Josh Goldblum, Founder and CEO, Blue Cadet (Philadelphia, PA and New York City, NY)
Although much of the firm’s work is for museums, it has recently expanded to provide these immersive services for executive briefing centers and such brands as Nike and Google. Josh says it’s important that the studio creates a “content experience that’s not just decorative, but actually tells a story that feels true to the space.”
In working with clients, Josh finds it helpful to carve out a little paid research at the beginning of a project to prepare an ideation spread where the studio can research client needs and present ideas. At the end of this initial period, the client can either work with Blue Cadet or take the ideas Blue Cadet developed and work with another studio. Josh says, “It’s better to carve off a little space to redirect (the project) than to get into that death march of implementing something that’s just not going to be that great.” That time upfront also helps Blue Cadet discover what it is that a client really wants, whether they can provide what the client wants, whether they want to do the project, and whether the parties can develop a solid working relationship.
Josh participated in a panel session discussion of Trends and Challenges for Experiential Culture at the 2022 South by Southwest Interactive Festival. He says he is most active on LinkedIn, where he shares a lot of concept prototype material.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined live today at South by Southwest Interactive Festival by Josh Goldblum, Founder and CEO at Blue Cadet based in Philadelphia and New York. Welcome to the podcast, Josh.
JOSH: Thanks for having me.
ROB: Excellent to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Blue Cadet and what is your superpower? What is your calling card? What do people come to you for?
JOSH: Blue Cadet is an experience design studio. Most of us are based in Philadelphia. There’s about 30 in Philadelphia, another 15 up in New York, and then actually, when I say “us” based in Philadelphia, we just moved out to LA. So my family moved to LA. We’re the only ones out there.
We’re mostly known for experience design in the cultural space, and also really a lot of technology in physical space. Twenty-odd years ago, I was inhouse at Smithsonian doing digital product work, but also integrated technology into physical environments. So we’ve been in that experience design space, figuring out how you marry technology into public spaces, how you take cultural content and make it interesting. That’s what we’ve been doing, and we do it across physical space; we also do it across digital products.
ROB: Got it. It rings of museums or themed places, but I can also imagine a building that wants to have something and not just be a hollow shell. What does a typical space look like for you?
JOSH: We do a lot of work in the museum space, like the traditional museum space. All the big museums are generally our clients. We’ve worked with a lot of them. Everything from like science centers to history museums to art museums. We did a Van Gogh projected experience with the Art Institute of Chicago way before they were doing all these projections.
ROB: All the immersive experiences.
JOSH: Yeah, we’ve been doing that for a long time. But then recently we’ve been moving more into brand work. We’ve been doing some work with Nike, which has been really exciting. We’ve done work with Google. trying to take a lot of that museum flair, which is an obsession with content and making sure that what we’re saying is true, and trying to figure out what’s interesting about a brand and giving it that treatment where you’re elevating the personalities, elevating the science. You’re making something that’s smart but also engaging.
ROB: Where are they doing those things?
JOSH: These are executive briefing centers, sometimes. These are museums or brands. Some of these are online. And then we started doing a little bit of work for real estate companies, just trying to – it’s not for me. [laughs] Just to activate some of their public spaces as well. Again, trying to bring in content experience that’s not just decorative, but actually tells a story that feels true to the space.
ROB: When I think about this space, I start off thinking about the sleepy old kiosk that became a touchscreen and the keyboard is broken. Did it start there and proceed from there?
JOSH: Yeah, I would say when we started out – Blue Cadet was my freelance handle. I was at the Smithsonian; I did a pretty cool project there that got a lot of attention. The Smithsonian being what it is, they only had big projects every few years. I was getting kind of bored, so I left and I started going around museum to museum. I was essentially picking up jobs doing Flash design and development. When we first started out, it was a lot of those single touchscreens and those things that were kind of cheap. No one was going to lose their job if we really screwed up.
