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09 | Allen Yesilevich, MC²: Blindfolds, Return on Emotion, and Billie Eilish

  • August 7, 2019
  • 24:38

Allen Yesilevich (VP of Marketing + Growth, MC²) shares shares a behind-the-scenes look at how agencies work, the power of emotion in events, the history of MC2, and the most terrifying activation that I've ever heard of.

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Top Takeaways

1

DRILLING DOWN TO THE WHY: While professional services and consulting firms use a methodical approach to delivering solutions to clients, the future of agencies hinges on something more. Buyers have become more sophisticated and need a strategic partner to understand their larger goals. “It’s no longer how you get an exhibit up and running at a trade show in four days. It’s about why we are designing and creating something.”

2

MEASURING EMOTIONAL IMPACT: Allen understands that brand experiences are a significant marketing investment, but the rewards aren’t always quantifiable. While ROI is a key component to event success, a big part of brand experiences is delivering an authentic connection. “It’s more about the connection that you create, the emotional bond that you create with buyers, that keep them coming back year over year."

3

TRANSFORMING BRAND EXPERIENCES: It's clear that audiences are looking for a more authentic connection. Over time, brand experiences have evolved into a more robust marketing channel for both connection and brand storytelling.  “Experiential activations give brands an opportunity to isolate an audience and immerse them within your story. You can't easily do that using digital mediums solely.”

ABOUT Allen Yesilevich

Before leading marketing and growth at MC², Allen worked with brands ranging from Global Fortune 500 to VC-backed startups in a variety of industries. He has over 15 years of brand, marketing and advisory experience—and now heads marketing and growth efforts at MC², an award-winning globally-recognized brand experience agency.

Episode Transcript

BRANDON:

Hello and welcome to IN-PERSON, brought to you by Bizzabo. In each episode of IN-PERSON, we explore the world's most daring events and the people who make them happen. In case you and I haven't already met, I'm Brandon Rafalson. We're back with the third and final entry in our Experiential Marketing Summit series where we recorded interviews with industry leaders, live, on the event floor.

Last episode we spoke with the founder of a new and ambitious boutique experiential agency. In this episode, we're speaking with Allen Yesilevich, vice president of marketing at MC². MC² is an experiential agency that has worked with the likes of Nike, Cisco, Spotify, Bloomberg, AT&T, and more. They've built a miniature city for Samsung at CES in Las Vegas. They put together a 10,000-person festival to celebrate the relocation of a Toyota HQ, and they've also blindfolded unsuspecting passerby and placed them on a bus for what has got to be one of the most terrifying and cool activations that I've ever heard about.

Throughout our discussion, Allen shares a behind-the-scenes look at how agencies work, the power of emotion in events, and the history of MC². There's also a description of the terrifying activation described above. That's right, brace yourselves. Let's get to it.

All right, welcome to IN-PERSON. We are live once again here at EMS. I am joined by Allen Yesilevich, the VP of marketing and growth over at MC². Allen, thank you so much for joining us today.

ALLEN:

Yeah, absolutely. It's great being here.

BRANDON:

So, MC², big agency, does lots of great stuff. But before you ended up there, what were you doing, and how did you sort of find your way into events?

ALLEN:

Yeah, I have quite a unique and interesting origin story like many of the people who I have met here at EMES. I actually started out in finance, believe it or not. Son of two immigrant parents growing up in Queens, New York, didn't really have much of an option, much of a choice. When I went to school, I was pretty good at math and finance was my destiny. But, very early on, I realized that it wasn't in the cards for me, and it was around the same time that Google and Facebook and social media became a force, and I realized that you can actually use online communication to promote a brand to generate leads to grow a business. And I came to realize that, you know what, I think I'm going to break into marketing. I think that's for me.

So, I ended up transitioning into professional services and working in consulting for many years, in a in-house marketing capacity. And then I was quite fortunate when MC² reached out to me. Their CMO was retiring and they were looking for somebody to fill that head of marketing role, and I was ready to take the leap and enter into an industry that was very new for me but very exciting. And I've been with MC² for two years now, and I have to admit, I think I'm a lifer now.

BRANDON:

Yeah?

ALLEN:

Yep. I think I'm here to stay.

BRANDON:

For sure. So, MC² very much your first exposure to events.

