Joining An Agency Story podcast to talk about the evolution of her marketing development is Oana Borcoman, CEO and founder of EVOKE: An Experience Agency, an experiential marketing agency based out of Houston, Texas.
From starting out her life in the states at 5 years old as an immigrant from Romania, to becoming a level 1 sommelier, to eventually selling PPE as a means of survival during the pandemic, Oana takes us on a luxurious to essential ride and everything in between.
Oana explains how her upbringing has had a strong influence in leading her to where she is today. Motivated by the sacrifice of her parents for a better opportunity here in the US, she wakes up every day refusing to waste it. This gratitude has propelled her to leaps and bounds in her career that is truly admirable.
Referring to the agency as her “brainchild”, Oana emphasizes the important significance that passion and creativity have also had on her company thus far. Her unique approach to marketing involves impacting the experience someone has with a brand by creating memorable experiences. Not only does she strongly believe in making the most of the opportunities that come her way, she also believes that marketing should draw its inspiration from genuine sources of creativity.
Oana’s story is truly remarkable and one to be remembered – so pour a glass of wine and let’s get started.
Enjoy the story.
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[00:00:00] Welcome to An Agency Story Podcast where we share real stories of marketing agency owners from around the world. From the excitement of starting up, the first big sale. Passion, doubt, fear, free freedom, and the emotional roller coaster of growth, hear it all on An Agency Story Podcast. An Agency Story Podcast is hosted by Russel Dubree, a successful agency owner with an eight figure exit, turned business coach. Enjoy the next agency story.
[00:00:36] Russel: Hello, welcome to another episode of An Agency Story podcast. I’m your host Russel. Today’s guest on the show is Oana Borcoman with EVOKE
an experiential marketing agency based out of Houston, Texas.
[00:00:48] How does a sommelier go from the early stages of getting her agency off the ground to selling PPE as a means of survival during the pandemic, back to living out her creative dreams in experiential marketing.
[00:00:59] It’s all [00:01:00] in this episode. You’ll soon be inspired by Juan his energy, passion, and most importantly, her powerful story of motivation as an immigrant to the United States.
[00:01:09] I can’t wait for you to listen to this one.
[00:01:11] Enjoy the story.
[00:01:13] Welcome everyone. Today I have Oana Borcoman with EVOKE: An Experience Agency.
[00:01:18] Welcome to the show, Oana.
[00:01:20] Oana: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
[00:01:22] Russel: Absolute pleasure. Start off, tell us a little bit about EVOKE and who you serve and what you do as an agency.
[00:01:29] Oana: EVOKE
is my little baby, my brainchild. We started in August of 2018, but the agency that we have today is not the agency that it started to be.
[00:01:39] What we do is we impact the experience someone has with your brand, and we do that by creating memorable experiences and putting tangible products in front of people. Promotional products, swag, customer experience, strategy, and events. All of our events are strategy driven, bottom line driven events for a [00:02:00] purpose of growing your business or gaining loyalty.
[00:02:03] That’s basically what we do, but there’s a lot within that. Every client tends to be a little bit different.
[00:02:09] Russel: Let’s take our time machine back for a little bit. As you were coming outta high school, starting to think about your career, what were you thinking and where were you headed?
[00:02:16] Oana: Coming out of high school, I initially wanted to go into communications. I thought that would be really fun, match my personality. I like the idea of public relations. I like the idea of communications, but I didn’t really know what career paths are there outside of PR. Then I found the University of Houston Hilton College for hotel and restaurant management.
[00:02:38] I went into hospitality management instead. I quickly realized I have no desire to be a hotel or restaurant manager, and in some ways, while I loved the hospitality industry, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with it. In staying a little bit longer, I discovered event planning and I also discovered the beverage industry, which took [00:03:00] me down my career path immediately after college.
[00:03:03] I did a wine appreciation class, and I did a marketing minor. Those were both in my last semester. Taking sales courses for my marketing minor, taking marketing classes while tasting wines and getting my level one sommelier. My eyes opened up to this whole world that I didn’t really know was there.
[00:03:22] Russel: When did you first get into or transition into the agency world?
[00:03:25] Oana: My first job was selling wine from a distributor and I would sell to restaurants and bars, so I got to drive around and be a professional drinker and test taster. That was fun. I did that for about a year and a half, and then one of my accounts asked me if I wanted to help them open this really cool restaurant concept in Houston.