But we overdelivered. We did really great stuff, and we grew on the backs of those reputations and then started doing touch tables and touch walls and projection mapping. These days, we still do a lot of large touch surfaces and things like that, but a lot more thinking about the technologies that are more interesting or relevant. Now we’re doing a lot more with AR, things that are haptics, camera vision. Also just trying to figure out how to make an environment more engaging and magical.
ROB: Some of the advantage, even, of the march of technology is that probably some of those early Flash things you were doing were still rather expensive and still took a big commitment. I think some of this has allowed the technology to come down into simpler spaces. My team’s done really simple electron-based kiosks with a little bit of sound, a little bit of animation, and it makes it more available to more places.
ROB: How often does as client come to you with an idea of what they want? How often do they come to you with a topic – “Here’s this topic, here’s what we want to show people; surprise us”? Or is it more “We have an idea and a direction”? Do you know how much space you’re dealing with? It seems like there’s a lot of variables in there.
JOSH: A lot of times if we’re dealing with a museum client, they might have a big exhibit or something like that. Or even a brand, they have their stories, they know what they want to convey, they have the space. But then they come to us and they’re like, “How do we tell the story? How do we do this?” A lot of times even if they come in with very, very fully baked ideas, we’ll roll it way back into strategy and be like, let’s create a little bit of space to figure out what you can do with contemporary technology, with contemporary tools. What can you do to make sure that content or experience really shines in a way that’s not been done in the same way with different content six months before?
ROB: It sounds like it’s really a consultative opportunity, right? To show them – maybe they start somewhere, but sometimes they don’t know what they don’t know, in a very good way. You have a broader span of the industry. That’s why they come to you. You bring some extra ideas to the plate.
JOSH: Yeah. And usually what we do – we’ve been doing these things called ideation spreads. Sometimes someone will come to us with a pretty big budget and we’ll be like “Hey, instead of having to sign the SOW for this real big thing, give us 10% of it and give us three weeks, and let us do a bunch of sprints where we reconceptualize it and see if we land in a better place.”
Sometimes it’s better, particularly if you get a brief that you’re like, “This is not going to end well. This is not something we want to be working on for the next six months.” It’s better to carve off a little space to redirect it than to get into that death march of implementing something that’s just not going to be that great.
ROB: Right. Do you ever engage in that competitive sales process where you’re competing over the big pie and you take the little pie? Does that happen?
JOSH: Absolutely. I would say particularly as we were earning our market position and earning our reputation, we weren’t always the safe choice. We were always known for doing the creative thing and for doing something cool and new, but there were a lot of people who had done it a million times. And it was riskier for them to work with us. So that was a great way. We’d come in and do these ideation spreads and say, “Look, you don’t have to trust us with this giant thing. Bring us in here and let’s see if we can set the vision. You’re not even obligated to work with us after that.”
ROB: Right, “You own the work, go ahead and take it.” I think every creative firm benefits when they find ways essentially to get paid for discovery instead of trying to do all this guesswork upfront. But there’s always the tension between “How much are we spending on this?” versus “How likely are we to get the work?” Nobody wants to be in that tension. So, the 10% strategy there makes a lot of sense.
JOSH: Also, I’d much rather do that than do spec on RFPs. You don’t know anything about the client and really what they want. You don’t really know what the problem set is. So if you’re doing spec on an RFP, you’re really just shooting in the dark. Whereas if you carve out a little bit of space where you can actually collaborate with a client, you usually come up with better creative; you’re actually solving the problem. But then also, you get to build that relationship and the rapport, and that’s usually what carries you forward. Or you sit there and you’re like, “Okay, there’s not great relationship or rapport here.”
ROB: You can dodge a bullet.
JOSH: Yeah, you can be like, “Okay, you really did want that thing. God love ya, go on with it.”
ROB: We talked a little bit about the origin story, about you going around to museums. When did you realize it was a thing and you said, “You know what, this is my job now”? What was the inflection point?
