It was 2003 in Washington, D.C. and Frank Andrews was setting up a card table. He would have liked to pour himself a cup of coffee, but there was none. His brand new office space was rather unequipped. And his moments of quiet brainstorming were frequently disturbed by the loud fire station that occupied the building below. And yet, what he lacked in supplies and silence, he made up for in vision and gumption as he laid the foundation of August Jackson.
Fast-forward fifteen years later to 2018, and AJ has grown to a community of 100+ thinkers, dreamers, makers and doers working across Maryland, New York, Chicago and beyond. Fully caffeinated and full service, we have evolved into a successful brand engagement and live events agency whose entrepreneurial spirit remains at the heart of who we are.
As we celebrate our 15thanniversary, we marvel at the transformation the world has made alongside our own metamorphosis. Neither Facebook nor Twitter existed. The Blackberry was newly released while the now ubiquitous iPhone was still four years away from launch. The control shift to brand and audience as a two-way engagement had really just begun, and the growth of August Jackson has accelerated alongside this increasingly rapid evolution in the marketing mix.
In celebration of our anniversary, we’re sharing 15 lessons we’ve learned along our journey to date—lessons of experience, teamwork, innovation and inspiration.
1) The key to long-term success means beginning with a long-term vision.
“While we’ve grown and changed and reinvented, I don’t think we’ve ever diverged from Frank’s original vision to be a magnet for talent, to do the highest quality work possible and to strive to be the very best,” said Regina Farrington, EVP, Corporate Market Development at AJ. Regina is the most tenured employee, having been Frank’s first official hire in 2004. What’s kept her around for so long? “The work is rewarding and makes a difference for our clients. Plus, the people here — the people are outstanding human beings.”
2) Genuine team relationships make for great client relationships.
“On a recent project, a client said that in working with us, even in the developmental stage, they were impressed by our chemistry with each other,” said Dan Borre, our VP, Executive Producer. “It’s nice to see that clients want to work with us because of who we are and how our team works so well together. We’re a group that truly likes each other and respects everybody’s role, and everyone’s just willing to lend a hand and make everything the best it can be. And, of course, have fun along the way.”
3) Culture is the life force behind inspiration and motivation.
Corporate culture—those values that go beyond a company’s business goals or mission—are what employees are looking for as they seek out the place they want to build a career. According to a Deloitte study, 94 percent of executives and 88 percent of employees believe a “distinct workplace culture” is a key driver in business success. Thus, AJ focuses on helping our clients drive campaigns and initiatives to achieve a meaningful workplace experience.
“For our clients, AJ is an expert in helping them build their culture, because it’s something we’ve always been about. Helping them align their sales channel, their executives, their employees, and inspire them to become brand advocates and truly identify with the company they work for,” said Bill Bunkers, AJ’s EVP, People & Culture.
And as Bill explains, what we do for our clients, we also do for ourselves. Diane Simon recently joined the AJ team as the VP of Client Engagement. When asked why she ultimately decided to come on board, she said, “Culture all the way. A job is a job, but you want to make a difference and you want to be in alignment and I felt that the culture was very unique at AJ. The people are truly kind and want to make a difference and they are truly collaborative by nature. And the leadership has set the tone. At AJ, people really are what they say they are.”
4) Corporate social responsibility is not a trend, but a new standard.
“I think, more and more, people are looking for opportunities to make a difference in lasting ways,” explains Lisa Stevens, SVP, Executive Producer at August Jackson. “It seems over the last generation, people want their jobs to align with their belief system. So when your company plays a role in contributing to the community where its people live and work, it feels like you’re part of something bigger than just a job.” August Jackson has prioritized moments of philanthropy and community engagement, where employees can get involved with causes that are important to them.
Companies today are focused on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) more than ever. This is largely being driven by Millennials, who are pushing for brands to take direct action to care for the environment and the people living in it. A study sited from The Conversation states that “over 90 percent of business students said they’d be willing to sacrifice some part of their future salary to work for a responsible employer.”
5) Live events and experiential marketing are more important to brands than ever.
Digital clutter, consumer protection and social advocacy — all reasons why experiential marketing and live events have become a leading tactic for brand engagement. 75 percent of companies with event budgets between $50 to $100 million say they expect an ROI of more than 5:1 for live event and experiential programs (according to research by EMI & Mosaic).
“Live events carry more weight I think in an era where technology is so prevalent in our lives because the high touch element is not as frequent. So it’s helping our clients understand the significance of them. In a live setting, you can do things in creating an emotional attachment between your audience and your company mission that you can’t do through an email,” said Bill.
6) Storytelling is the most powerful driver of brand engagement.
