The Software Agents: Episode 16 - GPJ, Wondersauce - Ken Madden, John Sampogna - Making the Biggest Physical Events Virtual

How do you take an entire conference or trade show online during a pandemic? How has the future of events been changed overnight? We interview two front-line veterans who work together—Ken Madden, VP of Digital Engagement at GPJ, the original innovator in auto shows, and John Sampogna, CEO of online brand builder Wondersauce.

Announcer: Welcome to The Software Agents. Meet the people who bring software to every aspect of life, society, and business, to handle the challenges of a transforming world.

Christina Noren: Welcome to The Software Agents, a new podcast on how software is helping the world survive and evolve right now, as told by the people who are making it happen. I'm Christina Noren, and my co-host is Paul Boutin.

Paul Boutin: Hello. Thanks for tuning in.

Christina Noren: The Software Agents is sponsored by Cloudbees, the enterprise software delivery company. Cloudbees provides the industry’s leading DevOps technology platform that enables developers to focus on what they do best—build stuff that matters.

So, today, we have two guests who work together within the same umbrella organization and in an industry that I think has been a real focal point for us in terms of how the world does evolve. So, we have Ken Madden, who’s the Head of Digital or George P. Johnson worldwide, and we have John Sampogna, who is the CEO of Wondersauce, another company in the overall project worldwide conglomerate that owns and operates both companies. And I got to know George P. Johnson because I know one of Ken’s colleagues who has organized the massive—probably, I think, the world’s largest tech conference, Dream Force, for the last several years for George P. Johnson.

And I was very curious, you know, when all this started to happen, how conferences like that were going to evolve. And ironically, we're recording this episode this week, it’s the week of the 23rd here, and we're having our own Cloudbees DevOps World conference where we've had 18,000 registrants for a purely virtual DevOps World when our previous DevOps World was 2,000 attendees. And it was supposed to be live in Vegas, it’s not live in Vegas. So, I have no idea whether we're doing right or wrong, but I was very curious to have Ken and John on as experts in experience marketing to tell us what’s going on in that world and how their roles as the digital leaders within Project and Wondersauce and George P. Johnson are helping the world adapt right now.

So, Ken, John—whichever of you guys wanna go first. Ken, why don’t you start? Just, you know, tell us a little bit about what you do, what your organization does, you know, in the context of what’s happening right now.

Ken Madden: The event space has been really interesting [Laughter] the last bit. I mean, leading up to this time as Head of Digital, we've been taking a really steadily progressive stance on kind of the role of digital but, you know, previously in the physical environments and really using digital as a way to—you know, previously, we talked about it in terms of to enable, enhance, and extend the experience.

And so, you know, much of what we did was around building activations as a large part of the work that we did within the big physical spaces. And these were, you know, for audiences to learn, to explore, to get excited about things, to really, truly engage. And it’s just been, over the last couple of years, it’s been really taking a big stance on data and the role of data within that and how we can start to connect things, which has been a good kind of precursor to the work that we've found ourselves jumping very quickly into in the world of COVID.

Christina Noren: Well, I'm gonna dig into that a little bit more, but John, why don’t you introduce yourself and your perspective on this?

John Sampogna: Hey, everyone. This is John Sampogna. I'm happy to be here. Our entry point into this whole space was fairly organic. So, taking a quick step back, Wondersauce, we're a digitally led agency. We do a lot of building infrastructure and digital product. Everything from e-commerce experiences, mobile applications—things that allow brands to transact and to engage.

And our entry point into this whole entire space was, back in 2016, we were acquired by Project Worlwide, and immediately started collaborating with GPJ on a number of their clients. And we approached it the same way we approach, really, anything, it’s what type of technology that’s currently in market can we leverage, and then ultimately, how can we create it and package it up from a user experience and design standpoint to ultimately reach a vast range of consumers?

So, really, it was, we approach this space kind of through the lens of GPJ and all the stuff that they do so well. And, you know, here we are, three, four years later, and it’s become a core staple of our portfolio, and we continue to collaborate with GPJ on a number of really interesting engagements spanning this new hybrid model of physical and digital.

