Listen to the full podcast episode HERE
Your work centers around celebrations, like weddings, mitzvahs, corporate and life events. How did you decide to narrow in on that sector?
I started actually in the celebration of weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. Through that I ended up getting corporate clients as well, and so the business model has really stayed true over the years, by promoting life celebrations and celebrations of all sorts. When we do corporate events, for example, they are not necessarily conferences but they are the galas around meetings, they are the re-branding, they are the launches… anything that involves a celebration. And it’s just where the passion is, where the excitement is, and I think also for us it allows that really intense level of creativity to shine trough.
Why the name Evoke?
That was born out of a need to make some serious changes. Many years ago I started my company, Jodi Moraru and Associates, and as you recall, when the recession hit about six years ago business was in the toilet, and there were several factors with this:  I refused to lower my fees, because I understood the value of the work that we provided.  People were really taking a hard look at their budgets.  People were very tied into the name Jodi Moraru. So while I was creating this team, people didn’t want my team, clients only wanted me. It’s very hard to develop a company, grow a company, and grow the team, if you only want me. Additionally, the corporate market was growing for us as well, and Jodi Moraru and Associates just sounded so personal, and it had a lot of fluff to it, if you will. Out of necessity and out of listening myself complain far too often, one night over dinner with some friends somebody said “You should rebrand your company,” and I said “that´s a great idea!” We sat around the dinner table and 20 minutes later my husband said “How about Evoke?”
Oh really? So no $ 100.000 hiring a consultant…?
No, it just hit, it felt right, and Evoke was born. And it is the perfect name, it is the perfect description, it is the perfect definition and it will live on after I am long gone.
Events are about connection. How does this influence the celebrations you plan and evoke, if you could use the word? What is the underlying philosophy you have about celebration?
I think life is to be celebrated. The big milestones and the small milestones in life, and I think people often forget to do that. I think every day there is something to celebrate, you wake up and there is gratitude in every day. Hence, we’ve moved forward to these big celebrations, and it is such a joy and a pleasure. And the philosophy for me and Evoke is that there is no wrong way to celebrate, it’s really understanding your clients, their needs, their vision, what is important to them, and making a celebration that really reflects who they are. And that all comes with listening and learning and spending time.
Assuming that you define what success looks like with your clients in advance, how are you doing that? How are you drawing them out to understand what is going to make this successful for them?
The initial meeting, the initial conversation is about exposition setting, and it’s about communication, and those are the two critical things. If we talk about what the expectations are: How do you need to communicate? What is the best way I can convey information to you? Do I need to send you certain types of timelines, if you will? Do you need to communicate via phone all the time? Are you an e-mail person? Do you travel a lot? Do we need to do Skype calls? What is it that’s going to be the best way for me to communicate with this person. It´s not about the way I communicate, but it´s the way that I understand that the client needs to be communicated with. And I think that sets us up for very successful events, if we keep along that path. And if during the course of planning something falls off the tracks we get right back on that communication train, and then we keep it going. It creates the relationship, it makes for a solid foundation of a relationship. And then, when it’s all said and done, you are left with a happy client, a trusted friend, and a great partner for life.
It’s interesting, because that’s a lot about successful process. In terms of celebrations, are you creating metrics for success around ROI, like the number of media impressions, the number of attendees or are any of those success metrics being established at the outset?
You know, I our roles are so different. If we were working with a larger corporation, for example, they usually have a PR company they are working with, they have an in-house marketing team. So what we try and do to set them up for success is instill the confidence that we are going to take care of what this event is at hand, so that they can have the success that they need to have their reach out to their clients, to their guests. I have found that it really creates their success because they are not worried about the details. On the day or days of the events they are engaged with their community, which then allows them to create deeper relationships, and that keeps growing for them as time goes on. For us, I don’t want to go and then feel one knock off Event Company, I want to create that long term relationship. I get to see how that event grows, year after year, and then it also allows us to make shifts, changes, we do a very thorough post-con, so we sit down and say “Here is where we thought our successes were, here is where we thought we had some weaknesses, this is what we can work on together, this is what I would suggest next time around.” So we do have all those conversations so we can lead into the next productive…
You do both the corporate and social markets. What are the differences between those two markets?