[00:03:44] They were based in LA and I did event sales for them. I got a little taste of the hospitality industry, an exciting aspect of it while doing events with my beverage background. Did that until the restaurant closed. When it [00:04:00] closed, I said, you know what, I’ve done sales, I’ve done events, I really wanna do marketing now.
[00:04:05] I started looking for marketing jobs. There’s an agency here in Houston that specializes on beverages. I was like, okay, this is perfect. This is everything in mind. I worked with them for five and a half years, maybe six years. I did everything from the consulting side with the accounts.
[00:04:23] My last job with them was Director of Brand Marketing and Events. That’s where I started working with the brands themselves. I did events all over the nation and I did strategy for the brands, specifically on them selling to the national account space. It was a very specific segment of the beverage industry that brings in tons of revenue for these companies, and they had very specific clientele.
[00:04:47] All of our events and our strategy were targeted towards this goal of maintaining the relationships and building the relationship in sales with their national account buyers. That’s how I learned the [00:05:00] importance of a brand, the importance of what that customer means to the brand and how to execute events and strategy where that brand is at the forefront, but you also have weight and importance on sponsors, for example.
[00:05:13] There’s never a time where I would do a sponsored event where the sponsors aren’t at the forefront. Brand became very important. I didn’t know exactly what my next step was, but that’s how I got into marketing and events. That wasn’t really my goal when I went into college.
[00:05:30] I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew what I wanted my days to look like. I knew I wanted to dress up, travel and do cool things. I wanted to impact and be important to the people I’m working with. I did not want to be in a cubicle.
[00:05:46] I did not want to have the kind of job where I’m glued to a computer or glued to a book. I knew the general career lifestyle I wanted to have, and I ended up finding it. My paths took me there.
[00:05:58] Russel: How much has your [00:06:00] experience as a level one sommelier helped you in what you’re doing today, or not at all?
[00:06:06] Oana: It has dramatically. Because I had my level one sommelier and I think I was more mature beyond my years. I graduated at 21 years old and I got a really good territory selling wine. I got Central Houston on premise, which means that people consume on the premise, restaurants and bars. Most people start schlepping boxes in retail, I got to skip that all together.
[00:06:30] Because of that, I got a really impressive route. I grew the route. They could trust me on my wine knowledge. That really helped me along the way ’cause I had a very impressive resume already by 22 years old.
[00:06:43] When I went to the agency side, they loved that. They didn’t have anyone else who was a somm on their staff. They worked with tons of brands. We did consult and give strategy to the restaurants on their beverage program and we would build their wine list. I was the one person on the staff that had [00:07:00] that at the time.
[00:07:00] Outside of actually getting jobs, I can speak wine to everybody. Any client I have, I pick the wines, I talk about them, I handle all that. It’s a really good hospitality trick.
[00:07:12] Russel: Pays to become a professional drinker, kids. You heard it here first.
[00:07:16] When did you first get the idea that you might want to start up your own agency?
[00:07:20] Oana: I’ve always known I want to start my own business. That’s always been a part of me. That’s always been a goal. I never had an exact idea of what that would be. I always knew I needed to learn from others first. I wasn’t in a hurry to start it.
[00:07:33] That was an end goal at some point. My goal was never, I’m gonna start an agency, but once I worked in the agency world, I saw how much I was doing for them and I learned how to get new business, how to pitch business, how to write proposals, how to do the billings, we did a lot of that.
[00:07:50] I realized I’m basically running my own little agency in my department. If I can do it for them, I can do it for myself. That’s where the idea came in. [00:08:00] After I left that agency, it took me a couple of months to get that motivation and drive for it again.
[00:08:05] I was a little burned out. I was thinking, man, can I really do this on my own? It was a big agency with 50 people and all these designers, I had my whole team and they were in business for 30 years. There was a lot to be said about business coming into that kind of agency.
[00:08:21] It wasn’t until a couple of months later that I’m like, you know what? I can do this. I can totally do this. I got the energy for it, I got the drive for it. That’s when I started thinking about it and formulating, what is it that I need to do? What would be differentiated? What do I love?
[00:08:33] What am I passionate about? What can I sell?
[00:08:35] Russel: You just went cold turkey. What were those first few months like? What was the business looking like at that time?
[00:08:40] Oana: I did go cold turkey and that agency specialized in beverage. When I left I wasn’t looking to just stay in beverage. There’s so many industries in Houston and what I would call low hanging fruit with some of those industries. I’m thinking it’s going to be easy to get business because I was really good at it before.
