A Conversation with Jill Taub Drury of Drury Design Dynamics, by @projectmaven

Well, another techsytalk LIVE has come and gone, and I have to say, this may have been the best one so far… that is, I think so. I actually spent much of the day in the Convene boardroom, interviewing nearly a dozen of the presenters and exhibitors who attended that day.

Liz King Events has made it their business to gather some of the more forward thinking people in the event/tech worlds, and this year was no exception. Jill Taub Drury, founder of Drury Design Dynamics, kicked off the morning with a look at surviving the next evolution of the meetings and events industry, based on her firm’s core values of maintaining excellence, working with the best people who are committed to innovation, education, and a practice of road testing new ideas. I later spoke to Jill to find out a little more of what makes her tick.

DeborahJill, tell us a little about Drury Design Dynamics.

JillDrury Design was founded in 1981. We are a fully integrated communications agency. We work with clients to support their brands across the board via meetings, learning and performance, entertainment, social and communications. We’re a very diversified company. It’s exciting, because we get to work with our clients across their different types of projects, and that makes it fun.

And by clients, she means folks like IBM, Walmart, Deloitte, Johnson & Johnson… Says Jill, “It’s exciting that they trust us to communicate their message.”

DeborahWhat do you find most exciting about your work?

JillI love the people I’m surrounded by, they’re really amazing – it’s always exciting to be around a group of people who are so creative and so innovative, and smart, really smart. We do a lot of content. A lot of companies who do production, do [only] production, but we’re doing the strategy and the messaging and the content and the building out the architecture of the event, so that’s exciting… and then it’s the clients we’re working with and the subject matter and to see the changes going on within their companies, as well as the world, is really interesting.

DeborahWhat kind of changes are you seeing?

JillWell, IBM is a client of ours, and so if you look at Cloud and technology and social and servers and all those things… There are other examples of companies we’re working with where maybe they have internal things going on. Maybe they’re being split or bought out, and we help with that messaging, how they communicate with their people and train their people to handle it and the expectations and prepare them for the future, so that’s a whole other side of it, which is very strategic oriented. I know that we’re known for these very large 20,000, 15,000 people conferences, but there’s this very important part of our business that has to do with strategic leadership, and how we can help them communicate.

DeborahA little more quiet, behind the scenes, but no less exciting because the dynamics are so impactful…

JillAbsolutely, on such a big scale, and to see it rolled out. Whether we roll it out or somebody else does, I love seeing that. What’s MPI’s thing? “Great things happen when you bring people together.”

Deborah Is there any other place you’d like to go?

JillOne of the things that’s interesting that I talked about today, is that you have to evolve, and over three decades, we’ve done a lot of that. The thing that’s done for us has been to grow our capabilities, which enables us to go into all these different areas now…. I think if there was one area that I wish we did more of, it’s experiential events, which is not so much about the content, it’s more about the fun and engagement. We do a lot of that, and we bring it into our events, but to just do events like that would be a lot of fun… We certainly have the capability to do it. I find that there are many companies who do that who are trying to get into doing the content end, and they’re finding it very hard to go that way, whereas we already do all of those things, we just haven’t been going after that business.

Drury Mash [the firm’s yearly professional education event] is something along those lines, particularly this year. It was really fun and everyone was “Oh, what a great party!” and I’m like, “I’m so glad you’re having a great time at our great party! Let me tell you what you learned!” Because we’re creating an experience – that’s exactly what I wanted them to walk away with.

I really think a lot about onboarding at events. I happen to be shy. When you go to an event where you don’t know anybody… if there’s 200 or 300 people, it’s really clear that you feel separated from everybody else. When you have 10, 15, 20,000 people, it’s overwhelming, and so where do you start? So creating experiences where people can easily turn to the guy next to them, and it makes sense, and it’s not awkward, and make a comment that a conversation can come from, it speaks volumes. And it’s equally as important as anything else you do, because… When you go to a conference, the information, 98% of it is online. It’s the experience, it’s networking, it’s the people and the business that you’re doing, particularly as you look at millennials… The millennials made us acknowledge and put it into play, but we’ve always wanted this. Because who really wants to sit in a room and be talked at for five days?

DeborahI’m so glad these types of conferences are winding down, because they’re so deadening.

JillYes, they are. Even when we’re in an arena situation for our general sessions, we have second screen, so that if you’re going to be sitting there on your computer, your tablet and your phone, and your head down, you’re listening but you’re doing other things, I’d rather have you go to content that’s about the speaker or the conference or the subject matter. So we provide second screen information.

Deborah In your presentation, you said, “Tell a story – look to technology to support it.”

JillIt’s really about putting the information up there, and having a link for somebody to go to…that’s what it comes down to… What’s the link and how are they getting to it?

DeborahSo rather than fighting the trend of people being hooked in all the time, you are using it to advantage – if they’re going to be on, give them something that will connect them back to the subject at hand.

JillIt’s an example of looking at emerging technologies and concepts and adapting them to work for us. Where did second screen come from? They’re doing it on TV! Follow the hashtag, tell us what you think, friends watching TV in different locations talking to each other through it… So that’s really the idea, it’s just adapting what’s being done… you always need to drive the mission and the messaging and the brand, and so any opportunity you can do that in a way that doesn’t feel intrusive…

DeborahThat’s the key, to make it organic to what is going on.