Christina Noren: So, Ken, most people in our audience are not gonna be familiar with GPJ, although they're very familiar with the conferences you put on. So, tell us a little bit about what GPJ’s meat and potatoes business was pre-COVID in terms of experience marketing and what your role as Head of Digital was in that with the hybrid model. And, you know, how has that changed since there are practically no physical conferences now?

Ken Madden: GPJ has a rich history where, I'm gonna get it wrong, but I'm gonna say 106 years old—106, 107 years old. We've been around a while, and our namesake, George P. Johnson, really played a big role in the development of the auto shows, specifically. So, yeah, we were formed in Detroit, and our history is really steeped in the automotive business. And I actually came into GPJ through another partner agency, Shoptology, which is a shopper marketing agency.

And so, even when I started there, I guess it’s been about seven years ago, a big part of the GPJ business was still in the automotive sector so, you know, we built out for all the brands, we build out all of the auto shows, especially, you know, all the experiences around the ride and drives and all of the emerging technology that goes with that. I mean, I find it funny that GPJ is credit with the development of the turnstile or the turntable, the automobile turntable, you know, that is such a ubiquitous part of what you think about when you think about an auto show experience. So, even back then, that was true innovation.

But slowly but steadily, over the last 40 years really, we've been moving more and more into the tech side of the business. And, you know, now, we have, I think, you know, most of our business is tech. You know, it’s a fairly close split, but we have a ton of tech business, specifically out of the Bay Area. And those events are different. You know, when you talk about sales conferences, B2B conferences in the beauty space now, we're talking about really the B2C. It has been steeped in this rich history of just all of the logistics, the massive logistics that go behind creating these, you know, massive events with 5, 20, 200,000 attendees. There’s these massive logistics that go behind that.

So, when I came in, it’s been about almost three years ago now, to run the digital side of things, it was really to kind of build out that practice to more consistently and repeatedly bring technology into the mix to really leverage technology as a way to really, truly engage with audiences and to create engagement with purpose. That’s really been where I put all my focus, really, is in bringing everything together around that sense of engagement, that human connection. You know, just making people feel connected to each other, connected to the brand. And that mindset really has translated well, has moved into this environment where we really, you know, the physical side of it suddenly goes away and we really do have to kind of go back to our roots of creating—driving human interaction and engagement, but we don’t have the physical environments to do that any more.

So, all of that thinking that we do behind creating those journeys and very purposefully thinking how people are going to flow through an experience, we just, now we shift that and we have to think about how that flows through a digital experience.

Christina Noren: So, tell us in a little more detail—and John, if you wanna jump in, you know, on that as well, since I know you collaborated on this, but what was the kind of digital engagement and interaction you were doing before the COVID crisis where there were still physical events and it was complementary, and which one of those has, how has that translated into what you've been doing since the physical has, in your own words, gone away?

John Sampogna: I think in general, it’s just been a different set of circumstances for a range of different businesses. I think that, obviously, no one really saw this coming. And for—you know, for some brands, virtual or hybrid experiences were a very common thing that they were already working against, and it was all planned out. And in other circumstances, it was not.

And I think that we were forced to learn quickly how best to position these more digital first virtual experiences to a range of different businesses and figure out how to get something out the door quickly when no one was really expecting that the physical side of things was gonna shut down completely.

So, I think now, we're at a point where, you know, even just from our collaboration standpoint, you know, internally on a project, we've learned so much over the last six or seven months on what is really appropriate and interesting to sell to these different businesses. And, you know, the appetite is definitely there, and our whole perspective has always been to focus on the consumers.

We, regardless of whatever it is we're building, we like to focus on the different audiences that we're designing for and what will get them to ultimately engage with really compelling content. Because, at the end of the day, that’s really what we're here, whether we're doing that physically in person or consuming it through screen, it’s understanding how best to position really world class content so people gain different sets of interesting knowledge and entertainment from it. And also, it’s—you know, it doesn’t translate one to one. I think going to a physical event, there’s so many things that you take for granted, whether that’s being around other people, great food, coffee, cocktails, really dynamic and interesting sets. And I think that you can spend and get lost at a conference for days, for extended hours at any given time, you can be in a conference space for 8 to 10 hours and it can be really, really compelling.

