Experiential Experts: Matt Kraus, Evolve

When I started Broad Cove’s Experiential Experts series, my objective was to highlight experiential marketing as a distinct discipline that requires the coordinated deployment

of expertise across multiple subject matter areas. During my fourteen years in the industry, I have witnessed time and again that the most meaningful and valuable work in this space is done by experienced professionals collaborating with brands that respect, fully engage and trust that expertise.

In 2020, I was thrilled to bring you conversations with some of our industry’s best and brightest experts discussing their experiential journey, their individual areas of expertise, why clients should seek out that expertise and how they should evaluate it:

- Chris Clegg of Portland Marketing Analytics;

- Kelly Markus of Hunters Point;

- Jenny Strachota of Associated Bank (now with rEvolution); and

- Andrea Ramsey and Hillary Cartwright of The Event Ally.

As we pick the series back up in 2021, I am excited to begin by profiling a group of experts within a single organization – Evolve Concepts – to explore the impact of careful cultivation and coordination of multidisciplinary expertise.

My first discussion was with Matt Kraus, a twenty-five year veteran of the experiential marketing industry who serves as Evolve’s President.

Brad: Matt, it is great to be talking with you. I appreciate you participating in the series and taking the time to discuss Evolve with me.

Matt: Absolutely, Brad. Thankful for the opportunity to talk about our team and our work.

Brad: I like to start these interviews by learning how folks got involved in the wonderful world of experiential marketing. What was your path?

Matt: I studied journalism at the University of Iowa and was looking for a summer internship. My college advisor connected me with an alumnus who was at a PR shop in Chicago called Ketchum. It was there where I was initially introduced to experiential. I was drawn to the event work I was exposed to at Ketchum and tracked down the company, GMR Marketing, that was doing a lot of the work we were supporting. The rest is history. I attribute a big bulk of my foundational understanding of the business to my first job at GMR in 1996.

Brad: 1996! Man, that is vintage experiential.

Matt: Indeed. When I started, I was an event manager running a virtual reality tour supporting a new liquor product launch. Imagine that: VR in 1996. The dynamics for learning baked into this campaign were robust – it was seemingly simple on paper, but we were selling a new and somewhat polarizing product.

Brad: Somewhat polarizing? What was it?

Matt: High octane cinnamon schnapps. And we were using a very new technology to a target audience that was pretty stuck in their ways and were most often buzzed. I quickly learned that it only worked if you could develop a genuine rapport and trust with them to get them to step out of their comfort zones. Additionally, learning to navigate the three-tier alcohol distribution system…

Brad: So, for folks who haven’t worked in that arena, those three tiers are alcohol producers, distributors and retailers.

Matt: Exactly. And each of those groups has a distinct role to play and their own set of objectives. So, learning to navigate that on the program operations side so early in my career gave me terrific insight into the varying layers of constituents involved in sales and marketing.

Brad: So, you’re starting in the early days of experiential and you begin by working in one of the trickiest arenas – alcohol – with a kind of gimmicky product and advanced technology. I can only imagine that there were a lot of “make it work” moments.

Matt: Oh man, absolutely. But that’s part of what makes this business so exciting. I feel like the really great performers in this industry are constantly pulling rabbits out of their hats. “Pull rabbits out of hats” should actually be listed as a job requirement on all experiential marketing job descriptions. And, as the size of events scale up, the greater the variability, that just means more hats and bigger rabbits. That is why it is so vital to have professionals doing this work that are the seasoned magicians. The ones that understand what it takes to make it all work and do it in a way that the audience gets an enjoyable experience.

Brad: That seems like a great transition point to talk about Evolve Concepts and the space that you guys occupy in experiential ecosystem.

Matt: Right on. Evolve was founded in 2010 and I was literally the company’s first client when I was at GMR. The company was purpose-built as an outsourced experiential marketing production supplier across the spectrum of event services from concepting, design, fabrication, event site production and operations, fleet and DOT management and warehousing & logistics.

Brad: So, when you say “outsourced production supplier” you are talking about working with agencies that need production and operational expertise to both develop an operational concept and then bring it to life. Is that right?

Matt: Exactly. The bulk of our work is in partnering with agencies that don’t have certain in-house expertise or resources or need to supplement their expertise. Culturally, we are a great fit with agencies because we come from that world and understand their DNA and processes. We will also support companies that are directly hiring a fabrication and/or logistics supplier.

Brad: Got it. And what is the sweet spot for the work that you do?

Matt: Well, we’re most active at big festivals and sporting events with large scale footprints, but we’re also heavily on the ground operating mobile sampling tours and pop-up brand environments. We’ve recently expanded by merging with 262 Five out of Nashville to include entertainment production offerings including concert and stage production, talent sourcing and VIP hospitality management services. We’re headquartered in Wisconsin with our primary fabrication facility located in the Cleveland area. We added the fabrication facility in 2019 and it has more than tripled our output capacity and enhanced our innovative design and fabrication capabilities. We’re thrilled with the immediate impact this has provided in terms of client satisfaction and in-field performance.