JillRight, because when they call them marketing events, you can’t be marketing all the time.

DeborahNo, nobody wants to be marketed to… in fact, I wrote an article for lLz once called Quit Marketing at Me. I got it, enough already!

JillI read it, I heard it, I’m there…  On the second screen, the other thing is we use it for polling, right there… I’m waiting for the day when we have something like Yelp for speakers, and people are rating them as they’re speaking, and it comes up on the screen. How will speakers change their presentation? I mean I would have a heart attack.

DeborahMe too, wait, I’m failing, I’m failing, no it’s going up, wait, no, it’s going down, pivot, pivot! Hahaha…

Jill But people will be doing that and sharing and then making recommendations, “Go see this guy, don’t see this guy,”

DeborahOh my…

JillIn real time it would really be tough, but I do think it would do a couple of things. It would hold speakers accountable, to make sure that they’ve rehearsed, to make sure that their content is really good. I have clients who, you’re getting up on an arena stage in front of 18,000 people – I don’t care how often you speak, rehearse! If not for you, for the technical team, so they can set your levels and see where you’re going to pace to, get your rhythm down for changing your visuals, so it’s really important. I also think that it will help drive pre-conference conversation along with post, which is really important. You know, you look at social during events, so social can go up – it spikes for the four days during the event, and then it goes down. So, if you can start that conversation before and then keep it going, that’s what you want.

DeborahTell me, do you have any big mistakes that you’ve made that you’ve really learned from that you would not be too embarrassed to share?

JillLet’s see. This is a big one to put out there. Holding onto people too long, because you think you’re being nice. And you’re not doing anyone a favor by that. You’re not helping your company, your brand, but you’re not helping them, because the longer you keep someone who isn’t doing a good job and they’re clearly not happy, you’re making them less marketable in the job market after they leave. I think that we’re very culture driven at Drury and very family oriented. It doesn’t meant that we’re family, we’re a business, but we really care, and sometimes we do that and it’s not a good thing.

DeborahThank you, that’s a good one. I love that you’ve said it, and I hope that you don’t call me tomorrow and say, “Don’t say it” because I’m a big fan of humility and pulling back the curtain and showing process. Making mistakes is where we learn.

JillDidn’t I say that? Don’t be afraid to fail. And share those lessons.

DeborahI think we culturally need to get past the shame of making mistakes and this insistence that we’re constantly being judged, that there’s some kind of judgment that’s permanent and unforgivable. Because it’s not like a fall from grace situation here. We’re not going to hell if we make a mistake.

At under30CEO, many of the entrepreneurs I interviewed there said, “Make lots of mistakes, it’s the only way you learn.” How do you know unless you push into something new? Oh well, that didn’t work, and then you learn. Otherwise, you don’t know if maybe you’re just being lucky.

JillAnd that’s why I talk a lot about how it’s not just educating people about the technology, or an idea or a process, they have to road test it, they have to experience it hands on, and you get two things from that. First of all, they get to experience it so they understand what it’s like. They understand if the technology will work, or the philosophy behind the activation will work, but we also see how people interact so we can think about, should we adapt this and then include it into our client driven events?  Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe there’s not a place for it. Maybe we just need to wait for the right opportunity. But I hate technology for technology’s sake. I hate kitch, trendy stuff – what’s it going to do? What’s the purpose? 

And one last comment re: holding onto people too long. It’s not a decision that you make willy nilly. It’s a really thoughtful process, and it’s stages. You have to work with people, see their potential, so it’s not just about having the right people in the seats, it’s about having the right people in the right seats. And so there are times that we’ll see that a person might be more passionate about, or have more of a sensibility for another area, and we love this person, we don’t want to lose them, just because they’re not doing this job correctly. They might be better over here, let’s give it a try. And it’s not all about us. It can’t be all about us. It has to be about them as well. If I cared enough to bring them on, I need to care enough about what their next step will be. 

DeborahI think that speaks to a really great philosophy of valuing relationships in all their dimensions and really understanding all those dynamics between balancing out your needs, the needs of your employees, your consultants, whoever, so that you’re really taking all these needs into consideration. That speaks volumes of you as a business person, and an employer and an innovator, too, because I don’t find everyone to be that forward thinking. I don’t think everyone thinks that way.

Jill I have to say, Deborah that I was really lucky to start when we started in the 80’s. It’s a lot harder now, because everything’s faster, cycles of engagement, what does that mean, and the pressure that always is, and even how the opportunities that come to us and the expectations right out of the gate, and you hear you’re not even as good as your last show. It’s really hard today, whereas if I think back, I had handwritten, full page double sided letters of thank you. Now, it’s a different world, and you have to go with that. But it gave us time to really understand who we were, what we wanted to be and the importance to us of the role of culture within the company, because I want to be able to go to work every day and be happy and I wanted to be surrounded by people who are happy.

DeborahAbsolutely, and I’d like to think that the process you’re talking about, sort of broadening the level of internal engagement is something that we can foster. One of the things I’m hoping to do with this series of interviews is tease out some best practices and philosophies and some values that I think are significant as trends I’m seeing amongst this little subset of thought leaders. Because I really think that’s what techsytalk is about. techsytalk is not just about the latest gadgets, there are so many more dimensions to it.

JillLiz has really couched it well. She’s really terrific. 

Deborah I agree.

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