Kenny, Cofounder and CEO of ThreeSixtyEight, presented Assembly Required: Why Your Small Business Should Have An Event Strategy at the Hubspot Inbound 2018 marketing conference on September 5 in Boston. In this interview, he talks about hosting events as an outstanding way to create positive customer experiences—to pick up new clients, grow accounts, retain talent, and position your team members as leaders. Kenny also discusses the power of eye-to-eye contact and the distancing effect of the “theater effect,” when the speaker is elevated on a stage.
Kenny’s agency focuses on user experience and strategy. His Big Fish Presentations service line helps presenters and brands better present and communicate their messages. His user experience/human experience/customer experience philosophy applies not only to the website interface, but also to face to face interactions. He groups these as:
- the networking/customer appreciation event,
- the salon, featuring small workshops or a series of speakers, and
- the conference.
Kenny feels that the most effective agencies are those that teach their clients.
Strategy is more holistic than tactics—it is the “why” behind the tactics (e.g., I need a new website [tactic] because [the why] I need to improve my sales.)—where the “Why” may even, upon deeper investigation, reveal that a “different” tactic (e.g., improved social media conversion) may better produce the desired results. Kenny emphasizes the importance of asking the right questions up front in order to discover the whether the identified problem is merely a symptom of a larger problem.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I am live here on Friday morning of HubSpot’s Inbound Conference with Kenny Nguyen. Kenny is the CEO and cofounder of ThreeSixtyEight based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Welcome, Kenny. Good to have you here.
KENNY: Thank you, Rob. And “geaux Tigers,” man. [laughs]
ROB: [laughs] There you go. “Geaux” spelled really long and complicated, right?
KENNY: Exactly. To us, it’s the only way you could spell “go.”
ROB: You have to spell it with an ‘E,’ ‘A,’ ‘U,’ and an ‘X’?
KENNY: And an ‘X’, of course.
ROB: Fantastic. Kenny, why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about ThreeSixtyEight and what makes ThreeSixtyEight great?
KENNY: What makes ThreeSixtyEight great? The cliché is the people, but being in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, it’s a very competitive field.
Of course, I’ll say my people, but really what we focus on the most, I believe we’re really good at UX and strategy. User experience and the strategy behind what makes a great user experience is why we’re able to pick up a lot of national clients. We talked a little bit earlier about the balance between national and local clients.
But our secret sauce is we have a service line called Big Fish Presentations, and that service line focuses on helping presenters and brands all over the world become better presenters. Once you have a background UX and strategy, but then also human communication, I feel like you’re a little bit dangerous.
That’s something I’m really proud of. We’re able to build a dangerous repertoire because—we like to say we’re multi-disciplined in the right things.
ROB: So, you had the best slide deck here. Is that the truth?
KENNY: Actually, I think Beth Comstock did. We helped her with her slides.
ROB: Oh, wow. So, you’re on the main stage in multiple ways.
KENNY: I guess so. Beth has always been a mentor, and she’s now become a friend. It was pretty cool seeing her work in front of 24,000 people. She was an amazing speaker, too.
It’s even better when you have someone that can exemplify that. Her book, Imagine It Forward, when we were helping her with that speech, that’s going to change some lives. I’m super stoked about it.
ROB: Pretty exciting. You mentioned strategy. I feel like strategy is one of those words that people are becoming much more receptive to. What is changing, do you think, where a local client is saying, “I don’t just need Google ads; I need something more holistic, I need strategy”? What’s changing?
KENNY: I think the difference now is that people are thinking more on tactics versus strategy. Previously, most companies—I’ll tell you what’s local in Louisiana—we usually hear a lot of tactics. Things like “I need a new website” or “Help me with my Facebook messaging.” The thing is, there’s never strategy behind it. There’s never the “why.”
We pivoted the company into a question-first approach from our sales cycle. We question anyone that comes through us asking for things. “Why do you think you need this?” It shocks a lot of people.
Over the past couple months when people come to us, I’ve started realizing it’s the right client because they’re questioning first. I can tell customers are starting to think more strategy-first now because they’re starting to realize marketing dollars are shriveling. They have to spend the right amount of money, and to spend the right amount of money, they need to ask the right questions.