ALLEN:

Yes.

BRANDON:

It could be a lot to take in, you know, all the hustle that goes into any sort of campaign. Of course, you're more on the marketing growth side of the agency, but what are some early impressions you had?

ALLEN:

Yeah, it's certainly unique working in the world of events and trade shows and experiential. I mean, the part that I love the most, and why this industry's so unique is that you have groups of people in the organization from different core competencies, whether it's creative and design and storytelling, and then the production and fabrication of the physical spaces, to the strategy and marketing. I mean, you have people with such different backgrounds that have to come together to create something tangible that people can see and feel and experience. That teamwork and collaboration, I think is quite unique to this industry. It's just fascinating when on day one, and you start with the ideation process, and you try to understand the client's vision and goals, and then when you're there for the launch of whatever it is, an event or an activation, and you actually see the peoples' reactions of experiencing something that started with an idea. I mean, that's what makes this industry so special and rewarding for me personally.

BRANDON:

Excellent. Along the lines of that outsider perspective, what are some things you believe that your previous experience have sort of allowed you to see or bring to the table?

ALLEN:

Yeah, absolutely. Working in professional services and consulting, specifically, the way we approached our deliverables was very methodical. There was approach to it. You tend to evaluate what the problem is for the client, and you provide resolution for it with the appropriate people who can deliver the solutions for it. And coming into this industry, and I'll be honest with you, there are still some elements that are the Wild Wild West, but I think we're in a position right now where the world of brand experience is going through a massive transformation, where we as an agency have the ability to provide solutions, provide a road map about how brands can optimize their investment, their spend, through experiences.

So, taking some of the elements I've learned in my previous roles in other industries of developing frameworks, developing approaches, and I'm trying to bring some of that mindset to the world of events, because as our buyers get more sophisticated and they truly want to hone in on the best ways to invest their money to reach their goals, we're going to have to approach it as strategic partners. That's the expectation now from an agency. It's no longer how do you get an exhibit up and running at a trade show in four days. Now, it's more about the why are we designing and creating something. To me, that's going to be fascinating to see how everything pans out in the future.

BRANDON:

Sure. When thinking about that why, what do you often have in mind?

ALLEN:

Yeah. It always start with the discovery phase. You have to get inside the heads of a client to truly understand what they're trying to achieve, right? It could be increased financial transactions, increased buzz, increased PR mentions. And then we kind of take the goals of the client, and then reverse engineer it into a customer journey. You map out what that experience looks like, and then you put it within a lens of what occurs before the show, during a show, and after the show. I mean, that's the typical framework that we work with for events. And then it typically moves on to the design and strategy phase, where you actually can see a tangible of what it's going to look like. So I think just having that step-by-step phase best helps us deliver what clients are looking for.

BRANDON:

For sure. So you've been with MC² now for about two years.

ALLEN:

Approaching two years.

BRANDON:

About two years. In that time, what have been some really successful projects that you've been a part of?

ALLEN:

Yeah. One recent event that actually created a lot of buzz was a mobile tour for Netflix. When they released their Sandra Bullock starring movie, Birdbox, which I'm sure-

BRANDON:

I still haven't seen it.

ALLEN:

You haven't seen it yet?

BRANDON:

I'm afraid but I know I need to see it at some point.

ALLEN:

You got to check it out.

BRANDON:

Yeah.

ALLEN:

You got to check it out for sure. It created a lot of buzz last holiday season.

BRANDON:

Like, on a scale of like Sixth Sense scary, like how scary are we talking?

ALLEN:

It had its moments.

BRANDON:

It had its moments.

ALLEN:

It had its moments where even I had to look away at times.

BRANDON:

Okay. A little bit more than Sixth Sense then.

ALLEN:

Sixth Sense is a pretty top-notch film though. I have to admit. But the coolest part of what we did is we actually replicated that experience, and you wouldn't get the reference because you haven't seen it, but in essence, you couldn't stare at anything or you would die-

BRANDON:

Wow. That's heavy.

ALLEN:

... to keep things very simple. Very heavy. And we were able to replicate that experience within a bus that moved. The coolest part about it is Netflix didn't want to promote the activation at all. They promoted the movie but not the activation, so we were able to create organic buzz on the streets of L.A., and people were able to line up, sign up, go into the bus and go for a little tour, and you actually had story and elements of the movie playing within the bus. It would scare the passengers on the bus and create these memorable moments. And then elements of the experience were captured via camera and then shared on social media.