JOSH: For a while, Blue Cadet was just my freelance handle. I was living in D.C. because I was still at the Smithsonian and I was picking up odd jobs. It was fun. I enjoyed it. The projects I’d get weren’t huge budgets, but I was actually making way more money than I was at the Smithsonian.
But I finally got a project – a couple friends and I got this grant to do an interactive documentary, like a Flash-based documentary on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This was something where we came up with the idea, we went to a foundation, and we were like “Hey, can you pay us some money to put this thing together?” The timeline was such, the budget was such that I kind of had to hire a team. We had videographers, we had professional sound people. We were basically following this high school class – it was the only high school class to reopen after Hurricane Katrina. We were down there basically weeks after the hurricane. It was decimated.
But when I was on that project – it was called Yearbook 2006 – I was like, oh man, if I bring in other people, it works way better. I was still doing the stuff that was too expensive to outsource, but I outsourced some other things and it ended up being really successful. It became really popular. I was like, okay, I want to start a studio. So that was the first point where I wanted to do a studio.
Then that same team, we got another project the year after that for the Pulitzer Center and we ended up winning a News and Documentary Emmy, which was a pretty big deal at the time. We beat Wolf Blitzer or something. That put us on the map, and that snowballed to where we started getting a lot of work, and I was able to start building the team from there.
ROB: It seems like something in that documentary space – of all the things you can fractionalize and take some people, do a project, get done with it, it seems like something in that video space, people are kind of used to it. That’s the drill; that’s what you do. You film something, then you move on to the next thing.
JOSH: Yeah. Basically what happened was I was living in D.C. but I was from Philadelphia; I was turning 30. I was like, okay, I’m getting to an age where maybe I’m ready to settle down a little bit. I didn’t really want to settle down in D.C. So I moved up to Philly and I made my first hire. It was someone straight out of college. She actually still works for me, 15 years later.
JOSH: But that was the thing. We were hiring junior people and training them up, and then we grew very linearly, 20% year over year. There were weird inflection points along the way, but yeah, that’s how we got to where we are now.
ROB: What’s a weird inflection point?
JOSH: As you’re growing a studio, there are always these different points where the wheels get real shaky and the systems that were working fine in this phase don’t really work as well in the next phase. There’s a point where you have to get really professional about bill pay, about HR, benefits. You just have to start layering in a lot of systems at various points. And those are the points where you start getting more professional and you start having to have an org chart. You can’t just have a bunch of super creative people scrambling around all over the place.
ROB: How have you digested that change? Is it something that comes well to you? Is there somebody, or many people, maybe a role that’s been integral to making the jumps?
JOSH: Yeah, my partner Troy. We both worked as new media specialists at the Smithsonian. He was like my sixth hire or something like that at Blue Cadet. He was living in Denver quite happily, and I sort of dragged him across country to move to Philadelphia and start things. But I love Troy. I’m one of these people who can talk a really good game and I can set a vision or get really excited about the idea and what this thing can be. Troy’s the kind of guy who can sit down and actually make it happen. He can actually do it. So, he’s invaluable.
Over the years, we’ve been very selective. I spend a lot of time recruiting the people that I want into the team. Very few people necessarily applied to Blue Cadet, particularly at the leadership level. I always sought out people that I thought would really fit into the studio and scale out our capabilities.
ROB: That’s a great opportunity, because those strategic roles are also the ones where you could actually justify bringing a recruiter to, which you can’t always do in the services world. But to find those people and recruit them in . . . .
JOSH: I never used a recruiter. Where you find the best people is just like here at SXSW, you’re meeting people. Or you meet clients. One of the people I recruited to Blue Cadet, who actually left to take over digital at the Obama Library, was client side, and she left midway through the project and everyone was like, “Oh my God, this place is going to fall apart without her. She is so instrumental to the studio.” This was a studio I was working with, and I was like, “That sucks; the project’s going to go sideways.” But then I was like, “I’m going to poach her at some point. I’m going to get her on my team.” And she was fantastic. So, I’m always looking for people that I’m like, “Wow, that person’s way smarter than me or better that me at these things.”