I think that’s with our industry, man. With the shriveling industry and more scrutiny on the spend, you have to really be focused on your spend and where your money is going to, and that only comes from asking the right questions.
ROB: When somebody says, “I want a website,” what do you find they actually want?
KENNY: What they want is usually more sales. We had someone come in the other day saying, “I want a website to improve my sales.” What we found out was they didn’t need a website. What they needed was better conversion on their social media. I found that they had 10,000 followers on Instagram, and it shocked me. I was like, wow, this is where your customers are. How about we just go to them?
It really comes down to this: your customers will always think they know the problem, and usually they have some inkling of the problem, but that problem sometimes can be a symptom of a bigger problem. That’s why it really helps when you have a third party being able to view in there and say, “Hey, this actually is the problem you’re trying to solve. If you solve this problem, that problem still is not going to be solved.”
With a website, usually the problem is you don’t have the right messaging. Or you don’t have the right user experience. You can fix little things on the website to make sure it’s optimized to have the right user experience.
ROB: That can be such a challenge, figuring out how to get out of your own way and how to say something in a voice that matters to the customer instead of what makes sense to you, in the industry.
KENNY: Yeah. I find the best agencies are the ones that teach, and there’s a lot of education in what we do. It’s also great because the talent that we have, I’d say they’re all very much like teachers. I think that’s why our customers tend to stay with us for a very long time.
ROB: Give me a little bit of the superhero origin story of ThreeSixtyEight. How did you come into existence? And Big Fish as well, and how does that all fit together? What came first?
KENNY: Dude, this is the crazy part. It started in 2011 when I was a student at LSU and I saw a really boring presentation at the Student Real Estate Association. I was in charge of IT during the time, and I remember I was in charge of getting the speaker in. When I got the speaker in, he gave me a slide that was 200 slides. We had 30 minutes. I’m thinking, there is no effing way this is even possible. There’s just no way.
ROB: Unless you’re doing the 10-second-per-slide thing, but that person that pulls that off is very . . .
KENNY: Yeah. Three hours, Rob. And three hours reading off every single slide, started laughing at his own jokes, asking questions—and this is when I realized, oh my God, this is crazy.
What happened was, I started thinking. I thought when you get out of school, you would have it made with presentations. But then I realized that’s not the case. There might be an opportunity to help people like this with their presentations.
So that’s when the idea of Big Fish Presentations was born. We launched it, and people loved it. We were getting all this support. Entrepreneur Magazine came calling. I did a TEDx talk about why I turned down Shark Tank, actually. That was interesting.
KENNY: We had a book deal with McGraw-Hill, and after the book deal we actually merged Big Fish with another agency 368 feet down the road called Hatchet, a digital experience agency. Hence the name of my company today, ThreeSixtyEight.
So the origin story is that we thought we could go higher with presentations, and we knew what makes great human experiences; we just wanted to combine it with good digital experiences. That’s where we ended up today. At the end of the day, I like to say we’re not just UX. We’re also human experiences, or even CX, customer experiences.
It’s just a simple evolution of taking what’s being appreciated at the human level across a digital medium.
ROB: It seems like you know your focus, but you’re in a couple of focus areas that I think may have very unpredictable lead times, cycle times, that sort of thing. How do you think about finding someone when they need a presentation?
KENNY: It’s really crazy because in the presentation market, anyone can be a customer because everyone has to give a presentation.
I find that that is actually the hardest market we can be in because it’s hard to focus your marketing. There are cycles where we’re really popular with national companies because they all have tradeshows. There are cycles when they don’t have the tradeshows, so we have to go with local companies. It’s always ups and downs.
That’s a good question. With the sales cycle, I’ll tell you this: it’s very unpredictable for presentations. But if you find the right client that has a large sales team, that is growing with momentum or offering new products or service lines frequently, that is usually a good Big Fish customer. They’ll need a lot of presentations frequently and they don’t have the time to do it in-house.