(Laughter) But they exist on both sides!
It’s different though, because with a corporate client it’s “here’s the budget, make it work.”
Do you always get a budget with the corporate clients?
Yes, you hope to. But a lot of the corporate clients will be like “here is what I’ve got, make it work” and it’s either “it can work” or “it can´t work.” With the social clients, it’s very emotionally driven, it comes down to the dads often times especially with the weddings, in terms of the dollars. You are dealing with people and it’s a special time of their lives, “is it going to be perfect?” and “Is this going to be right?” and “Is that going to be right?” So when it comes down to it, social is a very emotional engagement, and corporate is less of that. At the end of the day they’re both still partnerships. I’m still looking to create these strong solid relationships. I don’t want the one and done, even if we are doing a bar mitzvah, or a wedding, or a life event, you may not have another event with us again, but you will remember how we made you feel. You are going to remember the process, you are going to remember that we took care of you, you are going to remember that we listened you, you are going to remember that this event, this celebration, it was everything you could have expected and more, and so you will refer us, you will think about us, you will stay in touch with us, and we will stay in touch with you. We do the best to stay in touch with all of our clients too.
And are you finding that a lot of your social clients are converting into corporate clients?
That is actually how I started my business, my social clients converting into corporate clients, and sometimes corporate converting into social, as well. Because of social media, a lot of us are Facebook friends. I don’t want to become friends prior to the end of the event but afterwards we mutually follow each other. As a matter of fact I’m in conversation right now with an old client of mine, his wedding I did 7 years ago, she’s part of a worldwide travelling agency who I want to employ to take care of some destination events that I have coming up. I mean you get to reconnect…
So the Industry has changed over the 25 years that you and I have been in business. What are people looking for now in a planner that they were not looking before? And what should they be looking for? Because that’s a conversation that you and I often have, is that people could elevate their thinking around what it is that a planner should provide.
What they should be looking for? At the end of the day it’s about who you connect with. You have to be very comfortable with that person, because this is a long process. You have to have a trust and faith in whoever you are hiring. The biggest issue is that people are hiring based on an Instagram photo, and there is no foundation behind that. There is no real experience behind that necessarily, so clients aren’t always doing their research. They are not understanding that that picture is a photo shoot, they are not understanding that it´s just one small component of a much bigger piece. What clients should be asking are the questions of: how much experience do you have? Can I see a client reference list? Can I talk to some industry people? How do you work? How do you best put our team together? Are you a team player? It takes a team to create an event. And if there is that built-in relationship, and we are very clear in the fact that each team will be created differently for each client event. So we have relationships that are far reaching, but I think to know that you have a team that works well together, and that is going to work on your behalf and understands what you want… this is not about us, this is about listening to the client’s vision, understanding what their priorities are, and then creating the right environment for them.
You talked about the personalization, especially in the celebration environment, how do you as a company get your message out there that you don’t do just this version of a look or this version of the experience? How do you make that broader, in the marketing that you do?
We have a very strong website, number one, and we are in the process of updating our website right now. It is about putting your look, your feel, who you are, out there, and it’s done in a variety of ways. We do it on the website, we Instagram, we twitter, we do all of those mediums, if you will, and we are constantly rethinking “how is that being presented?” and sometimes there is no rhyme or reason. When I see what’s liked, sometimes I’m shocked! “That over that? But that was so fabulous and that wasn’t as interesting to me.” So I’m finding that I really can’t quite understand the pulse of what it takes, so while we have a consistent message, I feel that when I look to the information that we are putting out there in our blog, and all of that, there is definitely consistency in our voice. What hits and what resonates with people, it’s not necessarily consistent. It’s quite interesting.
