There’s a shiny Studebaker pickup sitting in Austin Johnston’s office. When the planner couldn’t find the right vehicle to rent for Keurig’s float for the 2014 Hollywood Christmas Parade, he bought the pickup on eBay and hired a trucking company to bring it from Staten Island, New York, to Los Angeles in four days. With the help of his team, including an expert mechanic, Johnston returned the 1949 model to all its gleaming, persimmon glory before its big parade debut. “I take it to lunch every once in a while to make sure it runs,” Johnston says.
The restoration is one of many bold moves taken by the 28-year-old founder and executive director of AKJohnston Group to boost his events to the next level. Starting out in sales at a production group, he entered the events business seven years ago—in the middle of the Great Recession, and barely of legal drinking age. After specializing in lighting, Johnston wanted to branch out to focus on brands. In 2008, he launched AKJohnston Group, an Orange, California-based company he started with $5,000 and three storage units that have since grown by 300 percent. The young entrepreneur is a pioneer in his field, always brainstorming unusual, eye-catching ways to connect audiences to brands. “I love to do fun, crazy stuff,” he says. As Collaborate’s Kelsey Ogletree discovered in an interview days after Johnston hosted a wildly successful post-Grammy party for coffee brand Keurig, his passion for the industry is evident.
You describe your business as a turnkey experiential marketing and production company. What does that mean?
The best way to think about us is like a trade show booth. A booth needs flooring, signage, drapery, projectors, displays, power, rigging, collateral, etc. We have all of that here, as well as staff to run it. We even have all our own trucks and vans.
What’s the advantage to clients?
We’re a 20-vendor vendor. In the AV world, there’s a huge disconnect between the vendors, from the AV guy to a lighting person to a sound technician. We have the upper hand because we’re able to walk into an event with one packed line with a cohesive plan, especially on load-in/load-out, that do-or-die time when all those crews overlap.
Tell us about a recent conference you organized.
One very large international company came to us and said they don’t have the money to do what we do. I said, “I think we can give you better engineers, a better plan and better equipment.” Because I have all this equipment, we can do everything custom, starting with a custom stage skirt and podium. When you’re in the audience, you walk in and notice a difference. We did that for the client for 10 percent less than in-house AV, and we were able to get more compelling digital imagery on the screen.
How do you spice up a typical slideshow presentation?
At educational conferences, there’s always the same old death by PowerPoint. When you’re able to inject a little bit more into that, people like it. For example, one of my clients asked what we could do to create more energy between each session. My team pulled video clips to help the audience go from micro to macro (think big-idea videos to head off each session, like TED talks). Any way you can, draw parallels with more overarching themes to make people care. For example, take a banking conference and relate it to more global things. Make it beyond the conference room, beyond the company.
What about general sessions?
One thing I do at all my conferences is put a giant screen upstage with a countdown session. As soon as you run late, especially before a lunch session, people start looking at their watches. Even if you have to tell the CEO to get offstage, you’re saving him from himself. Talk to your AV provider and get a countdown clock in there. It’s cheap to do, and people are excited to start and end on time.
What’s a low-cost way to jazz up AV during a session?
Get a Lucite podium and put your company name on it. People go crazy over branded podiums, and they’re cheap to do. Think about it: Whenever someone recaps an event, most of the photos are taken at the podium. Swap out that beat-up wooden one for something memorable. It’s the most valuable piece of equipment up there.