Q&A: Create & Cultivate's Jaclyn Johnson on folding tables, box lunches and other conference faux pas

By Published on .

Create & Cultivate founder Jaclyn Johnson.
Create & Cultivate founder Jaclyn Johnson. Credit: Create & Cultivate

More than 800 women will descend on Chicago on Aug. 25 for Create & Cultivate's meeting of female entrepreneurs and business leaders, where speakers will include Oscar winning actress and singer Jennifer Hudson, JC Penney's chief marketing officer and a winner of Bravo's "Top Chef," Stephanie Izard.

Founded by Jaclyn Johnson, 33, in 2012, what started as a side-hustle has become a vibrant online platform and experiential business geared toward women hustlers looking for in-real-life experiences in a digital-focused world.

"It was never supposed to be a business," says Johnson, who previously founded an influencer marketing firm.

But as brands (more than 70, including Microsoft and WeWork, will sponsor the upcoming Chicago event) increasingly look to reach consumers IRL, Create & Cultivate has cracked the code on events that generate buzz among hard-to-reach millennial women. They've done this by organizing events that not only generate beautiful Instagram-worthy moments (you won't find box lunches at C&C conferences) but also a high caliber of talent.

This year Johnson is expanding the C&C brand with WorkParty, a focus area geared toward recent college graduates who are just starting out in the workforce. Johnson's book with the same title will bow on Aug. 21, and she is currently taping the first season of a podcast.

Johnson spoke with Ad Age about her biggest conference faux pas, how brands can best reach young women and the importance of visiting smaller cities. This conversation has been edited.

What are some of the biggest conference faux pas?

The way I approached it was how do we create a conference that is the complete opposite of what a conference experience is? It's not in a hotel conference room, there's amazing food, it's not a gross box lunch, you really are getting your bang for your buck.

Some conferences are a thousand dollars-plus; we really wanted to create a lower entry ticket and really put the cost on the sponsors. We implemented standardization early on. We have certain rules where we don't allow folding tables, we don't allow branded linens, we don't allow pop up banners. We will just tell brands it's not going to work and you are not going to have a good experience. We want each brand to create a unique and engaging experience that can add value to our audience. We tell brands think of your pop-up space as your own mini conference. You can program it throughout the day. So we've had brands do things like self-defense classes in their pop-up, do a brand audit of your business, help with creating your website. We've had VCs meet with brands.

What advice would you give brands looking to reach young women?

I can't say it enough, I think: Experience, experience, experience.

Obviously experiential is having a big moment right now. I think it is so important for brands to get offline and create those experiences. If you are a newer brand and want to get into the mix, going to these existing events are so key. You have the infrastructure and don't have to worry about driving the audience, the audience is already there.

Also, doing bespoke experiences. A good example is when we went to Houston with Simon Malls and did our third Style Summit, which is a program we completely customized for them. It is about driving qualified young millennial women traffic to the mall. We did a full day of style panels with influencers and bloggers and tastemakers in fashion. That's something that makes sense for them. They are a brick-and-mortar business, it might not make sense for them to do a pop up on site at our conference, but they asked how they can get our audience to where they are.

What has been the evolution of the experiential business and where is it heading?

Five years ago everyone was, "Digital, digital, digital—We need to get online, we need to get these tastemakers." Everyone was doing digital campaigns and display ads. It became oversaturated and people weren't clicking on banner ads and sponsored content—now everyone knows what it is.

The reality is there are so many content creators right now and not enough experiences for them to share. They have to come up with ideas all the time to post and share with their audience.

On the one side influencers want to go to these experiences because they need the content. On the other side, consumers were seeing influencers going to these experiences and also wanted those experiences to go to.

Create & Cultivate started before #MeToo movement. What has the impact been over the past year?

It's been huge, especially from the programming and panel side of things. When we had our Microsoft conference in Seattle, this woman raised her hand and was like, "I work in tech and I experience blatant sexism all the time and there's only a few women at the company who are all in low-level positions–How do we move up?" An executive from Microsoft spoke up and said "Here's what I have done, I found my group of women that have allied together and we worked ourselves up in this way." That was unheard of five years ago. And now women are really being honest and vulnerable and having these important conversations. It is a pivotal time.

What's exciting for me is that two years ago, I'd say 90 percent of the brands I worked with who came to me were women—so women VPs of marketing, etc. Now I would say it is 60-40. We have men emailing and coming to the table and saying "We need to be a part of this." We have the CEO of Pinterest, Ben Silbermann, speaking in Chicago and he wants to provide that male perspective, which I think is important too. It's a crucial part of the conversation.

What's next for Create & Cultivate?

We are really excited we are getting into the product space next year. Instagram TV launching is huge for us and is a huge part of our strategy for 2019. We are thinking what a Create & Cultivate channel would look like. We are thinking through how we are creating content around the existing conferences we have. Obviously we get amazing content from that. Secondly, what are some original programming ideas that we can put together?

Why IGTV vs. Facebook Watch or Snapchat Shows?

I wish we could be on every platform executing at 100 percent but Instagram is our audience. It is our No. 1 ticket driver. It is hugely engaging. For me at least, Instagram and email is where I focus all of my attention.

For us the most active part of Facebook is our group, and really that's women connecting with each other, which is this ongoing forum, so we use that for market research, test cases, surveys. But for us really Instagram is No. 1 what the brands are interested in and No. 2 where our audience is most engaged and looking for us to show up.

There's been more competition in the space. How is C&C remaining relevant and breaking through the clutter?

What sets us apart is we show up everywhere; we don't just do New York and Los Angeles. We go to Chicago, we've been to Atlanta, we go to the cities that don't typically get these kind of things.

They are hungry for this type of content and there are so many incredible women in these cities. Atlanta is still one of my favorite conferences we've ever done. The audience is so engaged and so thrilled to have that kind of caliber of women come to Atlanta to speak to them. The other thing is brands want to go there too; they just don't know how to show up.

As a young entrepreneur, what's been your biggest failure?

I think failure is very relative. One of the biggest failures was one of the biggest learnings I had, when I broke up with my business partner in my first business and it was kind of a mess. I didn't know how to handle it. I was super young and really so many things went wrong and weren't handled correctly. It was the most pivotal moment of my career.

I could have just been like, "Cool, I'm going to get a 9-to-5, This is all too much," or I could stay the course get through this horrific time and start over. That's what I did. That was a huge blow for me both personally and professionally but it was so important as well.

What's your media diet?

I have a long commute to work and I try to listen to things that are completely non-business related. I try to zone out when I can because I am so saturated all the time. I love true crime podcasts. For me, from a TV perspective, I love "Handmaid's Tale." Those are my only outlets that I can use that are not work related, so I try to take some space.

Most Popular