We’re Not In Kansas Anymore

What to do when the scenery changes.

When Dorothy stepped out from her black-and-white Kansas farmhouse into the Technicolor world of Oz, she knew right away she was a long way from home. I know how she feels. Sometimes it seems that the world we called “normal” was left behind ages ago. For those of us in industries that rely on using conferences, trade shows, and expositions to conduct our business, it’s as if the coronavirus was our tornado. Except the truth is, we haven’t been in Kansas for a while. Not really.

Within the last decade, we’ve become adept at using technology to amplify the live experience. We learned to stream video of our live events, incorporate social media, and layer in new digital solutions, such as second screen technology, to be more interactive. We’ve gotten more strategic about applying data analysis, AR, and VR to create more personalized experiences. With these tools in place, there was nothing keeping us from developing the perfect live experience platform — designed to leverage the strengths of each medium within a true, “omnicom” approach. It requires a lot of orchestration. It demands a deep understanding of the unique audiences we’re trying to reach. It means committing to the alignment of message content with the medium, format, or technology that most effectively connects with our audiences. It means doing the hard work of designing a platform for live events that optimizes all of the tools at our disposal.

We simply didn’t make it a priority. In a pre-pandemic world, digital solutions were often characterized as “nice-to-haves” or “too expensive for our event.” I’d go so far as to suggest that the option to develop a practical hybrid event platform simply wasn’t pursued because everyone has had their collective noses so close to the grindstone that we didn’t notice the scenery had changed.

What’s new is that these technologies — and the nascent hybrid technologies now in development — are suddenly, urgently, vitally important to the continuation of our business practices. I see that as a good thing. We need to use this time to re-imagine all the possibilities. Back in March, I posted a blog suggesting that we must make our events more accessible and inclusive, as well as safe. And I called for the creation of Renaissance Teams to explore new solutions for the live events medium.

Bruce Mau tells us that new wicked problems require new wicked teams to solve them. In the Renaissance, it was possible for certain polymaths (Leonardo DaVinci, Akbar the Great, Galileo, etc.) to have expertise in all fields of knowledge — art, science, literature, philosophy, and so on. Today, the field of knowledge in any one specialty is so vast and changing so rapidly that it is nearly impossible to keep up. That’s why we need diverse teams of experts to act as a composite “Renaissance Person” who can examine the challenge from every perspective, through every lens, to recommend multiple solutions.

This is what we are seeing with the Go LIVE Together coalition. Teams of people representing diverse disciplines — from logistics to digital experiences to microbial-pathogenic threat analysis — are coming together to solve issues relating to safety, impact awareness, and legislation for our industry. It’s the start of something big.

Those of us who are charged with leading our companies, associations, and industries have an opportunity and an obligation to take this on. It’s why you need to support the Go LIVE Together movement. Unlike Dorothy, we can’t go back to Kansas. We can go someplace better.

Authentic Empathy

Staying true to who you are says it all.

If you follow my blog (thank you) you know that I’ve been thinking a lot about how leadership, in the best of times, demands integrity and authenticity.  And in darker times, we also need to be mindful about meeting people where they are — especially if we know they are feeling threatened, frightened or abandoned.

This has been a challenge for brand marketers who rely largely on mass media channels. One after another, brands with highly-targeted, award-winning campaigns have pivoted their messaging to something more pandemic-appropriate. It explains why we are seeing so many look-alike ads on TV these days — with meditative piano music, stirring images, and a trusty voice over assuring people that “Brand X is here for you.” The intentions are sound, but it starts to feel generic.

There’s got to be a better way — one that’s brand-authentic while still being empathetic. This timely Progressive Insurance ad gets my vote for best-of-season, because it is 100 percent on-brand and stays true to who they are.

Instead of playing the same sad tune as everyone else, they have a little fun by showing their quirky sales team experiencing the kind of epic Zoom fails that are emblematic of the new normal. With so many of us working from home, helping kids with distance learning, and wishing grandma happy birthday on Skype, it’s totally relatable. It’s funny. It creates empathy. The message is authentic.

We can all learn from this as we plan how to move forward, especially those of us in the live events industry. Regardless of whether we all meet in a conference hall, connect via streaming digital, or interact using a new hybrid platform, we need to approach people with empathy and authenticity. We have to acknowledge that they have experienced many, many changes in the last few months. And we have to be honest about setting expectations for even more change as we learn to interact in ways that are socially responsible and that mitigate contagion. Ultimately, it’s change for the better. But we are growing weary of constant change.

That’s why we need to lean into the one thing that shouldn’t change — who we are and what we stand for. If people trusted you before the pandemic and you have stayed true to your core brand values, they will trust you going forward. So ask yourself how can I, my brand, my company, my business, my association, solve some of the problems my customers are grappling with? How can I make them glad they chose to work with us? What gesture of appreciation can I offer them, beyond mere platitudes? Start with authenticity: say what you mean and act on it. That’s all any of us really want.

