Experiential Experts: Ryan Freeman, Evolve

In my third and final Experiential Experts discussion featuring the experts at Evolve, I spoke with their Vice President of DOT, Safety and Logistics, Ryan Freeman.

Ryan parlayed a college internship at Talladega Superspeedway into a twenty-year career in experiential and has become one of the industry’s leading experts on Department of Transportation regulatory compliance and vehicle safety.

We sat down to talk about his journey in experiential, the importance of DOT and safety expertise and questions clients should ask to ensure their brand is protected.

Brad: Great to be talking with you, Ryan. As someone who has worked closely with DOT and safety folks throughout my career, I have really been looking forward to this conversation.

Ryan: Happy to talk with you, Brad.

Brad: Talk to me about how you first got involved in experiential.

Ryan: I'm from a small town in Alabama called Jacksonville, which is about 45 minutes north of the Talladega Superspeedway. I had the opportunity to play college football at Jacksonville State. Our team did our preseason kickoffs and media days out at the speedway. In my junior year I remember pulling into the track and just thought it was awesome. It was magnificent. The folks at the track just treated us so well and with all of this pageantry. When I was looking for an internship, I reached out to the marketing director at the track, who had spoken to one of my marketing classes. He offered me a spot and I did a two-year internship there.

Brad: This would have been when?

Ryan: I would have started there about 1999. One of my roles was out in the fan zone and my job was to park all these trucks and trailers and help brands get set up in their display areas. Brands like, Pfizer, Winston, Home Depot. Big names. And I would watch these cool trucks pull in and the drivers were not what I expected to see. They were like these cool dudes with spiky hair and wearing shiny Oakley glasses. And here they are driving these big rigs and hopping out and setting up these really cool displays. And that was my first introduction to experiential.

Brad: So, when you graduated with a marketing degree and this Talladega internship under your belt, what was next?

Ryan: I was approached by the guys from Vivid Marketing who were working with the Pepsi racing team and with Jeff Gordon. Vivid was running a Pepsi program that was travelling around the country and they offered me a role to travel with that program. That was the jumping off point into experiential and into my passion for DOT compliance. I was travelling with Jeff Gordon, setting up show cars, hosting hospitality events at the tracks. We would go to retail stores and the emcee would not show up and I would just have to fill in and start emceeing the event. You just do what has to get done. You grow in a lot of different ways and sometimes you’re just out there winging it.

Brad: Right on. That’s one of the things about experiential that just really gets into your soul. The folks that really thrive in the business are the ones that just roll up their sleeves and dig into it. They kind of thrive in that chaos.

Ryan: Oh, absolutely. People who love it can’t really get away from it because anything else you try to do can seem boring. You’re constantly solving for something. And you can think you planned for everything, but something will happen. You show up to a store event and the manager that knows you're coming takes a vacation that day and no one else knows you're coming. So, you talk to an assistant manager that’s just mad that you're interrupting their day. But an hour later, you are driving traffic in their store and that assistant manager is outside smiling and happy.

Brad: That’s the win right there.

Ryan: Oh, yeah. The customers are having a good time and the manager is happy.

Brad: Tell me how you landed at Evolve.

Ryan: I had gone from Vivid to Ignition, which was bought by Havas Media and integrated into Havas Sports & Entertainment. I was with them for about thirteen years when they decided to outsource my role in DOT compliance, safety and logistics. HSE asked me to lead the effort to find the supplier to take over the role and Evolve was one of the companies that I was interviewing. I sent a note to Brad Kossow and Matt Kraus introducing myself and we kind of hit it off immediately. Brad has a background in racing, so that was an instant connection. But they were just really cool guys and Evolve was the right choice to take over the work.

Brad: So, you hired Evolve to take over your role at HSE?

Ryan: Exactly. And then I reached out to Brad and Matt and said, “Just so you know, the reason for this transition is because my job is being eliminated. Let me know if you need any assistance with the work.” Turns out that Evolve was growing at the time and they were actually looking to add some bench strength and I ended up joining them in 2018.

Brad: In my interviews with Brad, Matt and David Tesch, we’ve talked about Evolve’s space in experiential and the various design, engineering, operational and production experts that the agency brings to the table for its clients. Tell me a bit about your role of Vice President, DOT, Safety and Logistics and what falls within your purview.

Ryan: Sure. First of all, I am making sure that all of our work – in our facilities and out in the field – is examined from a safety perspective. On the DOT side, I am charged with maintaining our DOT operating authority. The ability to drive commercial vehicles over ten thousand pounds is a privilege bestowed by the government and they can revoke that privilege at any time if you show disregard for compliance and safety.

