The disruptive duo of Agar

Heuser and Salzbrun: from party throwers to culture growers

By Thom Mariner

No one likes throwing parties more than Josh Heuser and Andrew Salzbrun.

The disruptive duo at the helm of local marketing agency Agar cut their teeth on college parties and special events for young adults. But now they’re about to help throw their biggest party ever. In collaboration with the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation, Brave Berlin, ArtWorks and the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, Agar will co-present BLINK, one of the largest light, art and projection mapping events in the nation, Oct. 12-15.

Andrew Salzbrun and Josh Heuser of Agar. (Photo by Tina Gutierrez)

Andrew Salzbrun and Josh Heuser of Agar. (Photo by Tina Gutierrez)

The Haile Foundation is one of the premier funding organizations in the region. The creative minds of Brave Berlin provided the visual brilliance behind LumenoCity 2013-15. ArtWorks has been artfully transforming young lives, blank walls and public spaces in Cincinnati’s core for more than 20 years. And the Chamber regularly produces events of massive scale, such as the recent Oktoberfest Zinzinnati.

But Agar might be less of a household name.

The company grew out of a 2009 meeting between Heuser and Salzbrun, arranged by entrepreneur Chad Reynolds, of local companies hyperQUAKE, Crush Republic and now Batterii.

In biology labs, Agar is a jelly-like substance, a growth medium in which microorganisms can be cultured and observed.

“Just recently,” said Heuser (pronounced Hyoo-zer), “we started positioning ourselves as a ‘growth medium’ versus a marketing agency.” Agar has found itself moving beyond the marketing department, working with human resources, recruiting, sales teams and other internal groups. “It’s understanding where you (as a company) want to have growth and how we can achieve an experience that relates to that.”

The first example of “going from parties to meaningful experiences,” said managing partner Salzbrun, was an event for (global branding company) Landor, who wanted to change the outlook of team members on “being brave and fearless in the office.” So Agar created a four-stop experience via mini-school bus, during which participants were exposed to fears they had to face throughout their daily routine. For example, at a stop at Memorial Hall, Josh Sneed from Comedy Central led them through a workshop on public speaking.

“And it was like a lightbulb went off,” Salzbrun said. “We’re not doing any marketing on this at all. This is truly going to culture and organization. And that opened the door for looking at how our skill set transfers into other areas.”

This is a long way from Salzbrun’s first entrepreneurial stint as a 12-year-old lawn mower.

The first time a man down the street offered him $20 to cut his lawn, Salzbrun was excited. As he was getting the lawnmower out, his father asked what he was doing, saying, “That’s my lawnmower.” Salzbrun paid his father $1 in rent. By the time he had paid for use of the weed-wacker, other tools and gas, his profit had diminished. “So, very early on,” Salzbrun smiled, “I understood the economics of running
a business.”

Salzbrun grew up in the College Hill/Northside area and graduated from Walnut Hills High School in 2003. Although he describes his background as “fine arts,” he left the University of Cincinnati with a business degree in 2008. He followed that with an MBA from Xavier in 2010. The oldest of three siblings, Salzbrun just married in January. His wife, Jessie, works at Family Tech (, a local company that uses technology “to connect and inspire families.”

Heuser grew up in Independence, about 20 minutes south of Agar’s Over-the-Rhine office. He has a sister three years older – “a class A student, with a great reputation. And then I came trailblazing through!”

He graduated from Simon Kenton High School in 1996 and then Northern Kentucky University in 2001, with a degree in communications. In college, Heuser’s “trailblazing” took the form of throwing parties.

He would rent nightclubs out on Sundays when there was no school on that Monday, e.g. President’s Day. He paid his way through NKU on the strength of a couple successful parties per year. “I was blessed that I didn’t have any college debt,” he concluded, “so I was able to ‘create’ economy versus ‘join’ economy.”

After graduating, Heuser opened nightclubs and bars until about the age of 30, when he and Salzbrun were thrust together. Their collaboration began by throwing parties and events just for fun and profit, but soon, on behalf of brands and companies.