“Storytelling is absolutely the most essential thing [to any engagement],” said Mark Terranova, AJ’s SVP, Client Engagement. “After all, an event is a story in and of itself. So when we talk about the narrative arc of the campaign or event, we mean telling people a story from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave. And as an audience member at an event, if I see a brand or hear a story as part of a collective moment, that hits me more powerfully when that experience is shared.”
7) Brand engagement is not a tactic—it’s part of brand identity.
“As the distance between brand and brand engagement gets narrower, I believe our clients will be thinking about engagement much sooner, as they’re developing the brand itself,” said Josh Johns, EVP of Strategy at AJ. “Brand engagement will be factored into the DNA and the expression of the brand itself. AJ understands how to create and develop brands that work across multiple dimensions. And so as we move forward, I would like to see us not only help our clients develop engagement strategies, but work together to think through how the brand can be optimized for experience and engagement from the very beginning.”
8) Designers are storytellers, first and foremost.
“If you were to ask a designer on our team what design is, they’re not going to tell you that it’s the creation of a logo. They’re not going to tell you that it’s the creation of a style guide,” said Ken Feurer, August Jackson’s SVP, Executive Design Director. “They’re going to tell you that it’s the creation of a meaningful journey. They’re going to tell you that it’s thinking about how to create a memorable experience and create a connection that goes beyond that printed page. Ultimately, we as designers must think in terms of the overarching storytelling, the overarching journey.”
9) In an age of “posting,” we need to focus on listening.
In the era of the social media takeover, email overload, and constant communication, we need to remember that it’s a two-way street. “AJ listens to understand, not to respond,” adhered Brett Mannes, August Jackson’s VP, Senior Creative Director. “We firmly believe in turning monologue into dialogue, and dialogue is a face-to-face thing. Social media posting is a monologue. It’s not two people listening to one another. We strive to make sure that face-to-face communication, face-to-face dialogue, talking rather than posting, is still the most valued thing in our business.”
10) The latest technology is no good if it’s not the right technology.
“As technology changes, it’s not about just using the newest, shiniest thing. It’s about using the right thing,” said Travis Maynard, VP, Managing Design Director. “Our creative discipline is constantly bringing me new technologies and tactics I didn’t even know about. But the differentiator is that we are searching for what works, what truly will deliver the message in the most effective way possible.”
11) Technology will never take over – it’s a people business.
It seems like, more and more, we tend to look down at our screens instead of looking up, face-to-face, at each other. But one thing is certain… “The fact remains that tech and the ubiquity of the internet are still just tools, and can only take us so far. There will never be any substitute for listening to our clients, developing solutions that meet their objectives and advance their business, and forming relationships with them that last over time,” said Lisa.
And that mantra is carried over into how we frame the importance of live events. “The more time people spend on their smartphones, the more I think people still need to have really human experiences with each other. I think that’s part of what we help to design. We create understanding and empathy and interest and a sense of community,” said Robyn Kress, President of Higher Education at AJ.
12) Trust drives productivity.
At August Jackson, leadership strives to “hire adults.” What do we mean? We mean “hiring people who are responsible and take ownership and are self-motivated,” said Will Benning, August Jackson’s SVP, Director of Production. “I can’t remember a time where I was ever micromanaged and I’ve just been given so much space and opportunity. I’ve always felt like AJ has confidence in me and they trust me to make the right decision. That helps me to operate quicker, react faster when something comes up with a client and I’m empowered to fix it. I think the clients see that and the rest of the team feels it. That trust in your people shows.”
13) Tactics and touchpoints must serve a higher mission.
“[We’re different] from many other agencies who tend to focus on their mode of communication, the touchpoints, an event,” said Laura Shuler, August Jackson’s CEO. “They tend to measure their value in terms of exposure or reach or frequency. We focus on touchpoints too, but our events and our experiences and our campaigns are in service of a higher mission, which is really to inspire communities of people to think and act in ways that further the organization’s purpose.”
14) Purpose is nothing without a way to put it into practice.
“In today’s world, the power within each individual is more important than ever to the success of the whole,” said Shari Glickman, SVP, Brand Strategy. “That’s why at AJ, we focus so intently on helping brands put purpose into practice. We create experiences and engagements that foster communities of purpose… communities of action. Whether in corporations, higher education institutions or nonprofit organizations—we help individuals realize their value in and ability to contribute to a community to achieve its strategic objectives, both in business and in society.“
15) This is just the beginning for August Jackson.
“No matter what we do, our ambition to be among the best at our craft will be our driving force,” said Frank Andrews, the man who started it all as our founder and chairman. “When you set that standard, it informs every investment and decision you make around people, culture, brand and infrastructure. If we stick to that mantra, we have a good shot at a very bright future. And what an amazing and wonderful journey it’s been so far.”