BRANDON:

This sounds absolutely terrifying.

ALLEN:

So, it's crazy. It's crazy, but it was amazing. It truly was.

BRANDON:

No, for sure.

ALLEN:

So that's a recent project we worked on that I thought that was pretty cool.

BRANDON:

Awesome. In the vein of experiential, working with a number of different customers, clients, what are some things that you've sort of picked as sort of best practices and best working with these different organizations?

ALLEN:

Yeah. You know, I think it goes back to the why. Back in the day, companies would invest in an exhibit at a trade show because their competitor was doing it, which is great for the industry, but now our clients, our buyers, are getting more sophisticated, and they really want to understand the rational behind why they're going to invest in something. So that's why it's integral for a company to pick a solution provider, such as MC², who understands that notion. We don't just build booths. We don't just assemble structures. We really want to be an extension of an organization's marketing department. So, I think going forward as other companies get on board with the notion that brand experience is experiential and more than just physical architecture and design, I think that puts MC² in a great position to start creating long-lasting relationships.

BRANDON:

Okay, so one of the things you mentioned was this sort of transformation that is happening right now with branded experiences. We talked a little bit about it beforehand. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

ALLEN:

Yeah, absolutely. I think everyone listening on this podcast is aware that social media, and specifically Facebook, has faced some skepticism, criticisms, for some of their policies, and as a result, some brands are now second guessing their investments in digital spend. And they're looking for more authentic ways to connect with their audience. On the other end of the spectrum, you have millennials and gen Zs, I think it's gen Zs, gen Zers, they're looking to spend more money on experiences than merchandise.

BRANDON:

Sure.

ALLEN:

There's stats that say that. These generations upcoming are looking for brands who have a purpose that aligns with what they want to do. So, I think that's why, in this day and age, experiences just make sense as a viable marketing avenue. But then again, social media is here to stay, don't get me wrong. In fact, I think social media only amplifies the benefits of experiences because you still have the FOMO effect, and it helps amplify that face-to-face experience even if you're not there in person.

BRANDON:

100%. I mean, not only is there, I think, a sense of overwhelming when it comes to digital channels, right? Be it email or ads-

ALLEN:

Sure.

BRANDON:

... losing their efficacy, et cetera, although there have been a lot of advancements.

ALLEN:

Yep.

BRANDON:

But, I think it's an interesting point that there is a certain level of distrust as well. Obviously, there are brands out there that are still winning with their social media plans, but the fact that just being face-to-face, or on a terrifying bus ride, really creates an experience different than what someone can find in traditional channels.

ALLEN:

Yeah, absolutely. I look at brand experiences as a component of an omnichannel marketing strategy. A significant investment, for sure, but I think the rewards are tremendous. The way I look at it is having experiential activations gives you, as a brand, an opportunity to isolate an audience and immerse them within your story. You can't easily do that using digital mediums solely. So I think there are inherent benefits when you do that, and you isolate the audience within your brand. And experiential is the only marketing channel that you can interact with all five senses. Right? And I think when you do that effectively, you create brand affinity, and you create these memorable moments that last for a very long time. That's the value of experiential that cannot be measured, in my opinion.

BRANDON:

For sure. So, I mean, there definitely is a challenge of measuring this emotional impact. I do wonder, with this shift that we're seeing from organizations going towards experiential more, how, at least in your experience, can these brands expect to measure the impact?

ALLEN:

Sure, yeah. I mean, that's the holy grail, right? Whenever you want to invest in something significant as an experience, you want to make sure that it's justified. If you're a CEO, if you're a CFO, you want to make sure that spend makes sense. If you're a CMO, yeah, it's important. But to me, it's more about return on emotion more than anything. But, ROI is very important, and I can't neglect that. We do build in KPIs, and we have mechanisms in place that we can incorporate with any brand experience to help track any goals. And not all goals are financial related. I mean, if part of your initiative of an activation is just to create buzz online, then you set targets for social media mentions and hashtags. But, I think it's important from the get-go, that whether you're a CMO, or you're on the agency side, that you establish benchmarks so that you don't set yourself up to fail inevitably.