It is interesting, it’s hard to predict. In fact, it goes back to the value concept too, and making sure that you are bringing value to your clients and asking them, what did attract you to us? And sort of getting that out of them so that it starts the conversation, the foundation of a plan. So back to the client and their expectations, in terms of fees and values, which is something I think you and I both feel strongly about, it is not about the transaction, it is about the value you bring as a planner or third party. What should they expect in term of fees and in terms of cost? What questions should they be asking a planner around that?
You want to know, what is the breakdown of the services that you are providing? When it comes to social events, there are two sides to the equation: there is the logistical side and then there is the design and creative side. At Evoke we do both, we manage both processes. We are creative conceptualizers, we come up with the whole feel and flow of the event, and then we bring the team in, and then there is that logistical side. People get caught in a very pretty picture, but at the end of the day if you don’t have a strong logistical running you’ve got nothing, it doesn’t matter how pretty something is. So it´s an understanding of what are the steps that we’re putting in place to make sure that this process is fluid, to make sure that your day is fluid, that your event is seamless, and that comes with years of experience. We know the ins and outs, we bring a professional team on site to every event. It’s not just me and one other person, there is a big team of us. Why? Because there are different aspects that have to be managed for the fluidity. Otherwise things fall through the cracks. I don’t care how good your floor plan is, I don’t care how good your timeline is, everybody gets on site, every vendor gets on site and they go “Where do we go? What do we do?” “I don´t know.” Always happens! We are managing a million moving parts, and I think the more we can convey to the client… it’s not just about picking the venue, it’s not just about picking a cue, people seeing the big picture perspective, it’s the details that fall under that. If I were to charge hourly like a lawyer, my fees would be through the roof. And I would love to, but there’s a reality to how you even track that, that’s really hard. Every email, every phone call with the client or the vendor, it all adds up to hours and hours of time that people don’t even realize. So it’s always trying to… how do we set that expectation of value? And sometimes that understanding of what the value is doesn’t happen, there isn’t really a click with the client till halfway through the process, or until the end. For people who have been through it before and haven’t had a good experience, it’s a different story. From the onset they understand what it is that we are providing for them, that level of service. Service is a luxury, it’s an intangible. People talk about the luxury business, people talk about it in this really wide scale conversation if you will, but when it comes down to it, it’s really the detailed level service that you are providing, that is the luxury. Most people don’t know how to provide that, we do.
I agree, and it’s hard to place a value on that, accurately.
And it is constantly trial and error, do you do flat fees, do you do percentage, you want your client to feel comfortable…
Do you find your clients gravitating towards one price structure vs. another?
Up until recently, definitely the flat fee, although we are trying to incorporate a little percentage, I know a lot of people are trying to go that way. We want to do it in a way that makes sense for everybody, in a way that makes sense for us and makes sense for the client.
When you’re getting a deep discount and you can share in that with the client or yourselves if that makes sense to do?
It’s what makes sense…
Yes, that’s how we do it as well…
And it’s also really looking at you contract as the scope of work shifts, having a clause in place to say, “should your scope shift from the initial concept, then compensation shall be invoiced accordingly,” and that conversation will have to take place. Up until last year I did not have that in my contract, and I realized that a lot of my events were shifting, the scope was changing and I’m doing exponential amounts of work for the same amount of money, that’s not fair.
Correct, and are you finding people responding to that? I mean both corporate clients or social clients, are they responding well to that?
Good, we are both finding the same things where there is some level of scope that we are going back to them with a changed order, and therefore capturing some of those additional hours, and it’s been well received, especially if it is from the onset. That’s the key piece, I think.
Its transparency, it’s always being up front. And what we’ve even done is we’ve created a full addendum page on our contract. It’s just some critical points that we need to address so it’s not lost in the language in the contract, but just knowing that something like that, like the creed, other things like how vendors should be taking cared of on-site, that’s really important, vendors are working a very long day, they need to eat, that should not come out of my pocket. I know it sounds so simple, but it’s super important, and over the years that has come out of my pocket, because I felt it was important. And now I say, you know what, client? You need to take care of them, they are taking care of you.
