Plan What You (Don't) Know: The Best Events Teach Their Hosts Something New

Learning comes first at Sonic Union's regular gatherings

Sonic Union's Music Podcast panel, December 2018

From the launch of our audio post studio Sonic Union at the end of 2008, our space has evolved into being a central hub where people connect and share ideas. 

When we opened during the fiscal crisis, we found there weren't many opportunities for the creative advertising community to get together and hold timely industry conversations, beyond stress-induced evenings at the pub or cookie-cutter mixers at creative facilities. Eleven years spent hosting a crazy-diverse range of events has taught us something interesting: Inviting people to gatherings to tackle subjects that seemed counterintuitive—outside our company's expertise—has been the most beneficial for everyone involved. 

Where event hosts usually spend their time teaching, we pivot our focus to spend time learning. Our symposium-style events may not have brought in the highest volume of attendees, but the meaningful dialogue they sparked immediately stood out to us as a heightened value, not only for the attendees and participants, but for our entire team.

Our process begins by thinking of topics we'd like to know more about, much more than topics we want to teach. While we certainly have our established areas of expertise, diving deep into topics and creative knowledge outside of our wheelhouse allows us to keep our approach and outlook on the industry fresh. We don't know it all, but we know people who know a hell of a lot, and we're thrilled that they choose to volunteer their time to share their experiences and insights with our groups of creative professionals. In return, we foster greater connections, spur potential business development and keep our studio in the minds of every attendee.

The kinds of events across our industry span charity-centered gatherings, panels, and some uh … "legendary" parties. We've dabbled in all of these as we've built event hosting into our marketing. But our evenings stand out in the minds of our peers and collaborators because they're true venues for learning about something beyond the scope of our day-to-day careers. We've featured experts in virtual reality technology, radio, writing and composition, health and wellness and more, and helped draw attention to causes near and dear to our hearts, giving our visitors new information that can benefit them long-term. As we dive into 2020, we are already planning a half dozen events that will, in many cases, surprise and delight invitees. And best of all, we will all learn something, together.

These "learning-oriented" events run the gamut. Last fall, for instance, we had a party benefiting the RAICES Action Network. Much of the planning for these cause-driven events centers on conversations with our staff—learning what causes they are interested in, then looking around to see if it has additional interest. We learned more about the issues that Puerto Rico was (and is) facing by talking between takes with Lin-Manuel Miranda during the recording sessions of our AmEx commercial "Mañana."

When you're an expert in one field, but devote your space to events on entirely different topics, you might not anticipate their contributions to effective brand marketing. In actuality, you will start to meet many people who never work with you, but will say they had a great time at your events to their friends and colleagues. Every party or event creates an opportunity for more intimate conversations in far-flung corners of the industry, as well as completely unexpected brass bands trooping the stands. This in turn fortifies our brand image.

We've gotten a lot of feedback over the years, and so far my favorite reaction has been: "The reason I even have this job is that I met so-and-so at your party…" I've heard at least a half-dozen times that we've created an atmosphere where important connections were made. The topics may change, but the guests who attend our events are still like-minded creatives. Presenting ourselves as a hub where the industry's most respected minds meet yields an unshakable foundation of respect for our studio and the hardworking team who help to make our events so authentic, on our turf. After all, every endeavor has been organized on-site entirely by our staff. It's first and foremost our house and our family opening the doors to everyone else. We put a lot of time and effort into each gathering, and I'm humbled by how everyone pitches in weeks, days and hours before and after each event. Because of this, I think our events feel even more authentic, because "we" really are hosting each initiative in our space.

I used to be the creative guy in a business organization. Now, I'm the business guy in a creative company, while having a technical events background. Hosting diverse gatherings gives me a chance to step out from behind the computer and think up cool things to do. "Hey, I have an idea ... and money to back it!" is a common utterance that quickly gets adoption or an eyeroll and dropped. Most of these are not the central theme, but the small supporting details that end up inspiring other ideas that drive the event. And most of them occur to me when I'm not at work.

Profile picture for user Adam Barone
Adam Barone
Adam Barone is managing director/partner at Sonic Union.

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