Yeah, look, at the end of the day, whenever a client comes to us, and they want us to incorporate KPIs within an activation, we can do that. And we do do that. But, I want the listeners here to understand that it's not all about ROI. It's more about the connection that you create, the emotional bond that you create with buyers, that keep them coming back year over year.

BRANDON:

Sure. I think a lot of listeners would agree with you there. It sounds like MC² is up to some really creative projects. You've worked with some great brands. I'm curious about the DNA of the company that has sort of enabled this success. Could you tell us a little bit about the organizational culture of it?

ALLEN:

Yeah, absolutely. You know, one of the great things about MC² was that it officially was formed in 1999, but it dates back to the mid '70s when five exhibit companies came together to create this national brand. The part that I love the most about MC², the fabric of who we are, is that we were carpenters and we figured out how to effectively and efficiently build exhibits on the trade show floor. But, as our clients got more sophisticated and demanding and wanted the latest and greatest, we were able to be nimble and responsive to their needs and evolve as an organization. So, we still have that DNA and fabric of who we were back in the mid '70s, but now we're actively recruiting top talent to fill voids or gaps that we may identify within the realms of creative and strategy and marketing and even sales.

You know, historically, sales was straightforward. You would develop a relationship. You would pitch services. And then, hopefully you have a relationship that lasts a long time. But now, sales is so much more sophisticated and mature, that you do have to make sure that you connect with the company when it comes to culture and talent and service offerings. So, I think MC² has evolved so significantly to the point now that we are well diversified and well equipped to meet the needs of any client, no matter how big they are, whether they're as large as Samsung, who is one of our clients, or a startup who's just trying to dip their toe in the water at their first trade show.

BRANDON:

For sure. Some of our listeners may be earlier on in their event careers. If they wanted to work with an organization like MC², what's a piece of advice you'd give them?

ALLEN:

You know, one of the good things, one of the cool things about the event industry, it's very entrepreneurial. Unlike the legal industry or the financial industry, you don't have a specific model that you can replicate, right? It's a very innovative industry. So, if you have the type of personality that's entrepreneurial and innovative, and you find yourself as the type of person who can bring new ideas to the table, then I welcome you to submit your resume, and during your interview process, proactively think about ideas that you think you can incorporate within the company. Because unlike any other industry I've been exposed to, the level of creativity and strategy and entrepreneur, is just remarkable.

BRANDON:

Love it. Aside from your work in events, you also are a member of the Forbes Communication Council.

ALLEN:

That's right.

BRANDON:

Could you tell us a little bit about your role there and how you got involved with that?

ALLEN:

Yeah, absolutely. Forbes approached me to join the Council, and I think it's a fabulous opportunity for people like me, or any professional within the realm of marketing and communications and advertising, to share their thoughts and ideas about their industries or organizations where they work in. It gives you that platform to just be part of the conversation about how trends are pushing convention, how you can be in a position where you can influence clients, organizations, other people. So that's been a really cool way for me to kind of share my thoughts within a built-in audience.

BRANDON:

Awesome. Who are some other organizations out there that you think are just killing it when it comes to events and experiential marketing?

ALLEN:

Yeah, absolutely. We're sitting within one right now. I think Event Marketer does a great job capturing the essence of where the industry is going. So, just walking around the trade show floor, you're seeing the latest and greatest, and you're just bumping into people who are thought leaders in the space. So, I think Event Marketer is doing a great job. I see this organization continuing to grow when it comes to creating a platform for people like myself to showcase and highlight what we do best. EventMB is a great organization, does a great job creating research and statistics to help support some of the trends that we're seeing. Those are two that come to mind.

BRANDON:

And what's a topic that you think really doesn't get talked about enough in events?

ALLEN:

I think one of the things that I've been thinking about lately in conversations with CMOs, is a lot of times, when you look at experiences, you think of it as an expense, or best case scenario, an investment. But these days, what I'm seeing the greatest opportunity is taking a brand experience and creating a dedicated revenue stream from it. I'm sure many of your listeners are familiar with the boom in Instagram-related museums throughout the country, but mainly in New York City and San Francisco and L.A., where people are actually paying money, paying 35 bucks, 50 bucks, to enter into a store, basically, that's converted into a "museum" where they can take selfies of themselves doing cool stuff that they can then share within their networks.