Right, that is very smart. Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about experiential, because that’s kind of the buzzword in our industry. But what’s interesting about experiential, at least in my view, is that it was born out of social. To some degree, if you start to think about how social events have evolved. Talk me about how experiential plays out in both your social and corporate market.
Experiential is what Evoke is all about. It’s what we have been about for years and years, and that was our internal buzzword until it became the extra buzzword. Everything becomes the extra buzzword…
So Jodi just coined a phrase… (Laughs)
Yes, I did, and my daughter coined the phrase “Shwazam,” which means awesome to a whole new level (laughs). So experiential is really what we´ve been all about, and you can look at it from two standpoints. You can look at it from how you are creating that experience for your client from day one, how you are incorporating them into the process, how you are managing their experience with you and the planning process. But then it really goes into: Who are you? What do you want this event to be? How do we bring your nuance to the table? And then integrate your guess into that. And that is what the elevator is, on all of these events. And it’s not like you have to create a million experiences in every event, its creating something significant that stands out, that makes your event different from everybody else’s. So if that experience is something that is simple, something that we do from a service stand point, it could be something that is integrated with the guests, it could be something that everybody gets to play with.
Give us some examples.
Some fun stuff. So do you know the Lite-Brite?
Yes, I love the Lite-Brite!
I developed the Lite-Brite, that is mine. Nobody knows that.
What? The big Lite-Brite? Ok, wait a minute, I was thinking you developed the little one that I used to use when I was a kid?
Not the little, the big one. So I developed that
I love Jodi Moraru, let it be hers!
I wanted something new and unique, and I thought what could be really fun, we could play with it, it would be great for social, be great for corporate, it would be great for branding, it could be packaged up, it could go across the country, and I had this idea. So I called Nick over at Carnival Day, which is now Stamp Entertainment, and I said I have an idea, and I said can you build this? And he said “I think I can.” And he did. And he build it, and he is still building them, and rebuilding them, and is now a 4×4 and it travels, its double sided…
Is it a business actually that you guys own or jointly?
Well I wasn’t that smart, you know I’m great with the ideas but in terms of figuring out how this is going to manifest itself from a long-term business perspective, I did not. But it’s ok, I’m so proud of it, and he still gives me credit. And we have other ideas that we are ruminating on, and something else will come out in the near future as well. So I am really proud of it, he is building them for corporations and shipping them all over the country, and I can say “Wow, that’s my idea.” And all the knock offs, everything you see out there, they are not ours (laughs).
Yours is better (laughs).
Recently I did an event for a design group, and it was as simple as we had a conversation board, and we did these frames on the board and then conversations were written. It was about posing questions like “What was your favorite TV Show?” “Where is the worst place you have been recently?” “If you could do anything in the world what would you do” And we were posing questions and people were writing their answers in the frame, and it became this amazing fun interactive way for people to engage with each other, and it’s simple, it wasn’t a big technology thing, it was crayons, and it was art, and it was markers, and under “Where is the worst place you have been recently?” I wrote “My head, can´t get out of there” (laughs) so that interactive element is so much fun…
Are those the trends that you are seeing on both the social and corporate side, that sort of interactive…?
Yes, or something like I did a wedding back in February. I had a wall designed, and it had three purposes (I like to multipurpose things) so the initial wall was a beautiful mirror wall that hosted the escort cards. When you came back after the ceremony, it had flipped and it had cheers in all different languages from all around the world and it became a cocktail wall and it had a specialty cocktail drink on shelves on the wall. And then when you were in for dinner and you came back for dessert it hosted this incredible dessert display with a whole other backdrop. Every time somebody came out they would be surprised and start taking pictures, it was exciting.
It is exciting. Where are you drawing your inspiration from? What are you asking your team to do? Is it industry events? Where are you getting it from?