Getting Back on the Bike

It’s what we do after we fall that matters.

The other day, attached to an email from an old family friend, was a video — an old home movie shot on a spring day, probably on Super 8, with no audio. It shows a little boy on a big new bike. His mom gives him a shove and he pedals a confident loop around the front yard. But, when he stops, his legs can’t reach the ground, and he falls hard, with the bike on top of him. He looks at his mom, shakes it off, and walks the bike back to try again. The banana seat comes up to his ribs, and he has to use the porch step to climb back on. The next fall isn’t as hard. Soon, he’s riding like an old pro.

I haven’t thought about that bicycle in years, but the video brought it all back. It was a beauty. When I pedaled really hard, the handlebar streamers fluttered out and I imagined I was flying. I don’t really remember falling down, but I do remember worrying that I would. I was afraid I couldn’t learn to ride that gorgeous bike. And I remember my mom assuring me that I could.

This object lesson in falling and getting back up came at a good time for me. It’s been many, many years since I’ve faced something where I actually worried about failing. But this pandemic and the economic fallout — defined largely by what we don’t know — is a confidence shaker. What if we don’t have what it takes? There is so much riding on each decision and each action that it can be paralyzing if we let it.

Here are a few lessons we can all take from a little boy, a big bike, his mom and a spring day. We only fail if we stop trying. We will learn the skills we need and someday we will master the bike because we will grow to fit it. It will take us to places we’ve never been. And that sense of freedom will be magical.

Today, around the world, we face a challenge that is bigger than any of us can face alone. It’s seriously intimidating. We also face an opportunity to explore new things and to liberate ourselves from outdated assumptions and business practices. Many of us in the Live Events industry share an audacious vision that requires us to get back on the bike and keep riding. We will most certainly fall a few times, but we can help each other back up. And we can keep pedaling until our fear becomes joy.

Our industry-wide movement is adding members every day. You can join us at www.golivetogether.com. You can learn about opportunities for action and toolkits you can use to engage your employees, partners, the media, and legislators.

Bring your worst fears and your brightest hopes. We’ve got this.

What have I done for you lately?

The best cure for feeling unappreciated is to show appreciation.

I suppose everyone is entitled to the occasional pity party. Even people in the C-suite. Some days it seems that no one knows how hard we work. No one treats us with the respect we’ve earned. No one gives us what we really want. Are we that hard to please?

Yes. Yes, we are that hard to please. So take a deep breath and try this — show someone else some appreciation. And instead of asking, “what have you done for me lately?” ask, “have I done enough for others?”

These two questions typify distinct personalities at opposite ends of the leadership spectrum.

One has a bloated sense of entitlement that is constantly disappointed because no one else seems to prioritize their needs as highly as they do themselves. Their focus is all inward; they can never get enough attention, praise, pandering, credit, or reward for what they see as their due. They enjoy being the boss, but reject the actual pain that can goes with leadership. At best, they are the lonely person in the corner office. At worst, they are the self-centered country-club poser.

The other type of leader is outwardly focused. They worry that they have not given their people enough of themselves — enough inspiration, enough encouragement, enough instruction, enough recognition. They accept the responsibility of leadership, which often includes some ingratitude. They take the high road. They are the real deal.

I’ve learned from both of these types, and I’ve tried to model my behavior on the second. It’s not all that altruistic. The truth is, doing our best for other people feels pretty good. It’s all part of a true leader’s identity — we help organizations and individuals be their best selves. We will fail sometimes, and we will feel bad about it. We may even feel unappreciated. But not for long. Because there are more people who need our help. Who need our encouragement. Who are relying on us to stay outwardly focused.

Every morning we have a choice. Which is the priority — my needs, or their needs? The irony is, the second choice can fulfill them both.

Change Happens When You Inspire People Who Inspire People…

#4 Scale for Impact

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

If you created a narrative about the 20th century, what detail would be most telling? Productivity made possible by the Industrial Revolution? Medical breakthroughs? Scientific discoveries? 

Bruce Mau suggests that the most significant fact of the last century is a fourfold increase in the global population. In 1900, it was estimated at 1.6 billion; this year, we reached a global population of 7.5 billion and are rapidly heading toward 8 billion, which we are predicted to hit in 2025.

“When you put those kind of numbers on the planet, the potential for impact is really dramatic,” Bruce says. “When we’re changing behavior, and redesigning what we’re doing – and what people do – we’re not just doing it for that example, we’re setting a prototype or a template for behavior all over the planet. If we change how people interact with business ideas in live experience, that will affect hundreds of millions and even billions of people.”

What does that mean to us as professionals in the brand experience industry? What does it mean to us as citizens of the world?

This is a huge topic, but let’s focus on two things:

First, while the expanding population presents challenges in how we feed, shelter and ensure the well-being of so many people, we need to acknowledge that this so-called problem is a result of success. Human beings are living longer, largely as a result of all those innovations and breakthroughs made in the previous century. And as much as our headlines are filled with violence and acts of terrorism, the data show that more people than ever are living in a time of unprecedented peace, especially in the years following WWII. The facts behind population growth tell us we are making headway in the struggle against disease, starvation and war.