Think about that. People are actually paying money to take selfies. Personally, I do think it's a little gimmicky, however the essence of what we are seeing I think will evolve into something more mature, where brands see it as an opportunity to create, I wouldn't say museums, but pop-up stores, pop-up environments, experiences, where they can tell their story in effective ways, that helps bridge the gap between commercialism and culture, where people are willing to pay money on a Saturday afternoon to do something cool, and then also immerse themselves within a brand. So, don't think about experiences as an expense. It can actually be a revenue stream.

BRANDON:

I love that notion of sort of breaking past the traditional sort of commodified aspects of events, and really creating some sort of cultural add-on, whatever that might be. So we're here at Experiential Marketing Summit. What are some sessions and some conversations that you've seen that really stand out?

ALLEN:

One of the sessions I attended earlier today was conducted by Under Armour. The theme of the session was how to bridge sports marketing with brand experiences. One of their top influencers or celebrities is Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, who is obviously a global superstar. I thought it was interesting because obviously you've had celebrities endorse products for many, many, many years, but they didn't position it that way. They positioned it as he's an influencer who has transcended basketball. Right? He's a global phenomenon. And I think it's awesome that in today's age, that you can piggy back off an influencer, whether it's somebody on Instagram or somebody on film, and you can actually leverage that to help promote any type of story.

Something that happened recently that I think is noteworthy to mention, are you familiar with Billie Eilish by any chance?

BRANDON:

I have seen advertisements for ... musical artist?

ALLEN:

Yes.

BRANDON:

Okay.

ALLEN:

All right. So, I just learned about her two weeks ago. I'm probably dating myself in the fact that I had no idea who she was.

BRANDON:

Well, yeah, I mean, I think I ... maybe a couple of years younger than you, maybe more, and I still haven't heard of her.

ALLEN:

Okay, okay. So, two years ago, she was an anonymous high school student in downtown LA. Now, she has over 22, 23 million followers on Instagram after she posted a song or two on SoundCloud. I mean, think about that, right? Anyone can be an influencer today if you do it in a way that captures and captivates an audience. Now, given that opportunity, Spotify reached out to her, makes sense, right? On brand. And they created an immersive experience similar to 29Rooms in L.A. called the Billie Eilish Experience. So, the fact that you can now piggy back off of influencers to create brand experience I think is also another untapped area that I'm very excited about.

BRANDON:

I mean, that's something that's very, in some ways, site specific, as well, in Los Angeles, the birthplace of the musician herself. It's very cool.

ALLEN:

Yeah.

BRANDON:

So, when you're not working, what are some ways that you sort of refresh, find inspiration, rejuvenate?

ALLEN:

Yeah. I have a three-year-old daughter right now, so I don't have much time to refresh these days, but any opportunity that I have to just hang out with her and my wife is just so refreshing. Anyone who has young children at home, you know that you cannot spend a weekend sitting in the house, so we need to do something. We need to experience the world. So, every weekend when I'm not traveling for work and have an opportunity to hang out with my family and either go for a walk through Central Park, or go to a play space at a mall, that's the way that I recharge and refresh because being in this industry, yes, days do get hectic. There's stress, for sure. But, it's very rewarding. Having those outlets of being with your family certainly makes everything worth it.

BRANDON:

I love that.

ALLEN:

Cool?

BRANDON:

Yeah. Definitely. So, I think that's pretty much our time.

ALLEN:

Okay.

BRANDON:

I want to thank you so much for being on the show today.

ALLEN:

It was awesome. Very happy to be here.

BRANDON:

Okay, I want to send another thanks to Allen for joining us today. Feeling inspired? Learn something new? Are you a fan of the Sixth Sense? Please help us spread Allen's story by sharing this episode with your colleagues and friends, or by leaving a sparkling review in iTunes. You know, when it comes to events, there are a lot of interesting topics to cover, and a lot of interesting people who can cover them. If you have any feedback or suggestions, please drop us a line at in-person@bizzabo.com. You can also submit a guest by using the guest submission form at inpersonpodcast.com. Until next time, I am Brandon Rafalson, and this has been IN PERSON.