I find that if they also have an in-house agency, that’s a good place to be as well because the last thing you want to happen is your in-house agency being bogged down by PowerPoint. We help them. We say we’re like the black ops team for them. [laughs]
ROB: Yeah, I think being equipped with a really attractive presentation is a real standout thing. I know certainly whenever I’m doing my own presentation, I feel kind of lame. [laughs]
KENNY: We can help you with that, man. [laughs]
ROB: For sure. You were here this week sharing a talk, and your talk was called “Assembly Required: Why Your Small Business Should Have an Event Strategy.” Tell us about what you were sharing and what you were thinking there.
KENNY: The talk itself was a story about how we as an agency started producing our own quarterly conference series called Assembly Required. People call us crazy. We’re about a 17 person firm, producing a conference per quarter. That already sounds pretty crazy.
But the method to the madness was we know that there’s about 120,000 creative agencies in the United States. That’s a lot. If we’re going to stand out, we need some kind of way to stand out. We found that human experiences are the best way to stand out against large competitors that have better SEO than us or better resumes or longer-standing reputations.
So, we went all-in on events. From that, we learned a lot of things.
The first was events are a great way to pick up new customers and also grow current accounts.
The second is it actually helps retain talent because you teach them new skills.
The third is thought leadership. We live in a world with a lot of noise—you know this, man. Position your team as thought leaders kind of like HubSpot does, and HubSpot is a great example of why events should be a major part of your strategy because you’ve got thought leaders.
The fourth is building a community. For us, it’s not just about the clients; it’s about the people that surround us. Especially when things go bad or people that can’t work with us but will still refer us work because they love us.
Finally, we’ve always wanted to test our crazy ideas with Big Fish, things that we could never try before—like for example, I flew in on a DeLorean to open up our fourth conference. Things that we would love to pitch the clients but we didn’t know how it would work. We were able to actually test out ideas that we knew clients probably wouldn’t go for on ourselves. So we have a platform.
After the year, we noticed that we grew a lot of accounts. We got some really good accounts in. But not only that, five businesses were created just from meeting at our place, and that’s great for economic development. Especially for a city like Baton Rouge.
That’s when I realized people need to double down on human experiences, especially if you’re small. If you’re small, go in on meeting people. Go in on doing that, because it does get harder as you—to scale human experiences. AI might help out a little bit as long as there’s a good pass-off between the AI bot and the human.
But for most things, for us, handshakes between you and I, we’re never going to forget that. But online? You’re fighting against everything else.
ROB: When it comes to events, you see different patterns out there in the world. When some people think of events, I think they think about spending a ton of money to put it on; and when some people think about events, I think they may conceive of something that’s not really aligned well to their business. It’s kind of an event for the sake of an event.
Like when I first thought about, “I might like to do a podcast,” I couldn’t think of any good business reason to do it, and so I stopped until I had more conviction around what, why, and who I would talk to.
Does an event have to cost a lot of money? How should people think about making an event that is well-aligned to what they’re trying to do instead of just being an expensive party?
KENNY: Our events, man, our conferences have cost up to $20,000. People think, “That’s it?” But in reality, for a first year conference when you have four conferences, each one costing about that much, you have to go very lean.
But the thing is, I’ve found there are three different types of events that any company can do. One is a simple networking event. I call them leisure. It’s like a networking event, a client appreciation party, very basic stuff. Any company can do a client appreciation party.
Next is a salon, which is more like workshops or small speaker series. I find that if you do those, get a good speaker that you can rope in that you would love to have your brand associated with—sometimes you might have to fly them down, but that’s why you get a sponsor. I can give sponsor tips and recruiting speaker tips as well.
The next one is the conference experience, like this at HubSpot. You can do that, but you have to have that sense of empathy. Before we start any kind of event, we have to define our goal. Usually the goal is lead gen, but if you’re a nonprofit, sometimes it’s attendance.
When it’s attendance, it’s usually diversity, like a certain perchance of women and men, certain percentage of people of different nationalities. It’s good to have diversity because with diversity, you can have different perspectives. We aim for both.
Now, after we have that, we then start asking questions. The obvious question is: who’s the target market? But the next question is: where do you want to hold the event? People are like, why is that so important?