I think that just simply translating that to a digital experience isn’t going to necessarily hit all of those marks that make physical events very special. So, figuring out how best to package and create engagement online that isn’t just completely reliant on a user sitting in front of a computer or their phone for eight hours straight, because it’s just not—you know, it’s not likely.

So, I think we're all kind of learning on how to kind of shift to the complete opposite end of the spectrum very quickly and, you know, I think we've come out the other side now with kind of a more unique perspective on what’s been working and what hasn’t been working regardless of the appetite and the comfort level of digital within a range of these different brands.

Christina Noren: So, what is that? What is working?

John Sampogna: I think, honestly, it’s kind of starting with the content and working backwards. It’s, what are the KPIs and goals that would make any type of event really successful, and then figuring out through user experience, design and technology, how to package that up in a way that make people feel honored to kind of be able to consume that content. I think it’s just like going back to how it used to be great to be able to collaborate with your colleagues, maybe travel, and spend a few days at an event.

So, trying to put a premium on digital experiences and elevate the content through technology, I think, really is what makes the collaboration between GPJ and Wondersauce very successful. It isn’t just like a one size fits all solution, it’s designing for users and figuring out how best to position content so people really feel very interested in engaging with it.

Christina Noren: Most of our audience members have probably been to a million tech conferences, and they may or may not have dipped a toe in the water of actually attending a virtual conference, you know, in this time yet. I'm gonna dip my toe in the water tomorrow.

So, what should someone going to a conference like ours experience from why they're attending, why they're registering, what they're doing while they're in it, how are they interweaving the time in the conference over the next few days with the time dealing with their dogs who wanna play ball and their kids who want help with homework. So, what does that look like today?

Ken Madden: It is very different, and yet still the same. That’s the part that’s probably been the toughest for those who are creating these events to get their heads around. It’s like, when we—when we start to map out a show, you know, we really take a step back and start to map out, you know, the, what’s the run of show going to look like. And that is, you mentioned, you know, people needing to help their kids with homework and recognizing that people are working from home and that sort of thing.

When we think about the physical experiences, it’s always been about kind of, we know we have their time, they're pretty well devoted to us. They've traveled to a location and we have their semi-undivided attention for the time. And they've put some investment into that, an investment of time and money to get there and that sort of thing.

With these digital events, we fully recognize that that’s not the case. And so, we started to think about the run of show in terms of how can we start to create that same sense of excitement, that same sense of value, and that same sense of just one thing to be, to take part and engage in that content in real time.

And so, part of that is, you know, is around getting the right mix of live versus pre-recorded versus a term you'll hear a lot in this space is this idea of semi-live where you've got pre-recorded content that you may be bookending with, you may have a live host that’s introducing different segments, you may interweave some live segments into that. And that allows you to do things like respond to social media in real time, respond to questions in real time or changing the scenarios in real time. And it does really start to create a real sense of urgency, you know, a sense of timeliness that all of this is happening now and you want to be a part of that.

But we also have to architect that show in such a way that we are creating a sense of community, that people feel like they're a part of something and they start to leverage whether it’s through the broadcast piece of it or its through other engagements that are enabled through the technology, we have to look for those places where we bring to the surface that you're not alone in this, you know, that there is community, that people are taking part in this and you're all kind of taking part in that together.

That’s been a really interesting challenge to get right, especially when, in the event space, most of the people who are running the events have run these physical events for years and years, and kind of don’t know different from what they've been doing. It’s made it—that has been a really big challenge as well.

Christina Noren: So, I'm hearing a lot of that. So, is it possible for you to mention one virtual semi-live event that you've done in the last few months that really is kind of a beacon for you?

