Experiential Experts: Brad Kossow and David Tesch, Evolve

For my second discussion with the folks at Evolve Concepts, I sat down with Brad Kossow and David Tesch.

Brad is Evolve’s CEO and, after spending years in boots-on-the-ground experiential operations roles, formed the company in 2010 to translate experiential ideas into effective and impactful activations.

David, who holds a master’s degree in architecture and boasts a deep background in experiential design, joined Evolve as the firm’s Senior Design Manager in 2019.

In our discussion, Brad and David shared valuable insights about their experiential journey, how Evolve continues to - well - evolve, the importance of design and engineering to their work and the benefit of having multidisciplinary experts involved throughout the development process and through execution.

[Note: Because Mr. Kossow and I share a fantastic first name (thanks, Mom and Dad!), I will be identifying myself as “BCA” in the interview transcript.]

BCA: Brad and David, thank you so much for carving time out for this conversation.

Brad: Happy to do it and I really appreciate you highlighting Evolve. This is going to be fun.

BCA: Brad, let’s start with your background and how you came to form Evolve.

Brad: As a teenager I was heavily involved in motor sports. I was a teenage racecar driver with aspirations of being a professional racecar driver. In high school I actually started a graphics business as my first entrepreneurial venture so that I could letter my own race cars and make a couple extra bucks to pay for my racing addiction. After high school, I realized my path for becoming a professional driver was coming to a close. I came across an opportunity that blended a lot of my skills of fabrication, driving, experience and knowledge in motor sports and started a career at GMR Marketing as a field producer on a NASCAR program. That was kind of an eye-opening experience. I had not heard of experiential marketing prior to that.

BCA: And what were those first impressions of experiential for you?

Brad: My time on the road was brilliant. I fell in love with it immediately. It was an instant realization that this industry was built for my passions. Something that allowed me to leverage a lot of things that I love to do and make a career out of it. I spent five or six years at GMR in the field bouncing around different programs, different tours. I was driving vehicles, managing staff, building things.

BCA: And out in the field is when you came up with the idea for Evolve?

Brad: Exactly. I realized through that experience that there was a space in between creative and ideation - call it translation - and things happening in the field.

BCA: Explain what you mean by translation.

Brad: I saw that there was a gap that we could fill. Taking a creative concept and bringing it to life literally into the field. There are all of these details and moments that need to be thought of in between and that's when Evolve was born. We started Evolve in my garage in 2010. Over the years I have worn a lot of hats: fabricator, graphics installer, electrician, accountant, human resources manager, recruiter, you name it.

BCA: CEO: Chief Everything Officer. It’s what you have to do as you grow a business.

Brad: Absolutely and my role has really changed over the years as the business has grown. We've got an amazing company full of incredibly talented people. So, I am now really focused on being a resource for the team and spend much of my time on setting a strategic vision for the business and the team. It's been a fun 10 years and while 2020 was a really, let’s say, interesting year it has challenged us to think creatively, helped us grow, adapt and evolve.

BCA: Way to weave in the name of the company there at the end. That was really well done. When we talk about the impact of 2020 and what COVID has done to the experiential industry, there are a lot of agencies trying to survive this moment by taking operational cost and, as a result, capability out of their business. They still have that capabilities deck that says they have operational expertise, but they may have gutted their operational infrastructure. Evolve can step in and fill those gaps, right?

Brad: Exactly. The industry has shifted a lot and will continue to shift, but we have this great collection of creative, talented, experienced folks at Evolve that can help agencies figure out what’s next and bring it to life. Evolve is full of experiential veterans and if you have survived in this industry it is because you learn to adapt. Even in normal times, there are things that happen that you can’t anticipate and that makes experiential folks a little bit tougher and a little sharper and more resilient.

David: It’s those “the show must go on” kind of behaviors when you're on site and some critical element didn't show up on time or a piece of equipment got wrecked. You've got to put it together and figure it out because you can't change the date of the event. That was a big learning for me when I started in experiential. When you're basing your campaign on a specific date at a specific venue, you make it work regardless of the obstacles. Solve it.

Brad: Bob and weave. Bob and weave.

David: Right. That pre-COVID mindset means the industry is already galvanized against disruption, and I think that has helped many to adapt and adjust.

BCA: That is a great segue for us to talk about your path into experiential and how you landed at Evolve, David.