I’ll tell you this: the Scott Harrison keynote is going on right now. If you notice in there, he is elevated above the stage. When he’s elevated above the stage, your eyes can’t meet. There’s less of a connection. It’s just difficult because you have 24,000 people in there right now. Your audience is more observers than participants.
When you can meet them in the eye and connect with them on a human level, that’s when they’re more engaged. Scott is one of the best speakers in the world and he can do it, but not every speaker can do that.
That’s why we have to ask, look, if we’re trying to get our audience to be engaged, can attendees and speakers meet each other at eye level? People will say, “Damn, I never knew that.” One of the speakers from Disney taught me that. They deal with that at Disney all the time. It’s called the theater effect.
The next question that we ask is, what events aren’t going on in our customers’ lives or attendees’ lives? That’s the empathy that we need. We don’t want to be redundant. We need to make sure there’s something different, and it gives them a reason to come back.
It’s like people plan one event and they’re done. I like to plan events in threes. I like to see, these are the three events, we have enough data to see if this keeps going. It’s kind of hard to figure off the first one.
Our first conference, we had so many hiccups. Our second one, we came back with a roar. I remember being so proud. Our third one, energy dropped because we did a theater. We were like, what happened to the energy? The content was great. That was because of the theater effect. The fourth one, we got it just right.
That takes time, man. That’s the thing. If you’re going to invest in events, it’s definitely seen as a loss leader at first. This [HubSpot conference], I don’t know how the heck they do it.
But if you do it, you have to commit to it. You can’t be afraid of standing out. This is one of the ballsiest things you can do, saying “I’m going to get my team together, to boost the experience.” Really, at the end of the day, fortune favors the bold. I find that if you’re going to favor yourself on human experiences, customer experiences, and have your people truly be their best selves, then you’re in a good place.
ROB: Right on. You mentioned sponsors. How much can sponsors offset the cost of an event? You mentioned you had some tips; how do you find good sponsors that are compatible without being overlapping and that sort of thing?
KENNY: One thing I did find that was helpful is if you’re doing a first-time event, I actually asked a lot of our friends from huge corporations to come in and help us, just put their logo on our website. We had Adobe, Facebook, Simple banking. They said, “Hey, it’s totally cool. We support your mission.”
The conference was to find the best talent in Louisiana while connecting them to national level speakers. It was a crazy idea. I noticed in the beginning I was having trouble getting sponsors. I was like, man, this is way harder than it needs to be. But once I asked my friends, “Can I put your logo on there?” and they supported the mission, that’s when the sponsor money started coming in.
I picked up the majority of sponsors that I went after because they saw other companies doing it. What I learned was if you want to do a conference, pair a sponsor with a speaker. I had a list of speakers, like “Here’s some of the speakers you can support and you’ll be the sponsor.” Sponsors were like, “I would love to be paired with the mayor of Baton Rouge. I would love to be paired with Lisa Wang from SheWorx and what she stands for.”
I find the more personal you can make that sponsorship connection, the better. It’s crazy, dude. The first conference I ever did, the sponsors gave us money and didn’t even show up. You would think that’s the ultimate dream scenario, but there’s no longevity there. They don’t know how well it did. It took me forever to get them back.
So I find that if you’re going to do an event and you’re going to double down on it, find the right sponsors that believe in your mission—and not only believe in your mission, but can actually be present at your event.
It’s not just trade shows. It’s actually engaging. I ask all our sponsors to have food at their table, because food recruits people. It opens up the barrier, too. Good sponsorship relationships is really important for any event organizer.
ROB: Can you break even on an event with the right sponsor lineup? Is that too much to ask, or is that feasible?
KENNY: You definitely can. For us now, our smaller events, we can. We scaled it down to Some Assembly Required. If you go to—I want to plug this in—http://assemblyrequiredla.com, you can watch our previous conferences.
But our new conference series actually just happened last night. I’m here talking about this, but it happened last night. We did a smaller conference. Justin Hutchinson on our team was the curator on that one, focused on public speaking. More curated, smaller. I’m really glad to say I think we made a little bit of money on it. That’s good.