“As the world goes more and more digital,” Heuser said, “the value of human experience increases.”

“However, you’re only as good as your last event,” Salzbrun added. And that has become their mantra.

These engagements have grown increasingly complex and influential, working with organizations ranging from 3CDC to the venerable Greater Cincinnati Foundation and the Western & Southern Open.

Will Sikes, director of marketing for the long-standing tennis event, brought on Agar to help promote the tournament. He wanted something “new, non-traditional and fun. Something that could give us a transformed identity and a new voice.” Agar created giant tennis balls made to look like crashed meteors and placed strategically around downtown to create buzz. They had artists paint a mural at the tennis facility throughout the tournament, one of the most shared images from the event.

This past year, they devised an urban table tennis tournament held at Queen City Radio, a bar and beer garden in Over-the-Rhine. As Sikes explained, “Everyone knows ping pong. Simply shrink the game of tennis, add a little beer, and make it an official kick-off event. They pulled off what was an awesome event for us.”

So successful that next year they plan to significantly expand and move it to a city park. To make “tennis” accessible to everyone.
In addition to their work with Agar, Salzbrun and Heuser have expanded their reach.

Salzbrun is one-third of the team at Hickory Wald, developers of Rhinehaus sports bar in Over-the-Rhine, Nation Kitchen & Bar in nearby Pendleton, and The Hannaford in downtown Covington.

Salzbrun is also a founding member of Unpolished, launched within the Crossroads Church community, a platform for entrepreneurs to explore the intersection of faith and entrepreneurship, and to grow their business.

Heuser partnered with Michael Forgus, managing partner of Funky’s Catering, in the development of The Transept, a modern event space and bar in a former historic church located across from Washington Park and the new Cincinnati Shakespeare Company theater.

Their complementary personalities are reflected in their roles in Agar. Founder Heuser describes Salzbrun as “calm, cool, collected – never rattled” and himself as “anxious and impatient. I have temper tantrums,” he chuckled.

“Josh is much more about vision and leading the company into new opportunities,” said Salzbrun, the managing partner. “A lot of my work is much more based in strategy around projects, pitching new business, leading some of the creative.” Most recently, the project has been BLINK.

Their entry into BLINK came as the result of what they encountered several years ago in the Wynwood Walls arts district of Miami.
In the mid-2000s, the Wynwood area was nothing but abandoned warehouses. A development company, the Goldman Group, commissioned street artists to transform the outside walls. Now it’s admired as one of the most successful urban transformations in the country, all because artists blazed the trail.

“The Findlay Market district,” Salzbrun said, “is our emerging neighborhood.”

“Findlay Market is great,” he continued, “but 90 percent of the people that go there on weekends, they grab their groceries, jump back in the car and drive back (home) as fast as they can. If we could give them something to keep them there 30 minutes longer, and give them one block of discovery outside of the market, that could have significant impact in the development of that area.”

They took the idea to Tim Maloney, head of the Haile Foundation, who had already been in discussions with Brave Berlin about expanding the concept of LumenoCity to multiple sites. Maloney saw the opportunity to combine these two ideas into one grand event. And BLINK was born.

Agar’s responsibility extends north of Washington Park, up Pleasant Street to Findlay Market, and beyond, to the west, across Central Parkway. Numerous illuminated murals (the exact number keeps growing), several created by world-renowned street artists, will be installed along the way, among other light-based art works.

On Central Parkway, across from Sam Adams Brewery, two walls stand side by side. “We’re going to put murals on those,” Heuser said, “the illustrations will actually come to life (through projection mapping); they’ll talk to you and have a personality.”

“That will be our northern-most hub,” he explained. As attendees work their way up to Findlay and beyond, “we want that to turn into the party at the end.” The combination of live music and live art will project what Heuser called “the Agar experience.”

So the circle turns, and the culture grows . . . another tangible human experience.

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