David: Growing up I was into drawing, skateboarding, art, music, and I was decent with mechanical things. These passions -and my parents- pushed me to the School of Architecture & Urban Planning at UW Milwaukee. This experience changed the way I think of the creative process. It’s that creativity only thrives in the presence of limitations, challenges. I fell in love with the ‘connecting of the dots’ that design makes possible when applied to a given context. My first job was not in architecture at all. Those jobs were tough to come by in 2010. My wife sent me a job listing that read “Designer needed at Tensile Structures Design Company.” The role was more like a graphic designer to help with production, CAD drawing for large weddings, booth layouts for conventions, big corporate events. I could do all of that, but had other tools in my toolkit that matched with some of the firm’s dormant in-house capabilities: like CNC fab, lasers, and talented in-house fabric makers. I wanted more direct contact with the fabrication department and structural engineers. I pushed for more customized approaches to some ‘not in our wheelhouse’ RFPs that may have been passed up. The executives supported it and clients were going for it. We did some really memorable projects like Mercedez-Benz Fashion Week Façade at Lincoln Center, a pop-up car dealership for FIAT and we put a roof disguised as a two to three story Tiffany’s Gift Box over the rink at Rockafeller Center. Driving these jobs out of what I initially thought was ‘just’ a tent and event rental group was unreal to me.

BCA: And what is the move that brings you into experiential?

David: My Type III professor and friend, Bethany Armstrong, emailed asking if I knew any 3D designers that were looking for work. I was like, “Yeah, what about me?” And that job was with GMR Marketing, which is where I got introduced to experiential marketing. At first, I felt like an outsider artist when I was working there. I knew very little of the often-used lingo, and between corporate architecture jobs, the vibe in general was different. I loved it. We were doing some crazy out of the box stuff. Here I worked on more mobile assets, expandable trailers, container builds. Some really high-profile projects that tested and expanded my comfort zone. Over the course of five years at GMR I learned a lot about what it takes to pull an entire creative concept together across many different scopes and scales.

BCA: Was it a direct step from GMR over to Evolve?

David: I took about a year and a half to pursue an opportunity back in architecture. But one day a talented producer, Adam Zabinsky, reached out with the Evolve connection. From day one, the vibe was positive, supportive, and we were all interested in the opportunities that bringing design in-house could offer. We were a good match right off the bat: a great mix of design, creative, and fabrication.

BCA: Your title is Senior Design Manager. What does that entail?

David: My role here has been to bring a higher level of design and creative process to our work. I support an approach of working collaboratively with various stakeholders. Our process takes an idea from general concept to execution while working around limitations – objectives, time, budget, assets, materials, event location. Day to day, I’m pulled in to biz dev as much as I am developing concepts into buildable, thoughtful designs. This industry is largely project driven, so I work in a swiss army knife fashion, pulling out the appropriate skillset for any job when and if they are called for. I follow the job to delivery, visually documenting it from client approval, design development, and finally to a level of detail that fabrication can take and run with. There might be several renderings, several technical sheets -CAD drawings- stuff a client will never see. Then I keep a line of sight to advise, staying mostly hands off as shop drawings are developed. Part of the role I love is making sure the client’s brand comes through as we bring it all to life. When you read the brand guidelines, you get a feel for the brand, sort of their genetics. You try to embed those in the space. I look back to the brand guidelines when making decisions about material selections, the use of color, lighting, or placement of product opportunities.

BCA: You mention the process incorporating various stakeholders and experts. Can you talk to me a little about that?

David: Absolutely. Bringing the experts to the table is something that we do a lot at Evolve. We'll have initial kickoff meetings where someone's there from fabrication, operations, production, design, accounts, and project managers. Everyone is there to listen, ask questions to understand the design intent, as well as giving checks and balances on the initial ideas. Concepts become so much stronger when they're tempered by commentary from this interdisciplinary environment. When the person that's going to break the sheet metal leans in with a comment, listen up. They know things you don’t and understand limits you are not aware of. The more you listen and learn from these other experts, the stronger you become in your own discipline and the better the results for the client. At the end of the day, the goal is to have it look as good or better than it does in the renderings. Design issues are best addressed on paper, not on the shop floor! This interdisciplinary aspect of the design process really enhances our work and yields special results.

BCA: I think that is a great point about learning and growing from other experts on the team. Additionally, I don’t think that folks that live outside of experiential really understand the scale and pace of the work. It happens so quickly that you really need an efficient design process that brings in the right voices at the right times.

David: Absolutely. My educational background and career has had a foot or two in architecture, and there are so many parallels with experiential: working closely with fabrication, working within limitations, coordination of many parts with technical constraints that cannot be ignored. But experiential happens at 1/8 scale, you know? A 250,000 square foot health care facility takes like ten years to design and build and that takes a special kind of stamina. In experiential, we might have as little as three weeks or as much as six or eight months to pull it all together. That smaller scale and faster turnaround makes it all really engaging and interesting, but also demands thoughtful process.