KENNY: Finally we were able to turn it into something. But that took over a thousand internal agency hours, plus breaking even just from the cost. You have to work yourself back up. But in the end, though, think about this—we have an IP of a conference series that we could possibly either grow, sell, or license to other people.
ROB: Yeah, people buy conferences. That’s a real thing.
KENNY: Yeah, and you can license as well. Having a human experience as an intellectual property, that’s a pretty powerful weapon, and a platform too.
People are shocked—I don’t know if you knew this, man, but we had people from Vice, Unilever, Facebook come and speak. Even the Assistant Executive Producer of HBO’s Defiant Ones. The reason why we did that is we wanted to show Louisiana, look, there are large corporations and people doing amazing things that are looking at our state.
ROB: Baton Rouge, would you say it’s a college town?
KENNY: Yeah. “Geaux Tigers!” [laughs]
ROB: One interesting dimension there is within college towns, sometimes there can be a little bit of a bumper crop of creative people who want to do services for someone, and sometimes some of them are just going to be dirt cheap. We’re in Atlanta; Athens is just up the road, and there’s a lot of small shops up there.
Coming from being a college student running a business yourself, how do you think about differentiating and elevating to where the little student-run mini agency thing is not a competitor or threat—it’s not even the same conversation?
KENNY: I don’t really know any other way, man. That’s the thing. To me, there’s only one way, and that’s the right way. That’s just doing the right thing.
For us, I never thought of it just because I’m in a college town—in fact, I think I thrive because it’s a college town, because people like the fact that we’re from Baton Rouge. They like the fact that they’re hiring a small, scrappy startup that says, “y’all.” They like that Southern charm. I find that’s an advantage.
A lot of people say “I’m successful in spite of…” I always say, we get our success “because of…” It’s definitely because we’re in a college town that we’re able to stand out. Even on the national level, people love us because we stand for something. It’s very clear. We’re not muddled up in the region that we stand for.
ROB: Is it also, then, a recruiting advantage? Good talent?
KENNY: Dude, yeah. I love our people. I’m very blessed to be working with them every day. It’s a major advantage. There’s obviously some really good players in the city—even the state, actually—but we’re able to stand out.
One of my proudest moments ever was watching our people compete at an Adobe Creative Jam and seeing my strategist and my designer, Tara and Beau, win in front of all the largest agencies in Louisiana. You can’t be more proud than that. That’s when I realized we have a really good team.
That’s why this year recruitment is so high on my list. I want people to constantly understand there are opportunities here in Louisiana. I would love to start hiring people outside of Louisiana, in fact. Like I said earlier, the best thing you can get is a new perspective. It’s usually very expensive to get a new perspective, whether it’s in financial or we’ll get the sacrifice.
But it’s also where you live as well. Once I started traveling—you mentioned when I was a college student—my biggest disadvantage was I didn’t travel a lot. Once I did, once I went to New York for the first time (actually for EO, for the Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards), that’s when my mind completely changed on how big we can be. I think having outside perspective is so important.
ROB: Fantastic. Kenny, what are some lessons you’ve learned along the way that, if you were starting from scratch tomorrow, you might do differently or tell yourself if you were building the agency from scratch?
KENNY: I don’t know, man. [laughs] I really don’t know. If I would’ve told myself that then, it might’ve changed where I am now, and to be honest I live all of my dreams now. I’m very blessed that at a young age I’m able to live a lot of my dreams. Not all of them.
I don’t know what I would tell myself, Rob. Maybe the one thing I would tell myself is the only answer—it’s a Steve Martin quote—is to be “so good they can’t ignore you.” To me, being Asian American in communications, I very rarely meet anyone that leads an agency that’s Vietnamese American, or even Asian American. That’s something that when I first started, I felt like an identity crisis.
Especially when I had people commenting on my public speaking skills and saying, “Man, you’re very different. You can speak very well for an Asian person.” I’ve been told that. I was like, I’m human just like you.
Maybe that’s what I would’ve said. Just be so good they can’t ignore you, and the rest of it will take care of itself.
ROB: I think that’s kind of a theme. It almost ties back into your presentation. I think one of the reasons—I’m just observing from the outside; I have not run an event and I’m a little bit scared. I might not. But I might, who knows?