ROB: That’s excellent, especially when you know the capabilities you don’t quite need yet, or you don’t need another person in that capability yet, and you can keep your head on the swivel, keep the mental library going of who’s next. It’s a fun journey to have that wish list and then fulfill on it.
ROB: So, you’re here and you have a session coming up. It is “Trends and Challenges for Experiential Culture.” What are you looking for people to get out of that?
JOSH: Obviously, I’ve been speaking about experience design for a very, very long time. I was talking about how things were getting completely disrupted with physical space pre-pandemic. I was talking about Meow Wolf and Museum of Ice Cream and the changing face of retail and also some of the things that were happening with museums, and this was like 2018-2019. I was like, man, stuff’s really going to change. I saw the trends, I saw this stuff happening.
And then obviously the pandemic has accelerated everything. Who knows where the chips are going to fall, but one of the things we’re seeing is a lot of people wanting to get back into physical space. Places like SXSW are now filling up again. People want to be around each other. But what are the spaces that bring out the best in us? How could those spaces operate to create better connections between people? That’s the sort of thing we’re really interested in.
And then also, how do you discard the old stuff that doesn’t work anymore? Honestly, I love museums but I also kind of hate them. Also, I know for my kids, they’re not dying to go to the old-fashioned museum and read a bunch of wall labels. They’re really interested in culture because they’re my children, our children, but they want to consume it differently. And I want to make sure that they’re consuming culture in a way that feels good to them, that’s enjoyable and interesting to them.
ROB: What do you think they’re going to want? Where is it headed?
JOSH: It’s so funny; my kids like Roblox, they like all those things. I’ve taken them to a million museums. I’ve taken my son to Epcot and Disney and all the different – sometimes the things they like are the cheesy, colorful, fun Museum of Ice Cream rip-offs. But also, they would eat candy all day if I let them do that, too. So, it’s figuring out, okay, what are the things that have a personality, that are fun, that are interesting, that are enjoyable, but also are not just mind-numbing or consumptive?
ROB: Right. Even some of the newish stuff – I’m sure you’ll see a lot of it around here at SXSW; there’s different activations. There’s some integration of different assets, even into the little doodles activation over here that’s NFTs plus an actual physical space. How do you think about the difference between using a technology for the sake of the technology and using it because it’s actually right for the environment?
JOSH: I actually really like the doodles space. I thought they did a really nice job. I think part of it is a lot of times I talk to these museums and I’m like, “You should be looking more to that marketing. You should be taking a lot more inspiration from them,” because they move really fast, they put these things together really quick, they’re not super, super precious, they don’t expect it to be up in 5 years, let alone 10 years, let alone 2 weeks, and they’re able to take more risks. Because it’s sort of a one-and-done, they don’t have to make sure that it feels the same 10 years from now.
Obviously, that marketing is a very different business model than a museum, but I think there are things that can be borrowed. And personally, I think even that doodles exhibit – there were a lot of nods to themed entertainment. There was a lot of stenography, there was a lot of sculptural pieces. There were some really nice light applications of technology. I thought it was really successful. I would like to see museums looking more like that.
ROB: Got it. I think there’s times when we’ve probably all seen AR for AR’s sake, VR for VR’s sake. How do you filter “This is a good place for VR, this is not”? Or “It could be done this way but not that one”?
JOSH: I used to take a much harder line on this in the past. Honestly, some of these things, you look at some of these AR experiences and you’re like, what’s the point? It’s not doing anything except demonstrating the technology. It’s like, okay, if you’ve never seen AR, awesome. That’s really awesome. But if you have seen AR, you don’t care. Same with some of these projection experiences. It’s like, if you’re never been in a giant room filled with Christie projectors, it’s really exciting to be at the Van Gogh and see all this stuff. But then you go back and it’s the same thing, but with Klimt or Picasso or Monet; it’s like, “I’ve seen it.”