Brad: What is the “why” for Evolve? Why is the expertise that you bring to the table meaningful for your clients?

Matt: The “why” for us is to be the most forward thinking and trusted supplier for our clients. A simple philosophy that takes constant focus, investment and thoughtfulness. Part two is an easy and a tough question. I don’t want to sound self-serving and say it’s important for all aspects of an experiential campaign to be handled by experts, but live event experiential is incredibly volatile with so many moving parts. I’ll break it down into two parts – planning and execution. On the planning side, if you don’t have the right experts to help shape and answer a brief, your campaign concept and execution plan will likely miss the mark. On the execution side, even if you have a compelling plan on paper, if that concept isn’t filtered by experts in any or all of the following areas legal/compliance, design, engineering, risk management and various operational areas, then your campaign carries significant risk of not just underperforming on its measurable objectives, but also in the potential of causing physical damage or injury and all of the legal ramifications that come with that. I mean, you don’t acquire the right permit, your event is going to be cancelled. You don’t accurately engineer your structure at the outset of the design, your build can fail and people can get hurt. You don’t execute proper training, your staff will underperform, could get hurt, could damage your client’s reputation. You don’t provide adequate power; your lights won’t turn on. You don’t adhere to DOT guidelines, you’ll be fined and worse, be pulled off the road.

Brad: Absolutely. And you know when an agency or a brand is just winging it without that proper vetting.

Matt: Oh, yeah. We had several footprints at Lollapalooza in 2019 that were set up next to another company’s very large brand footprint that wasn’t allowed to open because it didn’t meet code. We all watched the train wreck go down like a slow-motion scene in a Scorsese movie, all the while feeling horrible for both the client and their agency. But risks like this are real if the experts aren’t involved in every step of a campaign.

Brad: What advice do you have for brands or agencies who want to deploy experiential work, but don’t have their own in-house expertise?

Matt: I guess as a starting point I would call out kind of a consistent trend in experiential from folks that aren’t used to the space. Experiential can be incredibly impactful for your business. Absolutely no question about that. But you have to be careful about underinvestment in experiential overall relative to business objectives assigned to the channel, but specifically underinvestment in key elements within a campaign. That could be doing a price-driven competitive bid and going with the cheapest supplier (who is likely cheap for reasons that aren’t great for your business), underspending in rights or site fees, setting budgets that aren’t in-synch with the approved creative design.

Additionally – and this answer may not do me any favors, but I only share this to be helpful - I see a lot of shortfalls in an event’s performance when inexperienced clients step in at the last minute with unrealistic or shortsighted demands, taking focus and resources away from the things that are critical to an event’s success. Whether it’s as small as eleventh-hour décor adjustments or as big as pushing beyond audience capacity limits. What we’re doing is not a commercial shoot – we can’t go back and do a retake. There are no magical wands to wave for post-production special effects or to stop time. Trust your experts to get you to the right place.

Brad: What advice do you have for folks that are looking to develop experiential expertise, whether they are clients or individuals interested in a career in experiential?

Matt: If you’re a client that’s new to experiential and events, listen and learn from your agency partners – invest the time and energy to attend events as a promoter and producer versus as a fan. In briefings and planning meetings, we hear all the time “well, when I go to events…”. That’s a telltale sign that there’s an opportunity to help in their journey of developing that expertise. As an agency or production company, orchestrate that learning experience as a priority for your client. If you’re a client, ask for a real-life demo for a peek behind the curtain to see all of the levers being pulled to turn Oz into a full technicolor production.

If you are someone that wants to get involved in the industry on the production side of the business - everything from concepting to design to strategy to execution - there’s a longstanding belief in the business that you need to cut your teeth at the grassroots level. Work local events as a sampler and product demo rep. Get a weekend gig as a stagehand. Take the next step and hit the road on an experiential tour or traveling production team. I don’t think you can be at the top of the craft without real hands-on experience – help make the sausage and earn your battle scars. Our team at Evolve is chock full of folks that started in the trenches and really learned what it takes to roll up your sleeves and make it happen.

Brad: I could not agree more with that advice for young professionals and I hear it from lots of folks in the industry. It is invaluable to work out in the field. Now, put yourself in the position of a brand or an agency that is looking to evaluate the kind of expertise that Evolve brings to the table. What should they be looking for? What questions should they be asking?

Matt: I am a firm believer that the most valuable credentialing criteria for any service provider is the tenure of their client relationships. If you continue to be hired by the same agency or brand, it’s a key indicator that you’re positively impacting their business. Shit rolls downhill in our industry and as producers, we’re typically positioned at the bottom of that hill, so we’ll be the first casualty if we don’t perform. So, I would say first do an oil check and kick the tires a bit – ask for direct client references, attend events being produced by supplier being considered, visit their shop. I don’t think it necessarily has to be the case 100% of the time but check to make sure the company has performed similar work you’re looking to do.

Brad: This has been a really terrific conversation, Matt. Thank you again for taking the time. What’s the best way for folks to get ahold of you and put Evolve’s expertise to work?

Matt: People can reach me at my email: I’d love to learn about their next big challenge!