Ken Madden: We've done a number, and I will say, too, that we've got a bunch coming up which will be—there’s kind of been stages to this whole post-COVID world. It started off in March when, with six weeks’ notice, we had for one of our big tech clients had to quickly move to do their partner conference in a purely digital environment, and it was—and while we were planning this thing, we had six weeks to plan this thing out and execute it. And this is, you know, those immediate sort of panic reactions where, you know, the content, all of that is pretty well on its way, if not finalized at that point.

So, the conversation really became about, you know, I have all this content, how am I gonna shift this into a purely digital space? And so, there wasn’t as much emphasis put on the extra sort of experience elements, it was really more about the broadcast and how do I make that as exciting as possible. And so, you know, this is a global conference, and during the six weeks, all of the sort of shelter in place orders started going out to the various countries that were impacted by the show. And so, we had to not only shift to a digital format, but also shift away from any sort of a live studio environment.

And so, we started with these, we had these shelter in place kits that go out that take care of the lighting, the mic, you know, you've got the ear bud that puts you on the line with the producer in real time, the teleprompter comes with it, the backdrops. All of that is kinda part of that kit. We make that really easy to set up so that we can do these productions in home while they still look very professional—you know, authentic, but professional.

And so, we did that show, and it was very much a live show and it was, you know, we were pleasantly surprised to see, you know, a three and a half hour show that the average attendee stayed on for two and a half hours of the three and a half hours, which was fairly unheard of.

Christina Noren: Well, and of course, a partner conference, I mean, I think that’s fantastic that you adapted that quickly, but of course, a partner conference for a major tech company, if I'm a reseller partner of a major tech company and I'm a representative, I probably feel a level of professional obligation to go and engage, whether it’s suddenly become virtual or not. But conferences like Dreamforce or South by Southwest or whatever that have more of an entertainment aspect, it’s probably a little bit of a different proposition.

Ken Madden: It very much is. I think in those scenarios, those are the ones, we've got several of those coming up, actually, and they are in, obviously, very well developed stages since they're all under the 30 day mark at this point, but not ones that I can go too deeply into.

Christina Noren: Hopefully you'll comment on social media to the post about this and by the time this thing—

Ken Madden: Yeah, yeah.

Christina Noren: - [Cross talk] in 20 or 30 days, you're probably launching a few of those.

Ken Madden: Yeah, we'll have several of those.

Christina Noren: So, I'm curious—and John, maybe you can speak to this—so, I'm curious a little bit just about, you know, the technology behind this, because, you know, there’s Zoom and WebEx and GoToMeeting and so forth and things we're used to using up to a few hundred participants inside of our own companies. And then, you know we're doing this recording on this weird platform, Squadcast, that we use that’s very specialized for doing podcasts like this. I imagine there are some specialized platforms that are starting to emerge in your world that are a little different than the normal meeting platform.

John Sampogna: Yeah, and I think that our value proposition has always been remaining completely agnostic in terms of technology. So, whether we're selecting a server or a livestreaming platform, a content management system, a CRM, event management systems, there are a bunch of components that go into a single virtual feed. And not, there’s not one kind of prescribed technical stack that will work for everyone. Everyone has different internal IT standards, they have different things that will really work well with how they market to their customers and their partners.

So, this is really the one thing that hasn’t changed for us. Whether we're redesigning and rebuilding an e-commerce experience, building a new mobile application, or creating a virtual experience, we really like to sit and make recommendations that we think will not only work for business today, but also going into the next two, three, four, five years. Because what I think makes these experiences really special, it’s not just that first point of engagement, that first event, it’s the ability to scale in more complex and nuanced features that may only make sense to a specific industry or sector.

So, I think that, when done really well, we are basically aggregating and integrating with the world’s best technologies and putting on a consumer interface that looks and feels like Brand X. And, to the consumers, they will never know what’s powering this whole thing. They won’t know that, you know, on top of what they're consuming right now is 8 to 12 different technologies seamlessly brought together. And I think that is where I think our sweet spot has really been in this space. It’s being able to aggregate and bring together technologies that will work for a range set of brands that, most importantly, scale.