[00:08:59] I did [00:09:00] discount the fact that it was an agency that had been in business for 30 years and has the backing of 50 people. I would say at the beginning, I started going for business that I wasn’t used to going after, industries that I wasn’t used to working with, and I learned that there was a huge learning curve for them.
[00:09:17] When I started EVOKE, it was EVOKE: Experiential Marketing and Events. Most people who were in these service driven businesses in Houston were oil and gas, healthcare, legal, financial services. They’re like, what’s experiential marketing? I would have to sit there and answer it in a way that they would understand, I would get really wordy with it.
[00:09:37] I’m like, God, I really need to work on my elevator pitch. This isn’t working. Then, I realized the only thing people could relate to is events. I do events. Okay, great, I know what events are. Do you do things like trade shows? Do you do things like crawfish boils? That’s really not what experiential marketing is, but I realized in some ways I was in the wrong city for it.
[00:09:57] Houston wasn’t there yet. I realized that [00:10:00] the beverage industry was far advanced from this. I could have called all the beverage industry clients, but I was determined to go after some different kind of clients. It’s interesting, now I work with beverage a lot again, but right at the beginning I was going after what I thought was low hanging fruit and it really wasn’t.
[00:10:16] I ended up taking a lot of projects that were not necessarily in the scope of what I initially was trying to do. I would spend my time on projects that weren’t in the clear direct scope and messaging of experiential marketing and events. It taught me a lot. I did a lot of digital marketing.
[00:10:33] I realized, while I can do digital marketing, I don’t like it and that’s why I’m in experiential marketing. I decided, okay, I gotta focus back in on events because that’s what this market needs and is calling for.
[00:10:48] Ironically, as I’m narrowing down that funnel to events, that was towards the end of 2019. I had events set up for 2020 and then the pandemic hit. It’s like I’m finally coming [00:11:00] into my own and then the pandemic hit.
[00:11:02] Russel: You were just getting the business going, starting to find your way, get some success, and then the pandemic happened. What did that do to your business?
[00:11:10] Oana: Well, it completely killed it. I’m thinking 2020 is going to be a great year. Started towards the end of 2018 with my business. One full year, gone. I’m getting all the stuff on the books and then I had to just cancel it all.
[00:11:24] That sucked. I didn’t have the history of other event companies, event agencies, to really have this client base that I pivoted to virtual events with, or things like that.
[00:11:34] I was still building that client base.
[00:11:36] Coincidentally, in 2019, towards the end, I got into the promotional products industry. That was a way to bring in an additional revenue stream for the agency, for events. It was to have control over that and to be able to bring promotional products in-house as opposed to outsourcing it to a different distributor.
[00:11:55] I realized, wow, this is a whole industry in of itself. This is a [00:12:00] lot of potential revenue that I can bring in with promo, just doing Christmas gifting. When the pandemic hit and all my events canceled, my pivot was going into promo.
[00:12:12] Not just promo, but it PPE, right? PPE is the masks and the gloves and things like that. I all of a sudden went from having these glamorous events that I was gonna plan, to talking about masks and gloves. Definitely started questioning my life at that point.
[00:12:26] I’m like, how did I get here? I’m selling masks and gloves. I’m not doing anything that I wanted to do and I have no idea what my company is. That was tough, but looking back, it helped me learn the promo industry really well. At the end of the 2020 year, I realized, okay, let’s reassess. What is it that I actually love to do? How do I want to communicate what this agency is doing with this additional segment of the industry, which is the promo side.
[00:12:57] That’s when I rebranded as an experience [00:13:00] agency and realized what we really do is we impact the experience someone has with our customer.
[00:13:06] It’s not always an event. Sometimes it’s an activation, sometimes it’s a launch kit, sometimes it’s client gifting or relationship building, and sometimes it’s promotional products. Combining the two, I realized that I’m building something a little bit different than what I initially intended to build.
[00:13:24] That ended up changing the agency and being the way to where we’re today.
[00:13:28] Russel: It took some big events and evolution to get you where you’re at today, but it seems like you’ve found your groove and where you fit into the marketplace. Do you think if the pandemic hadn’t happened, would you still eventually ended up where you’re at?
[00:13:40] Oana: Truthfully, probably not. I really started going down the path of just events, which is not what I wanted to do. I wanted to do experiential marketing and experience driven events. Because of that learning curve for industries in Houston, I was doing some trade shows and events that [00:14:00] weren’t really in the scope of experiential marketing.