Brad: What kinds of activities are involved in making sure that your operating authority is maintained?

Ryan: I make sure that all of our drivers are properly qualified, whether with a commercial driver’s license (CDL) or non-CDL. I make sure the drivers have gone through any required drug and alcohol testing and have the necessary medical card. I make sure the drivers are properly trained through face-to-face meetings or online training. I make sure drivers are logging their hours of service as required and that all vehicles are equipped with electronic logging devices as needed.

The DOT side also includes making sure that all of our owned vehicles, rented vehicles and client-owned vehicles that we are operating are safe and appropriately maintained. We also need to make sure the drivers are appropriately trained to be able to identify vehicles that are not safe to operate and are able to get those repaired immediately and before they hit the road. I also maintain all of the mandatory compliance reporting that needs to be done.

Outside of the DOT responsibilities, I am responsible for looking at safety and safety training in our buildings and at our event sites to make sure that our team is properly trained and qualified to execute their responsibilities in a safe manner so that they are not putting themselves or anyone else at risk.

Brad: So, you’ve covered DOT and safety. Tell me about the logistics piece.

Ryan: The logistics part of the equation comes into play when I am working with the account management and operations folks. They are working out overall how a program might be coming to life and I am then examining it to give guidance on the appropriate resources, vehicles or assets that are going to be needed to get things from point A to point B. Making sure that we have the right equipment to get the work done. Making sure that we have the right drivers to operate that equipment. Making sure that the tour is routed appropriately so that our drivers stay within their hours-of-service requirements.

Brad: Getting those details right is so critical to the success and safety of a program. Some clients and agencies don’t take into account the importance of finding the right vehicle for the job that needs to get done on site and between events.

Ryan: Definitely. You might have a client that already has a vehicle that they want to use, or they may try to save some budget dollars by using a smaller vehicle. But we will dig into the details to find out what kind of braking capacity or towing capacity that you need for the job. The last thing you want to do is to try to save a few dollars in your budget and end up walking yourself into a lot more pain.

Brad: What are the big risks that you are trying to make sure your clients are avoiding?

Ryan: Well, the nightmare scenario is that your vehicle is in a ditch or in an accident and ends up on the evening news. If you have your tour vehicle involved in a serious incident and you have a multi-million-dollar lawsuit on your hands, we want to be sure that we did everything properly. The first thing they are going to look at is whether the driver was properly qualified and trained. So, we want to check that box for you. The next thing they will look at is whether the driver was properly logging their time. Let’s check that box. The next thing is whether the vehicle safe and properly maintained. Was the inspection current? Is everything on the vehicle working properly? If we can check all of those boxes for you, we are starting off in great shape.

Brad: What advice would you give to someone that is trying to make sure they establish a culture of safety with their tour drivers?

Ryan: I think a key – and this is something I try hard to foster – is having a personal relationship with the drivers. I want to make sure they understand that this is not just about a working relationship or only caring about their safety because they work for Evolve. I care about their safety because my family and your family share the road with these drivers. I want to make sure they are getting it right because we are all in it together. And something I am really proud of is that these drivers will call me when they are working with other providers just to get my input on safety issues.

Brad: What advice would you give to a young professional who is interested in DOT or safety and wants to set their target on eventually becoming the VP of DOT, Safety and Logistics?

Ryan: If you are first getting started in the experiential world, I think you need to start by being in the field. Be a driver and understand the responsibilities of that role before going in-house to a fleet management or operations role. You know more about the role when you've been in the role. The regulations you have to know as a driver, are the same ones you have to know as the manager. And then when you move beyond the driver role, get immersed in safety. Go to safety meetings. Penske offers safety meetings. Ryder offers safety meetings. Find your local motor trucking association and get involved. You learn so much from being around other professionals. You have to be curious about the field. Read the trade magazines. Learn the regs. Educate yourself.

Brad: Last question, Ryan. What should a potential client be looking for and what questions should they be asking when they are looking to evaluate expertise in your field?

Ryan: I think a client really needs to dig in and ask who in the agency is responsible for DOT and safety. It is such an important role and an area of massive potential liability. A client needs to understand who is accountable for the role and what their background is. What certifications do they hold? For example, I have a Certified Director of Safety certification from the North American Transportation Management Institution and have to maintain that credential through continuing education courses. The client should have a direct conversation with the DOT and safety person and test their background and knowledge a little bit. Make sure that person is passionate about their field.

Brad: Incredible conversation, Ryan. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Ryan: My pleasure, Brad. Anytime. And as we say at Evolve, drive safe.