That’s not to say that every single opportunity needs to be so nuanced and so custom. Sometimes, people just—brands, they just want something that is, you know, gonna be up and ready to go in a few weeks and be down soon after. And we have a recommendation for that as well.

So, I think our kind of strength has always been remaining agnostic and being able to make recommendations to brands that will work for them.

Christina Noren: It’s my understanding that a lot of these conferences are sort of trying to create a sense of place and time and creating lobbies, and I know we've got booths and so forth. I have no idea what tech stack is behind creating some kind of virtual reality experience, and it seems to me like Wyndham Lab meets GPJ. But what are those tools that are sort of creating that virtual reality experience?

Ken Madden: Yeah, yeah. I was gonna say, you know, it’s funny, we're not seeing a lot of kind of VR environments at this point. What we do see a lot of is sort of what you said, like, trying to create a sense of time and place where you've got a rendered environment that is navigatable, where you're really just—and it’s a full, you know, analogy to what you would have seen had you been in the physical space. And, you know, those can be effective if done right, but they tend to be the default, and there are a lot of platforms that can enable that.

When you are—if you spend any time kind of, you know, many of these events are free right now, and so, it’s kind of been a pretty interesting opportunity to take in and audit a large number of events. And you come across a lot of the same players. You know, you've got Intrado and ON24, you'll see 6connects. And those are platform players that have been in the space for a long time, and they really, they thrive on the idea of kind of configuration versus customization. And our clients oftentimes have contracts already with one or more of those platforms, and so that will tend to be the fallback option. It kinda depends on where you are on that scale of maturity as well as kind of what kind of experience you want.

And so, for a lot of people out of the box, that’s gonna power your kinda expo floor, your breakout session rooms, you can bounce out to a Zoom, a WebEx or, you know, Meet or something like that for those one to one, one to few sort of experiences. But those platforms are kind of the core experience. And they do let you kind of put in a render of a space and make that navigatable.

If you get into something that, you know, we're starting to see a lot of, like, WebRTC in use to kind of take a more sort of customized approach to enabling those kinds of, I don't know, I call them these sort of new navigation moments where you're exploring space together with people and taking kind of a more—what’s the word I'm looking for—innovative approach to exploration and kind of content. But you do have some of those fallback platforms that have kinda become the core.

Christina Noren: You've named some names that I've heard in passing over the years, like ON24 and Intrado. And what would you call those kinds of platforms? Because mentally, I have a mental model from what you're saying that they're kind of the wrapper of these experiences, you know, they're wrapping all these other tools.

Ken Madden: The conversation that we end up in repeatedly is that they get referred to as kind of the core platform, the event platform. And the conversation very quickly gets to that space of, like, what is the platform?

Which has been really, kinda going back to what John was talking about earlier, has been one of the conversations that we've found ourselves in quite a bit is, you know, when you're really looking to push that experience, it’s—you kinda start to push out of that space where you've got that one sort of central platform that drives the bulk of the experience and it starts to be, just like a physical event, it’s this sort of amalgam of all these various experiences that make up that total experience, the tech stacks start to get pretty complex pretty quickly, while at the same time, all of that is in the spirit of actually making it much more simpler—you know, much more simple and easy to navigate.

Paul Boutin: I have the burning question as an audience who goes to tech conferences. Many people will tell you that they don’t go to tech conferences for the official presentations, they go for all the socializing happening out in the hallway, and there’s that sort of running into people or, “Hey, that open source guy is holding court over there, I recognize him” and meeting people that way.

As you've already said, the replacement for that or the alternative experience of that is not going to look like Second Life. What is it going to look like?

John Sampogna: There are situations where an approach like more of something inspired by Second Life could be really interesting and immersive. And I think that, in other scenarios, it’s not gonna sound really sexy, but things like content strategy, recirculation of relevant content, and just passive personalization through dynamic follow ups and re-engagement loops that get people the information they need, the network they want to be expanding well beyond—well after the conference.