So, I think part of it is I’m actually okay with technology for technology’s sake where it serves a spectacle, where you’ve never seen it before. It makes people excited and engaged. I think where it gets old is where it’s already been done before. You’re not even doing that. You’re just being lazy.
The thing I always look at, too, is either you’ve got to really, really be serving that content in a way that’s compelling and really getting people into it – and sometimes that is spectacle. Spectacle gets people excited. It gets them interested. But if you fail at the spectacle and then you don’t provide the content, it’s just a wasted experience.
ROB: It seems like you’re very adjacent to not only event marketing, but also perhaps even to entertainment, theme park, that kind of thing. How do you decide where you go and where you don’t go in those markets, and where you compete and where you choose to stay in your lane?
JOSH: It’s funny; I used to be very selective about the types of clients I would take on. I was like, “I’m not working with brands. I’m working with museums and nonprofits and higher ed. That’s my tribe.” The thing I realized is sometimes your tribe is not aligned to a sector. It’s really just a way of being. There are people at Nike that have way, way more in common with me and how I see technology, how I see content, how I see culture than people at some of these museums. Some of the people in these museums are very, very retrograde, and they’re like, “No, we need a clean white room with a painting and 7,000 words of text. Bring your seven-year-old in here and they’re going to read my dissertation.”
I have less in common with them than somebody who’s at a brand, whether it’s a technology brand or materials brand or someone selling shoes, that wants to tell this story in an interesting way or find something interesting to elevate out of it.
ROB: The brands change, too. That’s part of it. Once you’re in the game for a while, the brands change. The legend of what Nike is has shifted several times at different inflection points. Shoe Dogs, one moment in time. I interned once upon a time at Chick-fil-A’s headquarters. Chick-fil-A’s museum was a little room with a trophy case and a fake vault, and they’ve expanded what that experience is. So, I think the brands change too, and who they are and what they need might be different from the thing you used to react to.
JOSH: Yeah, 100%. Often it’s just who’s there and who’s championing the brand, who wants to tell that story, and how they want to tell it. The thing is, there’s so many projects at Nike that Blue Cadet should have no part in, but the projects we are working with them are very Blue Cadet-like projects. There’s a lot of interesting content, stories. We did one for the LeBron James Innovation Center. It’s all about how they use data to inform how they work with athletes, and that’s really cool. That’s really exciting and something that my team is very, very well-positioned to execute on.
ROB: Your session also ties into trends a lot. What’s next? What’s something you think you’re going to end up doing soon at Blue Cadet that you haven’t done before?
JOSH: I’ve actually been spending a lot of time looking at Web3 and NFTs and things like that. I think beyond the hype, there’s something really interesting stuff there. I think there’s something very interesting about digital ownership. I think there’s something very interesting about bringing things from the physical world in the digital world, bringing things from the digital world into the physical world. I think NFTs help with that. I think there’s some really exciting things happening there.
Personally, I think it’s a really exciting time to be in experience design because frankly, COVID screwed everything up. Everyone’s rethinking things. Like, “Do I shake someone’s hand? Do I give them a hug? Do I wear a mask here, do I not wear a mask here?” All the social norms, the way we behaved in physical spaces, have changed. So, now’s a really interesting time to direct some innovation and say, okay, now that we’re rethinking this, let’s put some design thinking to it and figure out how to make these spaces better.
ROB: Right. Some people shut everything down for two years, some people built nothing for two years, some people rebuilt everything during those two years. Some stuff was pulled forward, some stuff is waiting in the wings. It’s very lumpy.
JOSH: Yeah, absolutely. I think what’ll be really interesting is we don’t really know. We’ve all been in this one state and now we’re entering into another, hopefully, and we’re not quite sure how the chips will fall. We don’t know what the new behaviors are going to be. It’d be really interesting to see, as you revisit the conference that you went to for 10 years or the restaurant you used to go to every week, as you start going back into those things, does it feel the same? Does it still work the same way? Does it still affect you the same way? I don’t know. Does it feel great to go back to a movie theater? Maybe, maybe not.