[00:14:05] It was more like conferences and trade shows, very logistically driven events. I realize I actually hate trade shows and conferences. They’re not creative, they’re not strategic. There’s not an exciting problem you’re solving. It’s just spreadsheets, people, attendees, vendors and putting it all together, making sure it doesn’t falter or fail.
[00:14:25] I love where I’m at now. Probably, had the pandemic not happened, I wouldn’t have given such a focus to promo, which, promo is now the bulk of my business. The other part of the event side is the passion side of my business. We now have the luxury to take the events we want and that makes sense, and where we can truly make an impact in.
[00:14:43] It’s not grabbing anything that comes, like any kind of oil and gas trade.
[00:14:47] Russel: Having gone down that path for yourself, is there any words of advice to someone out there that’s on the front end of that situation, in terms of how to pivot and how to get there?
[00:14:56] Oana: At the beginning I started taking projects that were out of scope [00:15:00] and I almost taught myself a whole another segment, digital marketing. That did serve me well in the sense that I became more well-rounded and I’m able to consult on that aspect of it without doing it.
[00:15:11] It wasn’t a bad thing. But, because I’m trying to do something that I’m not the best at yet, and there’s a huge learning curve for me to do it. I was wasting time and I wasn’t selling the projects that I should have been selling and doing. If I take all the time that I spent doing the wrong work, that’s not in scope of my agency, thinking, I just need the clients.
[00:15:36] If I would’ve taken all that work and energy, and put it into business development and selling, I would’ve been better off. Should you just take any work that comes your way? With caution, I would say unless it’s gonna open the door to the kind of work you really want to be doing, or it’s a complete portfolio builder, or it puts you in front of the right people, I would say no.
[00:15:58] However, [00:16:00] staying open-minded is super important. I came into promo almost by accident. I was trying to buy something from someone who only sold to wholesale companies, and then I was like, I need to be one of those companies. That’s where I committed the time, investment and research to do that, self-taught it, and that was very beneficial to me.
[00:16:17] I do recommend being open to opportunities and walking through those open doors. I also think, if something’s not working, move on.
[00:16:25] Had I not wasted time on pointless projects, I would’ve probably spent my time better doing business development and outreach to B2C companies that were looking to do experiential activations outside of Houston.
[00:16:40] That’s what I should have done, but I was stuck in these projects that I really shouldn’t have ever been doing. Find balance, but definitely say no to some work.
[00:16:50] Russel: I think it’s an important point for folks is don’t just chase the dollar, find some long-term value in the work you’re gonna be doing, even if it’s not the most ideal work at the time.
[00:16:59] Like [00:17:00] many agency owners, but certainly not all, it seems your creativity is really important and especially to live that out in the work you do. What do you think inspires you more: a successful business or getting to do the creative work that you enjoy doing?
[00:17:13] Oana: For me, it’s definitely the creative work. There are some people who would advise me to let go of some of that ultra creative and time consuming work.
[00:17:23] Just sell products. That’s where the money is, right? I can’t do that. I can’t switch off the ultra creative side and the event side of my business just because there’s potentially more money on the other side if I 100% focus on that. Ultimately, I think that’s what makes our agency special, is this combination of the two where somewhere in the middle you meet with a creative experiential approach to both the promo and the event side together.
[00:17:51] It would be a lot easier and potentially immediately more fruitful to just focus on promo, but then I would be like every [00:18:00] other promo distributor out there. I don’t want that. I wanna have my own segment of this industry. I love the creative work and I don’t want to lose that. It might be a little harder, but definitely the creative work.
[00:18:14] Russel: What’s your future for the business? What are you trying to accomplish in the end?
[00:18:17] Oana: I always say I wanna build a little Oana empire. What that means to me, though, is taking this concept, blowing it up more and growing the promo side, growing the experiential and event side. Changing the way people look at both industries as not standalone, but as one.
[00:18:35] I don’t know other people to have an experience agency. I know there’s experiential marketing agencies that do the brand activations, pop-up stores and the publicity stunts, stuff like that. There’s event companies that do conferences and trade shows and weddings. There are business consulting companies, there are promo product sales.
[00:18:55] We, in a way, combine all of them together. I wanna create this segment [00:19:00] of marketing that I build on.
[00:19:02] Russel: As you’re building your Oana empire, what motivates you and keeps you going?
[00:19:06] Oana: One of the things that makes me more interesting, I’m actually an immigrant. I moved here from Romania when I was five years old. My parents moved here before my brother and I, they left their life in Romania.
[00:19:18] They were both doctors and they knew that we would have a better life with more opportunity if we came to the US. As doctors who finished medical school and had a situated life there, they left that completely and they came to the US to start from the bottom. My dad came first, took any job he could get.
