“We have created something hybrid”

GCB FutureTalks #10 with Ulrike Tondorf, Head of Live & Experience Branding, Bayer AG


Ulrike Tondorf is convinced that digital and hybrid events can learn a lot from television productions. As Head of Live & Experience Branding at Bayer AG, she was responsible for planning and implementing the first online annual general meeting of a DAX-listed company in Germany. She shared her experiences from this project in an interview with Matthias Schultze.

Matthias Schultze: Prior to the ongoing corona pandemic, German corporations were not allowed to hold their annual general meetings online. However, due to the ongoing restrictions, lawmakers passed a law, which enables German corporations to do just that. You were in charge of the team that planned this huge project for the very first time. When did Bayer AG decide to move its Annual General Meeting online?

Ulrike Tondorf: We committed to an online AGM on the day the law was passed. In the days leading up to the decision, it had already become apparent that such an outcome was in fact possible. That is why we decided to dedicate resources to this project early on. Ultimately, we had less than five weeks to organize the event.

Matthias Schultze: What were the challenges of transforming a face-to-face event into a virtual event?

Ulrike Tondorf: Of course, not everything had to change, and we were able to benefit from our past experiences. Moreover, the same departments stayed on the project. What did change, however, was the focus: the whole project had become significantly more intense! On the one hand, we had to find ways to ensure online presence. This had become particularly clear in regard to the special requirements set forth for AGMs. On the other hand, this event was taking place at a very special time.

Accordingly, we had to consider all the requirements and restrictions associated with the coronavirus. Therefore, we ultimately started from scratch and had to deal with previously unknown questions.

Matthias Schultze: Currently, we are hearing more and more that the simple transformation of face-to-face events to virtual events is difficult. In fact, planners must think about new ideas and apply new concepts. How did you approach the event’s conceptual development?

Ulrike Tondorf: We had to completely change our perspective. At live events you usually have the protagonists on stage. We will record them, and we will broadcast accordingly. At our online AGM, however, we had to plan every detail and every word.

Ultimately, we had to write a script. Of course, this also applies to face-to-face events, but we had to put an even greater focus on the details this time around. We had to focus on what the viewers would ultimately see on their screens. Thus, it is a lot like a TV production. Additionally, the script gave our protagonists a sense of certainty and security that they were doing the right thing at the right time.

Matthias Schultze: You are saying that the live communication industry can learn from the TV and entertainment industry in order to prepare itself conceptually for virtual and hybrid event formats?

Ulrike Tondorf: Absolutely, I see it that way. I would not say that we have created the blueprint for future virtual events. But I do believe that the mix of live event elements and a virtual event can be a good solution.

We have created something hybrid. At the end of the day, it was a live event without any on-site attendees, which was broadcast online. Therefore, I believe that future virtual events can benefit from experiences made in TV production. As a matter of fact, I think it is important that we do just that, because we must pay close attention to what will be shown on the screens.

Matthias Schultze: Can you tell us a little about the feedback for your first online AGM compared to your regular AGMs?

Ulrike Tondorf: Firstly, all of our stakeholders were very positive that we continued to plan with the original date. We have also received positive feedback related to the shareholders’ questions. It was a great challenge for our communications team, but we actually answered all of the submitted questions. This certainly contributed to a positive overall experience.

We have also received positive feedback regarding the good transmission quality and the fact that we were able to capture the emotions that are usually associated with an AGM. That is certainly a lot to build on for the future and we are proud that the event has been this successful.

Matthias Schultze: Did you define any key performance figures to compare this year’s AGM with others or through which you could measure the event’s success?

Ulrike Tondorf: Of course, we paid attention to the number of virtual attendees. Usually the number of attendees increases during the course of the event and will reach its peak when Mr. Baumann addresses our shareholders. We counted 3241 people at our last live AGM.

At a very similar point in time, we saw 4938 people attending this year’s online AGM. This shows that we were actually able to reach more people online. I do not know if they were necessarily the same people, but we have certainly reached a similar number of people.

Matthias Schultze: What would you consider your three key learnings from this project?

Ulrike Tondorf: First and foremost, I would emphasize on a great team. Of course, with only five weeks to plan the event, we had to assemble the team quickly and really pull together. I am happy to say that this also developed a great team spirit. Although most of the other corporations will certainly have more time, I would recommend starting early.

However, and this is my third key learning, technical support plays a key role in online events. In our case, it was Bayer IT that played an integral role in ensuring that the channels were secure and that everything worked as planned. On top of that, I would also recommend using the TV industry’s experiences and writing a detail-oriented script to ensure that you’re broadcasting the images and impressions you were planning to convey.

Matthias Schultze: Did you end up using any new technologies for this online AGM?

Ulrike Tondorf: Not at all. We certainly benefitted from our prior experiences, though. Even in the past, we were broadcasting speeches from our AGMs and were able to build on that experience. Although there were additional topics to deal with, such as the shareholders’ questions, we could fall back on proven tools. Needless to say, we had to make sure that the lines were working properly.

Matthias Schultze: Finally, one last question for you personally: What do you expect your future everyday working life to look like?

Ulrike Tondorf: That is an exciting question! I think it is very important to invest time in reviewing and developing strategies for the future: what is going to happen, which events can be held live and what will hybrid events look like? Even still, I am confident that we will continue to see live events.

Of course, it is too early to tell how many there will be or when it is going to be safe to hold them again. That’s why we should really invest our time and resources to find solutions and make live communication possible again in the future. Nothing is more important than keeping it alive. I think it is great that we’ve got all these new tools, but live communication will continue to remain an important factor.

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