Meet the Man Behind DC's Leading Customer Experience Agency
The first inkling we get that Adam Slagowski, Founder and CEO of Tactis, is not your normal CEO, is the oversized, graffitied wall that looms behind his head during the Zoom call. Not only do the vibrant, graffiti-like colors suggest a level of ‘street cred,’ but they also threaten to steal the show. Plainly speaking, the artwork is also testament to the life of someone whose meteoric rise in the world of digital technology, broadly speaking, and customer experience (CX) specifically, has been both colorful, unusual, and should we say it, off the wall.
Born in Logan, UTAH, a small town 80 miles north of Salt Lake City, Adam’s first home was in the dormitory of Utah State, where his parents were studying. Located in “a great and amazing valley with mountains on both sides,” to use Adam’s turn of phrase, Logan was both expansive and nurturing to the young boy. And, as far as culture goes, “If you’ve ever seen the movie Napoleon Dynamite,” he remarks, referring to a similarly off-the-wall, Jared Hess-helmed film shot just a few miles north of his hometown, “you’ll get a taste of how they speak there.”
Life in a small town was fun. Adam grew up doing a lot of outdoor stuff with his parents, both avid and extreme backpackers, along with a younger sister and stepbrother. This meant that aside from mountain biking and a lot of skiing (“you have to be a good skier out there to be a valid Utahan!” he says), the family would tour extensively through the Western US, embarking on lengthy, technical backpacking trips.
Bugs, Bikes, Banking, and Bands
Adam’s first job as a young man was a summer job he undertook with a professor of entomology at Utah State University, embarking on a bug collecting expedition with a bunch of grads for the purpose of insecticide-research. Later, after a foray of bug-collecting and backpacking – not entirely mutually exclusive endeavors – he enrolled at USU, the same university into which he was born. It was during this time that he traded bug collecting for a job as music store manager, solidifying his love for music, and laying the foundations for what would become an almost ‘freakish’ encyclopedic knowledge of electronic music.
After graduating from USU with a triple major in political science, international relations, and German, Adam took a year-and-a-half off to move to Durango, CO, home of the U.S. mountain biking Olympic Team, and the place where most of the big company team mountain bikers live and train. “Moving where the action is,” and “unafraid to dream,” two traits that would go on to define Adam’s career, he moved to Durango with the brazen idea to ride with the big boys, albeit informally, and to do some amateur racing. At the same time, he landed his second job, now as a bank teller, a strategic move, earning him enough money to pay for inner tubes and parts on his bike. To the ever-practical Adam, this was also the favorite job he had ever had. “At the end of the day,” he says fondly, “you balanced the drawer and went home.”
Walking in my Shoes
Setting bugs, bikes, banks, and bands like ‘Depeche Mode’ aside, Adam moved to DC with a new goal, to join the foreign service. Accepted at the American University School of International Service (SIS), he passed the foreign exam, and landed an internship at a nonprofit in DC that specializes in international conflict resolution. The organization, which still exists – and which nurtured many of the philosophies Adam still lives by to this day – works to formalize interactions between parties that are in conflict by highlighting the similarities that bind them as a people.
Technology as a Solution
One of the first missions Adam worked on was a Ukrainian project, setting up mediation centers around that country to help mediate common interpersonal disputes (at the time, the organization also dealt with the war in Bosnia, genocide in Rwanda and the civil war in Angola.) It is here that he began to understand the value of technology as solution. “We would lose track of people for days at a time,” he says, “in the areas where our programs were operational, programs in severe battle zones.” Bothered that the organization had no way of communicating with workers when things broke down, he took it upon himself to supply them with communications facilities and devices and other forms of communication, which would allow them to remain in touch in dire situations. The idea of using technology to help facilitate the success of a mission really struck a chord with him. “Technology had always interested me,” he explains, “but at the time I saw computer science as more of a mathematical, scientific thing and not really as a way to solve real practical problems.” Profoundly affected, he asked for permission to stop working on the Ukraine project and to start working on solving the problem of technology and communications within the organization.
No sooner had he set to work, than he hit a snag. Nonprofits, typically, cannot use grant money towards infrastructure, so finding money for things like computers became an issue. Adam negotiated with the European Union. The E.U. acquiesced, and one of the primary things he did after receiving grant money that he could actually use, was to design the first website for the organization. This fueled Adam’s interest in the web. This was the mid-nineties and technology was limited, so he ended up designing portable kits, got communications systems and emergency e-mail access that would work over primitive phone systems, and more. “It just really opened my eyes to the power of technology to really help solve mission-critical challenges,” he says, “this is how my mind switched from doing foreign service diplomatic work to a technology focus.”