ROB: I haven’t tried yet.
JOSH: Honestly, I was one of those people like “Ah screw it, I don’t need it.” Then I took my kids to see the new Spider-Man and I was like, wait a second. This is actually really nice. It was actually quite enjoyable.
ROB: It was probably fairly uncrowded too, which helps. [laughs]
JOSH: It was pretty uncrowded, yeah. [laughs]
ROB: For me, same thing. We have kids, so me not going to the movies is more about me having kids and not going to the movies as much as I did when we were just a couple with time on our hands and it’s like “It’s Tuesday, what do we do? Let’s go see a movie and get home at 11:00. Fine.” Different seasons.
ROB: Are there any sort of behaviors that were adopted experientially during COVID that you think are going to stick? There’s interesting things – I think about some escape rooms did versions of escape rooms where they would do it for you over Zoom. And they’re still doing it I guess, but I don’t know. Are there weird things that people did that you think might stick around?
JOSH: I mean, I think remote work is not going anywhere.
ROB: You’re betting on it.
JOSH: Yeah, I’m living in California and my studio is entirely on the East Coast. We started hiring people out of market, which we never did before. We have people who moved into the Hudson River Valley or out in the Poconos, moving away from the city, away from our offices. And it hasn’t been affecting the work. So, I think that’s going to be really interesting.
I think also how we’re thinking about the studios themselves – we have this beautiful, beautiful office in Philadelphia and New York with lots of desks, but we’re like, do we all need these desks if we’re not going to be there every day? Can we optimize this for prototyping spaces? We build a lot of things in physical space, lots of hardware in the office. We need that. That’s part of our process. But it’s like, do we need all these desks?
ROB: Do you find you’re still pulling people together to actually get hands on with the experience? You can do a lot of the design in your own place, but there’s a point where it still has to get physical and maybe that’s a good time to convene the team anyhow to build rapport?
JOSH: Yeah, absolutely. And honestly, I love it. It’s great to bring people together in physical space. But when there’s a reason. Let’s bring them in physical space to prototype, but we don’t have to bring them into shared space just for another meeting. That’s not worth it. [laughs] That stuff can go to Zoom.
ROB: Josh, all very interesting stuff. When people want to connect with you and with Blue Cadet, where should they go to find you?
JOSH: I’m probably most active on LinkedIn. Just look me up on LinkedIn. I actually spend a lot of time sharing a lot of prototypes.
ROB: I was going to say, you probably share some cool stuff.
JOSH: I share some really cool stuff. I at one point realized that the Blue Cadet internal Slack where we’re just sharing prototypes and process stuff was way more interesting than anything I was sharing on social media, so I was like, I’m just going to share that stuff. The Blue Cadet Slack is way more interesting than any social feed I follow. So, I share the stuff I’m allowed to share off that.
ROB: That turns out to be great marketing on LinkedIn, too. Some stuff people won’t connect with, some stuff probably goes to the moon, and then people are like, “Who did that?” “Blue Cadet did that.” “Hey, I need that.” I don’t know if it’s scalable, but it also doesn’t have to. I don’t know how many days a week you’re LinkedIn posting, but it’s one or two or three days a week.
JOSH: Yeah. The LinkedIn posts I’m putting up are early prototypes. They’re super messy. It’s a lot of cardboard and projection and things taped together. But usually then there’s some really interesting technology in there, and I feel like it’s an easier way to see how this actually gets made.
ROB: Excellent. Josh, thank you so much for meeting up, for coming on the podcast.
ROB: Wish you the best on your talk in a couple of days as well.
JOSH: Hope you make it out there. It’d be great.
ROB: Thanks so much.
JOSH: Thanks for having me.
ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email email@example.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.