[00:19:38] He said his first job was putting pamphlets on doors. He had to work in a restaurant for some time. Basically, bottom of the barrel stuff, going from having a pretty privileged life and becoming a respected doctor. My mom came a year after him, and she’s even said that if she would’ve come first and had to do [00:20:00] everything my dad did, she probably wouldn’t have made it and stayed.
[00:20:02] My dad did. He made it. He stayed. He brought my mom. They lived in poverty at the time. They brought us over two years later, they really sacrificed some crucial years with me and my brother at some crucial times. We stayed in Romania with my grandparents. They made so much sacrifice.
[00:20:20] Through our upbringing, they kept growing our lives and doing better. There was never a feeling of not having enough with them while we were growing up. The way I feel is that they sacrificed so much to get me here, so I just have to go exponentially higher than that, to make sure that I don’t waste the opportunity that was given to me.
[00:20:40] I wanna make sure that they don’t feel ever, that they shouldn’t have come here and that they shouldn’t have sacrificed what they did. When I look at what their twenties were like trying to build a life here, and I look at what my twenties were like, working at a fabulous agency, traveling all over, doing amazing, cool stuff, [00:21:00] it’s very different.
[00:21:01] That really keeps me going. I can’t waste the opportunities that were handed to me, that I didn’t even have to work for. That keeps me pretty motivated.
[00:21:10] Russel: As I can imagine it should, it doesn’t get much more inspirational than that.
[00:21:15] Which is a great intro to pretty much one of the last questions that I ask, and I’m excited to hear your answer, is, are entrepreneurs born or are they made?
[00:21:22] Oana: I think that you have to be born with a certain intrinsic drive and a certain level of crazy. There’s a lot I think you’re born with personality wise, but a lot of those traits could also be applied and taken in different directions. I think without having the right influences around you, to motivate and give you the confidence and the opportunities to be an entrepreneur, they could also be used elsewhere or go to waste.
[00:21:48] I’m fortunate to be in a country that encourages entrepreneurship and we’re a capitalist nation and that’s not something that we came from. That’s something that my dad loves about this country. Always made sure to tell us [00:22:00] growing up and then, I was constantly told, you can do and be anything you want to be.
[00:22:04] You just have to put your mind to it. Having those influences and then surrounding myself with entrepreneurs and seeing that it’s attainable, that’s where you can make an entrepreneur, but you do have to be born with some certain characteristics. I feel very fortunate that I was blessed with those.
[00:22:22] Russel: Absolutely love that answer. Thank you so much. If people want to know more about Evoke, where can they go?
[00:22:27] Oana: My website is evokeexperiences.com.
[00:22:32] That’s our main website that goes over all of our services. If anyone’s just looking for promotional products, they can go to evokepromo.com. On Instagram we’re EVOKE Experiences, and on Facebook as well. We have a YouTube channel with some of the event videos we’ve done. But just gimme a call. Anytime someone just wants to chat or is interested in working with us, you can just give me a call.
[00:22:59] Russel: [00:23:00] That sounds great. Thank you so much for sharing your story today. Thank you for being on the show, Oana, it’s been a pleasure to have you.
[00:23:06] Oana: Thank you for having me.
[00:23:07] We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of An Agency Story Podcast where we share real stories of marketing agency owners from around the world. Are you interested in being a guest on the show? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. An Agency Story is brought to you by Performance Faction.
[00:23:30] Performance Faction offers services to help agency owners grow their business to 5 million dollars and more in revenue. To learn more visit performancefaction.com.
[00:23:44] I went from doing glamorous events for Aspen food and wine, working with these amazing clients all over the world. In the middle of 2020, I’m sitting on calls with suppliers in China trying to source [00:24:00] gloves and masks, trying to negotiate these deals left and right and I’m thinking, this is so far departed from anything that I wanna do or have been doing. I’m all of a sudden so well versed in medical stuff, medical supplies and medical supply companies. That really was like, what am I doing with my life?
[00:24:22] Where am I going with this? I think that’s really the part where if I look back, I’m like, that was a very foundational moment for me to think this is not where I’m supposed to be. I really have to figure this out because this is not why I quit a great job to sit here and talk about gloves and masks and hand sanitizer, all day, every day for months and months.
[00:24:48] Russel: You’re probably, at least taking full advantage, I imagine, of your sommelier experience on a personal level like everyone else during the pandemic, right?
[00:24:56] Oana: Totally.