We are all, at Evoke, big travelers. I think vacation time is very critical, I think that taking time for yourself is critical, so I would say that we all draw inspiration from our travels, very much so. I draw inspiration from fashion, I can look at something and say “that would be really cool as this instead” and although I see the eventual pretty picture on Instagram I don’t get bogged down in that or Pinterest. I find that to be numbing for me, so I have to remove myself from that. Part of it is also to take time and meditate, take time and work out, or take a walk and refresh. If I am really bogged down in the logistic of things, the creative side gets very tired, so I have to take time to rejuvenate that. I love the creative side, I love coming up with a new concept, with a new idea, and I would say the same thing for my team as well.
Are you investing in, other than forcing them out the door on a vacations or things like that, is there anything you are asking them to attend outside of the industry or that you are pushing them to go out and see or whether there is a new art exhibit or anything like that in order to draw inspiration?
You know I suggest things. I went to the Wonder exhibit, because it was absolutely phenomenal. I like to go to the galleries and things. New York has always been inspirational for me. Jeannette in my office has just started to attend some conferences, so if there´s something that comes down the pipe that I think is relative to each of them, then yes. T comes from a background of food and beverage, so her inspiration is very much based on that. Going to new restaurants, going to bars, having those experiences, spending time with Stir DC Girls and learning the concepts. She will go down to Magna distillery and spend a day learning about distilling and then she comes back with all kind of fresh concepts. We all come from different parts of the event industry as well, I even had a stint in the floral world, so we all bring that. Caitlin comes from a PR background, from a bridal salon and PR background, Jeannette had experience working for a corporation and also from a PR background, and T came from a food & beverage, catering, and hotel background, so we all bring some pretty interesting perspectives to the table.
Talk to me about how technology is influencing your events. You just mentioned how it is not always necessary, but when does it work in the social and corporate environment that you are working?
Ok, I’m not the most technology savvy, persons in the office will tell you that. I can do your basic timeline and all that, however what I realized is that we use a lot of technology, I had to change our phone system over this year. We use Social Tables, it’s huge for us as I am sure it’s huge for you. Dan Berger, we love you for that!
Yes, he will be on this show.
It’s huge and it’s been a game changer for us and for our clients. We just changed over to Office 360, we keep our calendars in sync, our calendars were a little bit all over the place. And now that everybody has a cell phone at every moment of the day it´s not like “She’s out” and you can’t schedule a meeting for me. We just started utilizing Slack for our internal communications as well, and it’s just a way for us to quickly talk to one another, even in the office. I have an office with a door that is rarely closed. Everybody else is in an open office environment but it’s a way if somebody’s on the phone to send a quick message over. It pops up, we can communicate, we can make sure that we are setting up a meeting, so internally we are using a lot of things, like Dropbox. If I were to get run over by a car or a bus today, the proverbial bus, anybody in my office can access any of my files and continue with those clients and those events.
Let’s keep on this vein of you now as business owner, because the premise of this, of course, is that if you are an event person in a corporation, you should really be looking at this as a business vertical, in order to be talking at the C-Level suite. Or if you were on the C-Level Suite you should also be elevating your events to that Suite, understanding that it’s a revenue source, it’s driving the objectives of the organization, it’s visibility, and all these things. So you talked about the structure, you talked about transparency, you talked about cloud based systems, so accessibility and all those things being very critical, because as you know some things are excel-based still, which doesn’t make any sense really, in this day and age. Talk about your expectations of your colleagues in terms of the expense and revenue sides. Or maybe you are not so much on the revenue but on the expense side. What are they responsible for? What are you asking them to do around that and understand?
Everybody has a different role, and it’s interesting, and as time goes on it becomes more clearly defined. There is an expectation of being out and marketing on behalf of Evoke, setting up those meetings and, at the end of the day, there can be all the social media in the world but if you are not having a direct, person-to-person relationship, the company is not going to grow, you are not going to get the referrals, the business is not going to continue. So my expectation is, because that effects the bottom line, that is part of our revenue stream, everybody is given a certain amount of marketing dollars to go out and to make sure that those relationships are strong, and to continue along those lines, because I am all about the relationship.