Soon after, a friend invited Adam to join him at Accenture, right about when the dot com boom was really starting to explode. His first project was to build a prepaid cellphone project for MCI, later WorldCom. “At time there were no prepaid plans,” he says, “only post-paid, and on spec we built this for MCI… there were six of us.” Soon, Adam became a certified Oracle database administrator, and that’s when he really started to acquire his technology chops. His experience with Oracle resulted him being put on one of the first Customer Relations Management (CRM) systems that Accenture that was doing – at the time the new big thing. Says Adam: “Every company wanted one.”
Next, he moved onto the largest Clarify CRM implementation at one of the very first industrial web hosting companies in the in the world, responsible for hosting many large websites of the day, including a marquee roster of Fortune 500 names. It was also then that Todd Coen, Tactis’s current MD, appeared on the scene, and towards the end of it, he and Todd realized that they knew more about CRM than almost anyone in the country. It is then that Adam, and a small group of fellow employees, broke away to form their first company.
Later, in another pioneering move, Adam moved to a company specializing in ‘permitting’ software for municipalities. “You must remember this was pre-smart phone,” he says, “so launching the first mobile building inspection system ever in U.S. was a big thing. It was one of those moments when you see the power of technology solve a business need!”
US Census, Part 1
Next, Adam joined Todd, who had in the meantime moved to a company that ran call centers for federal student aid and loans, and later 1-800-Medicare. Again, Adam thrived in the new learning environment, absorbing all he could about the technology – or the lack of it – around call centers. The company was sold as a spin off and operating under a new name, Adam was asked to run the newly won telephone operations contract for the 2010 US Census. A seed was planted!
A year later, Adam went after the US Postal Service website redesign contract. Unusual for government websites, the US Postal Service’s website is a very commercial website, having to compete with FedEx, UPS, and others. But even though they had postal service in their portfolio, they were lacking in user experience design, or the innovation behind them to legitimately go after the recompete of that website.
Go Big, Join Huge
It was at that point that Adam learned about digital agencies and found out about HUGE, a leading New York-based digital agency. Strategically, he reached out to HUGE’s CEO, and although they’d never thought about working on a government project, HUGE agreed to partner with Adam on it. It was during this time that Adam became enamored with the agency world. “I couldn’t believe the level of creativity, innovation, and the awareness of where things were headed, the clarity, especially from a customer experience standpoint,” he says. “It just really blew me away, a million lightyears ahead of where we were at that time.”
They did not win the account, but he could not get that out of his head and reached out to the HUGE CEO again to open a DC office. “Next, we put together a business plan, got it approved, brought Todd on, and fired up HUGE here in DC.” The success of the DC office resulted in the agency moving three times in four years.
US Census, Part Deux
But at the back of his head, Adam had always had the plan to use his 2010 U.S. Census experience to start a company. He simply wanted to do some of the things he was not able to do at HUGE. A little-known fact was that Adam had written the business plan as early as 2013/2014. So, the last piece of the puzzle – to bring his census plan to fruition – was finding an agency he could buy. Acquiring Blue Water in 2019 gave Adam, and his hand-picked team, just the ‘digital’ impetus it needed to go after the 2020 US Census.
To Cut a Long Story Short
Operating as MissionSide, the company went ahead and bought DC-based agency Blue Water and after an involved bidding process, reeled in the 2020 US Census business. The newly formed company took the unusual, but memorable, name ‘Tactis.’ It seems the long and winding road from Logan had found its destination. Or as Adam would put it, “Tactis is a result of my lifelong journey of applying technology solutions to helping real world people solve everyday problems, and missions that are important to the organizations in the DC area. So, it all kind of came together. It was a long-term plan. People might think that I was jumping around, but each piece had its own reason.”
Tactis – as a leading customer experience agency today, with numerous offices, and a large staff contingent, including call centers dotted around the country – keeps Adam busier than ever. Yet, in-between Zoom calls, and countless meetings, the boy who started out collecting bugs in Utah, still finds the time to follow the music. It comes as no surprise then that D.C.’s famed Nine Thirty Club is located just a stone’s throw away from where Adam lives today. “Music is a diary of my life,” he says, “every song I hear attaches to a memory of what I am doing.”
Tactis is a full lifecycle customer experience agency working for organizations across all points of communication, combining human touch with digital expertise to create outcomes that matter. By delivering high-touch solutions that span marketing, technology, and human interactions – through leveraging data and embracing technology – Tactis generates transformational customer experiences that ensure companies own the high-expectation, high-attention moments from which truly human experiences can emerge. For more information visit www.tactis.com.