So, I think that what makes really, really successful physical conferences is when networking doesn’t feel very awkward and you feel like you have a chance to get access to people or groups of people that you wouldn’t normally have. And I think that there are born networkers that are just very comfortable striking it up with someone over a cocktail, and there are some that, like myself, I'm not very social and I don’t really necessarily feel comfortable going up to groups of people that I don't know.

And I think that what virtual gives us is the opportunity to know a bit about me right now and my interests, and for us to kind of narrow that networking graph before the conference, for us to recommend intuitive and relevant sessions for that person to attend, and for us also then to, throughout that entire process, looks for ways to facilitate introductions to like-minded folks that will make that virtual event, that virtual experience very valuable.

And I think it’s two ways. It’s not just giving the attendee those tools, it’s giving our clients those tools to facilitate those introductions and that value add. Because, to your point, I think there obviously is a lot of value in the content, but it’s equal parts the networking and the shared experience of being there. So, I do think that data and what I call passive personalization presents a real opportunity to make virtual experiences, you know, very, very valuable beyond the content itself where you're not necessarily even entering in a bunch of different inputs that will direct the content and network your being presented to, it’s happening behind the scenes. Because we know enough about people before we even get going, and the idea that the virtual event, that virtual experience can continue to extend well beyond that one day or that week, it can go on for months and years after as we collect more and more information and we know what type of content will be interesting and valuable to attendees.

Paul Boutin: You just hit something very important that I wanna put into just a few words. Going digital means that you can decouple in time as well as space, so that I don’t have to run into the guy from GitHub at the same time, at the same place. That connection could happen well after the conference, based on the fact that we both attended and had similar interests.

John Sampogna: Exactly.

Ken Madden: Yeah.

John Sampogna: I think you see it in, you know, a lot of these professional network—I mean, not to use LinkedIn as an example but, you know, that’s the whole value of the LinkedIn value proposition. But done correctly, you're getting a more curated set of people, hypothetically, around a shared topic of interest that, underneath that, has many different buckets of interest.

And you can kind of approach that networking opportunity from a brand standpoint at the very highest level and let the freedom to network kind of be undetermined, but you could also kind of work somewhere in the middle some forced networking that gets people to feel a bit more comfortable expanding and going outside their comfort zone to not only make that immediate connection more valuable, but to develop lasting and meaningful relationships well beyond that first touch point.

Christina Noren: And thanks, John, for that. So, Ken, was that part of what you were alluding to at the top of this, of talking about being more data driven?

Ken Madden: Yeah, it actually is. I mentioned in the beginning that we originally were thinking about digital engagement, I really was approaching it from the standpoint of, you know, enable, enhance, extend content. And that’s been something that has shifted majorly. It’s been in the works for a couple years, but it’s just been just majorly accelerated with the current environment.

And we've pushed it to the point now where, you know, for us, digital engagement is really about connecting every moment and making every moment actionable. And that’s where the data really, truly comes to play. And it’s both the data as well as the thinking, the strategy, the approach to it. We are being forced to think instead about each moment. So, if we think about a common piece in a physical environment, I know that I as a conference attendee have, I always find it really helpful when I go and I watch somebody present something and then I can go up and I have an opportunity to ask the speaker a question. And that’s something that, if you miss that moment, it disappears.

And so, taking something like that, that’s really been—you know, we can really think about that in a very analogous way and we can have simple Q&A times after the session. And so, now, you're starting to see where you're getting not only the, immediately after that session, but that that session is now on demand and we can have somebody at the ready to start to answer those questions. So, we can create those moments of engagement, but not necessarily have to be tied to that point in time.

But if we take that further and we start to think about how the data helps us to evolve those connections, you know, we can start to drive those connections in real time, based on somebody’s actions on a site, you know, based on what they're consuming, we can now start to push them together with other like-minded people. We can start to push them together with subject matter experts. We can start to create those networking opportunities, and they can, they can totally be notification based that come up, you know, long before or long after the event.

And I think that’s the biggest shift now is that we're starting to think about these events as not just a point in time, but that it is part of an ongoing conversation.