BCA: Right on. We used to talk about that when I was running Pierce. Ultimately what we were doing was starting and running a bunch of standalone businesses for our clients. We were concepting, building and executing dozens of small businesses each year. You go from concept to build to breaking the whole thing down in a matter of months. Keeps life interesting. So, why are clients coming to Evolve? What expertise are they looking for?

Brad: Well, again, I think we help to translate a creative concept or an idea from what often may be a rough general thought into something that's executable. We can take it from paper to design and engineering to the shop floor and build it and get it to the field and deploy it and have people put their hands around it. And that's the fun zone for us. It's in the planning and execution phase and it's in taking a general creative concept and, as David mentioned, putting the correct filters around that idea to help us start to narrow down on what it truly is. How does it get built? What does it look like? What material is it? What vehicle is it? What event is it? Putting a great combination of minds, skills and rich experience in the room that can help us see around corners and end up with something that people love. It could be a small kiosk build that might go to a bar in Manhattan or a massive seven to ten semi-truck music festival that's going to Stagecoach or SXSW and everything in between.

BCA: As you've built out your team at Evolve, what are key areas of expertise that you felt were important to have within your agency? And remember that David's on the call, so you’ll want to call out his expertise specifically.

Brad: Well, David's going to love this answer. What we've recognized over the course of 10 years is that design and engineering are really at the epicenter of everything we do. It’s important to have experts in production and all facets of operation, including DOT and safety. But we've recognized all things should be led in our world by design and engineering. So, we're continuing to bolster and grow our design and engineering department and building our fabrication team in Ohio. We actually just brought in an additional three engineers into our Ohio team so that everything - sales, business development or project management - will flow through engineering first.

BCA: What are the risks to a client if they are not utilizing this kind of design, engineering, production and operational expertise in their planning and execution?

Brad: That’s a really great question. We use the phrase all the time: “No surprises.” And the risk of not using our expertise is that you have surprises. The creative vision not meeting expectations. The consumers that we're trying to engage aren't excited, entertained or engaged. So those are the key risks in planning and producing. Things not working the way they should. Or worse, people hurt or property damaged because the planning was deficient. We lean on many years of collective experience in this business to look around corners and be smart about what we are creating. A good example for our current situation is having a lot of clients interested in what a return to music festivals will be in the post-COVID world. We have activated at literally hundreds of festivals over the years, so it makes it easier for us to help determine what the future of those events might be.

David: In addition to a “no surprises” mantra, without an interdisciplinary approach, you miss out on opportunities for innovation. We all have blind spots, right? So with an interdisciplinary approach, you are not just mitigating risks, but also finding opportunities: the "a-ha!" moments. As a small example, you might look at a space and realize you can use a trailer or transport vehicle as a ballast versus having a whole mess of concrete in your space. You just took out one or more vehicles plus a bunch of ugly concrete that needed to be handled. And that might not just be more attractive but also yield some big savings. A really experienced team that is willing, able and encouraged to share their wisdom and that understands the design process is non-linear – meaning you can’t just go through a checklist in order – can keep your project moving steadily forward to achievable and innovative solutions.

BCA: What advice would you give to a client that is evaluating a potential supplier like Evolve?

Brad: Really try and understand the depth of experience that exists within that partner that you're selecting. What skillsets and experience are on their team? How do they communicate with you? What do their current clients say about them? How long are those relationships? Trust is critically important. At Evolve, we pride ourselves on being a "ride and die" partner to our clients. When we're on your team, we're on your team. We don't give up and we don’t leave our clients hanging.

BCA: That's a great answer. I've seen it as an agency president and I've seen it as a consultant who's helping brands figure out who they're going to work with, too many clients don't take the time to peek under the hood and really understand what the makeup is of the organization. It’s especially important right now when so many agencies have had their infrastructure disrupted by the pandemic.

David: I would add that a client really should ask for visualizations of concepts or event elements and take the time to understand who was involved in putting that visualization together. If a visualization is something more than a “dreamy” concept, but is intended to reflect how a concept is going to come to life, the client should be sure that the team is vetting those visualizations through the production, fabrication and operations teams. That way, when it comes time to produce, the real thing will look like the rendering or better.

BCA: That is such a deeply satisfying moment for the agency and for the production team. When you walk into an event set and it's a little bit trippy because it feels like you just walked into the rendering. Fellas, this has been a great conversation. Thank you, again. Any parting thoughts?

Brad: This has been great. I think a parting thought for me is, as our industry continues to change and evolve, we want to be on the forefront and leading with great design and engineering. We're always thinking about what's next, but never losing focus on strengthening our foundation and nailing the basics.