What is the expectation around managing budgets for the client?
Budget management comes from day one. Here is the shift: we implement the initial estimated budget, we talk to the client about it, and then we get a more succinct budget from the client once it happens. At that point though, I put it on the client to keep updating their budget. And the reason why is this: with all the numbers that are being set, if they are not keeping track of it and they are not looking at it, I don’t want to be called at the eleventh hour and get “Why am I over budget?” “Well, I’ve been sending this to you, it has been accessible to you.” So I’m putting more on the client because I want them to know what it’s going on at any given moment, which I think is an interesting approach, and I think a lot of people will probably disagree with me on it but I’m finding, and this is more for social clients than corporate clients, it is because they are the decision makers. “Here are your options. This decision based on this option is putting you on this budget point. That was your decision, not my decision.” So I want them to have more responsibility for that.
And more accountability, yes.
Along the same line, what makes a good client? In your opinion.
Somebody who trusts you. Respectful. Who communicates openly and honestly. I would say somebody who just appreciates what you are doing for them. It goes a long way to be appreciated, you will bend over backwards for those clients who adore you and appreciate you and respect the level of work that you do.
And is that a philosophy that you employ in your company? In terms of your colleagues?
Yes, and I always say, if you meet with somebody and it doesn’t feel right, don’t take it. The bottom line is not that important, because it doesn’t matter what you do, you can bend over backwards, you can do cartwheels, whatever, it’s not going to work. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s never going to work. If there is a false expectation that is being set and you can’t meet it, walk away.
And it’s true.
And you learn that the hard way.
So many hard lessons, and that actually goes right into the next question. What is one of the biggest challenges that you have faced, as an owner? What would be the departure from somebody else potentially?
For me personally, that I always have a million things going on in my mind. Not negative things, just my mind is very active: things I want to do, things I want to implement, things I want to make better for everybody, that I want to make better for me, and I want Evoke to grow, and you have to take a step back and say, ok, let’s take one thing at a time. Right now it’s very critical that we get the website up and running. For the team, I think being a manager is the hardest job I’ve ever had…
No question about it
I am a great mentor. Management has come at the cost of a lot of trial and error, and I think I’ve become a better manager because of that. I am also very open and honest with my team as well, and I promote a lot of feedback. It is a democratically run office to a great extent.
Do you support the feedback but do you make the final decisions or is it really that democratic?
No, I support the feedback but I do make the final decision, because guess what, It’s my liability, my name on the line, everything is under me, it’s my reputation, I built this company. But I have the upmost respect for this incredible team I have. And we go through those ups and downs together. We’ve had easy moments and we’ve had difficult moments. But I would say as the owner, managing the team, and expectations, and everybody’s individual growth, and the team growth, and the company growth, and where I want to go, and is everybody onboard, and I’ve had to make those harsh decisions, I’ve had to let people go, I’ve had to say “you know, we are not in the same space anymore” to people that you love, when there’s an small office, there is a lot of love there.
There has to be.
Yes, there has to be. And to say “it’s time to move on, and is time for you to move on” is a very difficult thing to do. And the choices are hard, some of the hardest choices I’ve ever had to make.
The beauty and the challenge of being a business owner.
GUEST: Jodi Moraru
Passion combined with inspiration is the driving force behind the success of Jodi Moraru’s clients’ events. Following over 25 years in the event industry, and 16 years as the founder and creator of EVOKE, Jodi today brings a fresh approach to each and every event she produces. “I have the left and right sides of my brain working simultaneously,” Jodi says. This enables her to not only come up with unique and creative concepts, but also to execute them with precision and flair. There is nothing cookie cutter about the events that Jodi produces. Each event is approached as its own unique creation, which allows the team at EVOKE to always exceed clients’ expectations. Clients, time and time again, say that they love Jodi’s enthusiasm, responsiveness and calm manner.