Christina Noren: It seems like a sense of community, and one thing I find—you know, I find is happening today is the rise of conference apps. Like, I've got, my phone is littered with apps from every conference I ever attended and I never come back to them, I turn the notifications off. And I was actually scheduled to go to a live or a small boutique conference in the middle of March that was canceled at the last minute. I was supposed to fly on March 18th and the conference, they finally admitted they had to cancel it on March 11th.

But they went very old school, this is a very small boutique conference and they interviewed us in advance and created a physical book they sent out of, you know, a directory of attendees with some leading questions. And there’s been a trickle, and they're doing a virtual version of it in October and hoping to do a physical one next year.

But in the intervening month, because the conference didn't have its own app, didn't have its own tools, I've been getting a steady qualified set of interactions from people on LinkedIn that I wouldn’t have connected with without the context of this conference that didn't happen yet.

So, we do like to get a little bit more of a background of our guests, and we'll slice this in appropriately, but we are going a little over time. But Ken and John, I'm gonna ask you each to just do a little sketch of what’s the life journey that leads you to be dealing with the problem of conferences going virtual in 2020.

So, Ken, do you wanna start?

Ken Madden: Sure, sure. I listened to a few of these podcasts recently, I was listening to one last night, the Dwella one, and you know, she was awesome. But it’s the same dilemma, like, where do you start? [Laughter]

But yeah, I mean, I think I—and not to, I hate to date myself, but because of my age, I was in a fortunate place that I got to see firsthand kinda the evolution of technology, you know, in high school. Basically, my friend and I started the Computer Math Team so, and it was just a thing that didn't exist. You know, the German teacher decided she would teach that. She was into computers.

But, you know, so, I've been able to sort of see it evolve, and coming out of college, where I was, took a meandering path from Premed to Computer Science to, then I realized that I don’t like to wait a long time between compiles. So, I went into Audio Production, and just by sheer chance, had this amazing opportunity to jump into this kind of emerging program at UT. It was the Advanced Community Technology Lab, and it really was like, it was a new technology media course that just really kinda changed things for me.

And so, that kinda set me on the path that I knew I wanted to stick in technology. And so, I went down the IT path for a while before I realized that the missing piece was just, I like the human reaction to technology. I like to see how people engage in it, and that was really the thing that kept driving me, you know, from project to project.

When I got to, I moved to New York during the dot com boom and bust, and as a result of that, really got to, I started to work a lot of tech side of projects with media agencies in kinda the New York advertising media world. And that really kid of hooked me onto the piece of, like, I've always been really strong in data, I've been really strong in technology.

But what I keep coming back to is that I just, I really like the human side of it. You know, not only how you can drive people to have better experiences and helping people to interact better with technology, but also that kinda change management piece that has become increasingly important through my career of helping people to embrace technology and take technology and sort of integrate it into the work they do and evolve the work as a result of it, which has been put on the fast track over the last few months with COVID, for sure.

Christina Noren: So, John, on your side, what’s your journey, here?

John Sampogna: I wish I can give you a better answer, but I stumbled into the agency world having spent a brief period of time in music. I realized I didn't really like where that industry was going—this was right around the time, you know, probably five years after the major disruption that the Internet caused within the music world.

But a bunch of my friends were designers and developers and I kind of just thought it was interesting and stumbled into working in the digital agency space. And after a few years, I met a few really great friends that we thought it was a good idea to actually start our own agency.

So, about 10 years ago, we started Wondersauce, and at the time, we were in our mid-20s. And I always say that our specific, I guess, age group was of a pretty interesting space where I remember vividly a world without the Internet and how it kind of stepped into my life and my childhood. And I always say, like, we grew up with the Internet and the Internet grew up with us. I remember being in, you know, 2nd or 3rd grade and they wheeled in a computer that had quote-unquote the Internet. And it went beyond keyboard class where words per minute were important and we had this mystical Internet.