KENNY: Hit me up, dude. [laughs]
ROB: [laughs] Doing an event well is one of those things that’s hard to fake. I think that’s one thing we see, whether you’re looking at Google and what they’re doing with SEO, whether you’re looking at social platforms and newsfeeds, whether you’re looking at outbound sales, authenticity cuts through a lot.
Do you think that events can be a way of legitimately signaling that you care and you understand in a way that other people just can’t fake?
KENNY: Dude, yeah. We held our last event at our office yesterday, and I can tell you as soon as you step in our doors, you can feel what we’re in this for. What we’re in this for is we want better talent, and we want to showcase the talent that we have in Louisiana. If it comes to across as we’re pitching ThreeSixtyEight all the time, it’s super obvious.
That’s the thing with HubSpot. I think they do a great job with it because when you see the stage, it says “Inbound.” It doesn’t say, “HubSpot Inbound.” I think that’s what’s beautiful about it. They get it here. At the end of the day, HubSpot is a software platform, but it’s also a platform for others to connect and succeed.
That’s where we want to be. We want to be a platform for you to trust your crazy ideas.
ROB: That’s been necessary even to think about elevating your brand. HubSpot has thought a lot about this. If what you want is a marketing automation product that will spam out a bunch of emails to your list—friends of ours in Atlanta at SalesLoft had the same sort of problem.
They had to elevate and they had to go after “How do we empathize with and live the life of the salesperson?”, not “How do we blast out a cadence of emails?”
KENNY: Yeah. One thing I did learn about email marketing I’ll tell you is that in the beginning, I had a very strong conviction that just because we had a large email list going forward, it would work. Not for events. It did not work for events. In fact, what it sounded like was “let me invite you to my house and let me pitch you a timeshare.” That’s what it sounded like.
So we switched from MailChimp to sending personalized emails directly from me, and our engagement rate was crazy. That’s when I started realizing that sales tags are universal. People want to make sure if they’re being sold to, it’s not about you; it’s about them.
When we switched that message, it was so impactful because people started realizing, hey, it’s coming directly from the CEO. It’s coming directly from, “Let me get you in my house, let me take care of you, and you’re going to learn a lot of things. It’s not about me, it’s all about you.” That’s when the conversation started changing.
That’s the basis of what we forgot with all this automation. With all this new marketing technology regularly coming out, we tend to say we don’t want to bother people. We hate cold calls. We only want to interact with other humans on our own terms. That’s how it’s always been.
If you give people a way to interact with you on their own terms, but still be reminded of you and it’s still personal, I think that’s the secret sauce.
ROB: I think there’s an interesting challenge in there. What I heard you say is there was a point where you embraced that being personal and being part of the tip of the brand was necessary and important. How do you think about embracing that well, while also both remaining humble and being perceived as such by the people around you? I think it’s important to not feel like it’s the “me” show, right?
ROB: But it’s also hard to dodge. People want to hear from you. They want you to speak, and it’s darn helpful for you to speak in front of an audience, right?
KENNY: I didn’t speak in front of an audience ’til about Event 4 in our conferences. That was the first event I’ve ever hosted. In the beginning of the process, people didn’t even know our agency held those events, believe it or not. The first few, they were like, “Oh, I thought they hired you to do it.” I was like, “No, we did this.” [laughs]
There’s definitely a balance. I would say we’re still trying to figure out the balance. Most of the people that we work with now understand that we do produce the conference series. But it wasn’t until later.
You just have to be patient. It’s a long game, man. It’s a long game, but it’s a very rewarding one. I wrapped up my speech by saying at the end of the day, you want to be the company that people miss when they’re gone. That’s the way you do it.
If you’re in for the long game and actually caring about someone’s long-term success, if you ever disappear, people will miss you and they’ll fight to get you back. That’s what we’re trying to be.
ROB: Awesome. Kenny, when people want to reach you and ThreeSixtyEight, how should they find you?
ROB: Fantastic. Kenny, thanks for coming on the podcast and sharing. It’s been super helpful, and now I’m thinking about events.
KENNY: Thank you, Rob. “Geaux Tigers!”
ROB: [laughs] There you go. Bye.
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