Second, the opportunity to effect positive change scales geometrically with population growth. Roughly 69 million people attend exhibitions and conventions each year in the U.S.  UFI has estimated that 260 million attend events globally each year. Consider how this power to connect people scales. Freeman is the world’s largest brand experience company; we serve 300,000 exhibiting clients every year. Last year we worked on more than 14,000 projects around the globe. What we do matters — our efforts have unimaginable repercussions.

In our Freeman Manifesto, we claim the responsibility to advance society and elevate the human experience. This isn’t romantic puffery. When we help inspire professionals at the American Heart Association to share new life-saving methods, we help spread those ideas globally. Lives are saved. When we work with the Institute of Food Technologists, we further their goal to feed 10 billion people in the not-too-distant future. More people eat nutritious food. When we bring together the world’s innovators attending the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, we help expedite the social and economic opportunities promised in 5G connectivity.  More people have access to the things that matter. We are helping scale big ideas for big opportunities.  Even cooler, as we master our ability to apply metrics and digital technology to personalize these encounters, we can scale in both directions — toward the vast masses, and toward specific, individual needs.

We’re all familiar with the story of the bricklayers.  We are in much the same role — we can simply put bricks on a wall, or we can help build the cathedral. Freeman, in fact, is very much a part of building a new world. That’s what makes our work exciting, challenging, and so worthwhile. I believe that each of us has innumerable opportunities every year to inspire the person who will inspire the person who inspires the next breakthrough.

When Larry Brilliant, working with the World Health Organization, was challenged to eradicate smallpox from the face of the earth, he wasn’t overwhelmed by the notion that it had been around before the dawn of civilization. He studied the scale of the problem in India, then helped design a way to distribute the vaccine so that with each outbreak, anywhere in the world, the smallpox could be stopped from spreading by isolating and vaccinating everyone in the area. It worked. And his methods have inspired countless others working in epidemiology and global healthcare.

“When you start to think about the impact that you’re having, and really understand the potential of that,” Bruce says, “it lifts our spirits in a way that really inspires us to look at the challenges that we face — as the opportunities that we have.”

The influence we have at Freeman, as leaders in the far-reaching world of brand experience, is mind boggling. We can squander this opportunity to inspire innovation. Or we can start with our next event, and scale for impact.

Primary Team vs. Secondary Team

Loyalty, leadership, and understanding your role.

If you are in a leadership position, it’s important that you know who is on your Primary Team and who is on your Secondary Team. It may not be what you think. The people who report to you – the ones you lead every day, who rely on you for direction and inspiration – are on your Secondary Team. Your Primary Team is made up of the colleagues with whom you lead your organization, business unit or department – the people who share responsibility for defining the vision and setting the strategies that will drive success. This isn’t a loyalty issue – it’s a leadership issue. It’s not about hierarchy – it’s about how you handle yourself. Here are a couple of analogies.


Ideally, the parents of young children function as joint members of the Primary Team. Even though they play with their children – build tents out of blankets, hold tea parties for stuffed animals, and just get silly sometimes – they understand their interdependent roles. Good parents know that someone must announce bedtime, enforce hygiene rituals and make sure homework is completed. It’s their job. When parents don’t present a unified front, but try to curry favor with their kids by blaming the stricter parent, the consequences are never good.

Likewise, if you are the manager of a baseball team, you need to coach your players to deliver their personal best in a way that benefits the entire team. That’s how championships are won. As the manager, it’s essential that your team respects you and your decisions. If they like you, that’s a bonus.  But the players are always your Secondary Team. The Primary Team is the front office – the General Manager, Owner and board. If, as the team manager, you complain about “those guys” in the front office, you’re undermining confidence in the organization. Your players need to see leadership, not dissension.

That’s how it works in any other enterprise. Most of us in leadership positions have had to work our way up through the ranks; we naturally have empathy for those who report to us. The temptation, however, especially when building a new group, is to try to win the confidence of our team by filling them in on everything that happens at a leadership level – with the Primary team. Even things that should remain private, like disagreements about goals and strategies.

Spreading rancor, or simply playing the “us vs. them” angle, ultimately erodes faith in the vision, introduces doubt about the strategy to win, and undercuts the foundation of trust you need from both teams. This inevitably leads to instability as roles and abilities are questioned. The result is two demoralized teams – Primary and Secondary – and damaged trust all the way around.

If you ever feel tempted to complain to your direct reports in this way, it’s probably a sign that you need to take the discussion to your Primary team and resolve some issues. Get clarity around the desired outcomes – the things that really matter. Your Secondary Team doesn’t need the blow-by-blow. They just need to know where you want to go, the wins the team needs to make along the way, and what it will look like when they arrive there, together. That’s leadership.