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 Connect’s Kelsey Ogletree discovered in an interview days after Johnston hosted a wildly successful party for Keurig, his passion for the industry is evident.
Tell us about a recent conference you organized.
An 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 created 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.