Larry Abel leads a team that specializes in making brands come alive by balancing two central goals – creating memorable experiences, and successful strategic messaging.
Coming from a small town in Oklahoma, Larry got his first taste in event production as the planner of his senior prom. “It was Cabaret themed,” he laughs. “It was a big deal.”
Now, as founder and creative director of Abel + McCallister + Abel, he describes producing a set – made entirely of chocolate – for the Oprah show in seven days. “‘Wow, how did I get here?’” Larry recalls asking himself as he saw the final set on display. “I was just a little kid from Oklahoma with a dream. For someone of that caliber to see your work and like it – it was really overwhelming.”
What sets the work of Abel + McCallister + Abel apart isn’t just the quality of good experiences, it’s using those experiences to deliver strategic messages. That stems from Larry’s background working as a brand manager, and infuses the events he now produces.
We sat down with Larry as part of our First Impressions project to talk more about his event production approach and making strategic brand messaging a top priority.
Don’t give away everything at once
Today, breaking through the clutter can present a challenge for event producers. As more planners draw inspiration from one another, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd.
Larry says that when you’re vying for attention, overshowing and revealing all your cards too soon is the easiest way to lose your audience’s attention.
“Don’t let the guests see everything at once,” Larry says, and brings up a surf shack created for Jose Cuervo that traveled the country to different food festivals. “You couldn’t see inside the booth, so it created a sense of mystery,” he says. “Not one of the other 300 booths did what we did.”
By creating a sense of mystery, guests are captured and intrigued to see more of what’s behind the curtain. And they develop their thoughts and ideas about an event more gradually, rather than leaping to a quick judgment of the event as a whole. “When you reveal everything at once, the guests can decide whether they like it or not, and that’s it, end of story.” Larry explains.
If possible, we try and create multiple first impressions. We try and create a sense of journey.
Larry and his team strive to place different pockets throughout an event waiting to be discovered by the guests. He relates it to a fun house. “We want people to talk among each other and say ‘Did you see the so-and-so?’”
And, critically, Larry’s operating philosophy is that there isn’t solely one first impression. These pockets and discoveries come together to create an ongoing series of various first impressions for guests. “If possible, we try and create multiple first impressions. We try and create a sense of journey.”
Design as if you’re on the floor experiencing the event yourself
One of the classic challenges of a branded event is how to deliver a strong and strategic message without coming across as contrived and inauthentic to guests.
In Larry’s view, one of the leading causes is becoming too detached from the actual guest experience during the planning phase.
“A lot times, people want to look at an event with a bird’s eye view. And that’s the wrong way to do it. You become bogged down in things being symmetrical from the sky,” he says. And when things get too neat and symmetrical, they can start feeling artificial.
Anything that’s branded and lower than five feet may look good and neat for a picture, but is irrelevant to an event.
Take the practicalities of where to put branded materials, for example. “Anything that’s branded and lower than five feet may look good and neat for a picture, but is irrelevant to an event,” he says. “The room is filled with a sea of bodies, so I’m not going to see anything that’s below my chest.”
It’s a tricky but vital balance, because, as Larry puts it, “Brands are not investing in fun parties. Brands are investing in delivering a strategic message.”
Deliver on promises
Creating a first impression for the guests is not the only impression Larry considers. He and his team work to deliver results for their clients. Gaining a client’s trust makes for a working relationship that results in successful events.
When it comes to clients, Larry believes in a straightforward plan: “Tell the client what you’re going to do. Do it when you say you’re going to do it. Do it for how much you say you’re going to do it for.”
With a background in brand management, Abel can identify with brand managers and knows the importance of delivering positive results. When the event is in his hands, so is the brand. “We are the brand managers for the entirety of their event,” he says.
We try to be very collaborative with our clients, so we can understand them, the brand, and the message.
Transparency with the client is an essential part of the relationship according to Abel. “We try to be very collaborative with our clients, so we can understand them, the brand, and the message.”
It starts with presenting the idea to clients and gathering their feedback. “We like to tangibly present our vision, so they can react.” Then, from there, Abel and his team work their magic. “The clients say we make their job easy. When we’re able to make the client look great and they say they love the event, it’s really fun.”
Want to hear more from Larry? Listen to the full podcast with him we recorded in collaboration with GatherGeeks, and check out the rest of the First Impressions project.