of long-form content in the digital space… But people have got very short attention spans online. This was a sort of a good way of capturing people’s attention and just providing something different than what all of our competitors were doing,” says Brain.  

Following the 99 Club Virtual Event’s success, Ian and Dan knew the importance of maintaining engagement with their audience. They had successfully engaged their audience in a virtual format which meant one thing: virtual was here to stay. The 99 Club Virtual Event served as a catalyst for MAD//Fest’s next two virtual events, MAD//Anywhere 2020 in November and MAD//Anywhere 2021 in March of 2021.  

Engaging attendees with live polling, social networking, and more!

Dan and Ian understood that their virtual events simply couldn’t be structured the same way as their first two in-person events. Instead, they decided to leverage the engagement capabilities of Webex Events to drive engagement and promote connection.  

MAD//Fest’s three virtual events featured live polling with a Slido integration where attendees could answer poll questions in real-time. To elevate the engagement, Dan and Ian had one of their sponsors jump up on the virtual stage to comment on poll results as they were submitted.  

“Especially with virtual events, you have to make them less linear. You’ve got to make them interactive and engaging and break up that content from time to time. So, whether it’s poll questions or things that are just for fun, just giving people that that sort of break from wall-to-wall sessions is really important. That’s the way TV sort of works, and we sort of tried to take bits of inspiration from TV in the studio events,” Brain says.  

Social Wall in the Webex Events Platform

MAD//Fest also leveraged the Webex Events Wall feature as a Pub Message Board, where attendees shared about their event experiences by creating their own posts as well as liking and commenting on each other’s posts.  

To drive networking between attendees and exhibitors, MAD//Fest gamified the networking aspect of the event. They even leveraged the Webex Events Live Display tool to showcase the connections leaderboard which drove engagement and amplified which attendees were in the lead. To top everything off, the winner of the game received three free tickets to MAD//Fest’s November 2020 event. As a result, over 3,700 attendee connections were made in Webex Events.. 

Following each virtual event, Dan and Ian were able to download their session recordings and upload them directly to the MAD//Fest YouTube channel to boost brand visibility and garner excitement for their future events.  

Communicating sponsor value through Webex Events

It’s always important for event organizers to drive and prove ROI for their event sponsors. For MAD//Fest, securing top notch sponsors enables them to provide immersive, content rich event experiences for their virtual and in-person attendees.  

The data and analytics capabilities of Webex Events are a must-have for all MAD//Fest events. Webex Events has enabled MAD//Fest’s sponsors to collect data on the attendees they connect with at their events. Following the event, MAD//Fest sponsors leverage the data they’ve collected through Webex Events to craft personalized outreach to attendees. 

“Securing more sponsors is always a key target for me…. That’s helped by the work we do with [Webex Events] with the ability that sponsors have to really get quite a clear understanding of their [ROI] before they even finish a show,” says Houghton.  

MAD//Fest's 2021 Hybrid Event

Jumping into virtual event MAD-ness with Webex Events Professional Services

In 2020, as MAD//Fest navigated the somewhat unknown territory of virtual events, it was critical that they teamed up with vendors that would be true partners every step of the way.  

MAD//Fest was one of the first-ever customers to leverage the Webex Events Professional Services team for their June 2020 event. While Dan and Ian were in a planning frenzy in their UK headquarters, the Webex Events team was set up in Indianapolis, Indiana, ready to help launch MAD//Fest inaugural virtual event.  

With over 700 speakers rotating every 99 seconds, Ian and Dan were excited and understandably nervous about the logistics of the event, but when it came time to launch the five-day event, they were pleasantly surprised with the results.  

“Once it came round to that full five-day event, we have three people in that London office and Ryan from Webex Events over in Indianapolis helping us to get everything in order. And it worked,” Houghton says.  

When it comes to launching their events, the MAD//Fest team says that while the MAD//Fest and Webex Events (formerly Socio) teams are separated by geography, the distance has never prevented the Webex Events team from providing excellent support and ensuring their events run smoothly.  

Following their first-ever virtual event, MAD//Fest’s took home a UK Conference Award for Best New Event.

Where does MAD//Fest go from here? Our case study has the full story.

Dan and Ian expertly pivoted their in-person event to the virtual stage with grit, perseverance, and the help of the Webex Events virtual event platform – but they didn’t stop there. Access the full case study to learn how the MAD//Fest team launched a successful hybrid event and the new adventure they’re embarking on in 2022.