I remember spending my high school days on Napster and file sharing sites, downloading music and movies, and the original days of chatrooms and DMs and all that stuff. And I remember then, you know, college, pre- and post-Facebook and how it revolutionized our, you know, I think it was like sophomore or junior year, everyone had Facebook, and it revolutionized your social life. And then, you know all throughout post college, things like the app economy, everything that’s going on now.

So, when we built Wondersauce, we wanted to create an agency that didn't see things as, “Well, that’s social, that’s web development that’s mobile applications, and that’s content.” It was just things that live in the Internet and on the Internet. So, our agency and our service offering has always been really broad, and that’s by design.

So, when we were acquired in 2016 by Project Worldwide, I had little to no event experience at all. And I remember the first time I attended an event, it was one of our Project Worldwide kind of every couple years, we do this thing called the Global Leadership Summit, and it’s usually in a really great place like Las Vegas. And I guess it was shocking to me, seeing the amount of coordination, management, and just general facilitation that goes into something like this. And I remember leaving the event being kind of just struck at the amount of work GPJ does, consistently, to make something so robust and massive be seamless, fun, and something that you would remember.

So, when we got our chance to first collaborate with them, we approached it purely from the digital side, and trying to do what made us special elsewhere to this world. And, you know, since then, I think we've learned so much collectively together, and honestly, it’s been a really fun thing to be a part of these last few years.

Christina Noren: Well, so what strikes me—and just, in conclusion, that’s great, we should probably start to actually wrap up. So, one thing that strikes me is that, as opposed to most but not all of our other guests that are very focused on a specific problem, creating a single platform, you guys, like the physical events agencies you work with and as part of, are really coordinating a whole lot of moving parts to make a seamless experience.

And so, it’s not like you're building the experience platform or the ticketing platform or registration platform or whatever, you're just making all those things work better, and that’s, you know, an art of integration and coordination. And I'm also in awe of the people who run these big events, and that’s part of the reason I know you guys through the grapevine, because I'm just in awe of your colleagues who run the physical events.

And then the other, the exception is our guest, Rich Cherry, from the museum world, he’s probably the closest to you, trying to coordinate a lot of pieces to create a hybrid digital and physical experience, so I think we've discovered another dimension of differentiation between, you know, one set of software agents and another.

Paul, do you have any takeaways from this?

Paul Boutin: I do. I hear that events now in the post-COVID world are very much in an evolving state of still figuring it out, and that’s okay, because this is what we got. And what I liked most was the point that when, let’s say, I attend a digital event, they want me—just like the Cadillac that’s rotating at an auto show, don’t think about how that’s happening. Was there a motor under it, you know? Where do they plug it in? Don’t think about the platforms, but you wanna have the experience of the brands whose event you are attending.

And the other thing was, it’s really great that we can now do things before and after, and since I don’t have to be in Las Vegas on a certain date, it means that you don’t have to all have all these people in the same place at the same time and maybe we can have more events now that we don’t have to put everybody in the same physical location at the same day.

Ken Madden: I heard you both saying this a little bit, but just the point around kind of not knowing what’s going on under the hood, and I think that is the part that we probably both find really fascinating is just, it is in that physical environment, like John, I'm always in awe of seeing behind the curtain, you know, as I get to do now and seeing all of these things that you never realized have to come together to make this kind of a seamless and exciting experience for the attendee.

And it’s the same thing on the digital side. It’s, you know, we do spend a lot of time bringing a lot of different technologies together, but that software piece, that piece that kind of sits over all of this is that experience and that front end experience, whether it’s physical or digital, is really that kind of special piece that we do that really makes it something for the attendee and helps them to really get something from it. You know, if that’s—it’s just, it’s a nice thought, because at the end of the day, that front end is really what drives the experience, and that’s essentially what we do is to deliver that.

Christina Noren: That’s great. Well, this has been a great episode. I'm gonna thank you both, Ken and John, for spending the time with us and I look forward to my next few experiences at virtual conferences.

Ken Madden: Awesome, thank you.

John Sampogna: Thanks so much.

Christina Noren

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