I have long wanted to have a look at some of the leading experiential agencies through the lens of their creative leadership. With that in mind, I’ve lined up some extraordinary conversations about design, the industry, and the agency world.
I was fortunate to start this series by sitting down with James Klein, the senior vice president of live production for George P. Johnson. GPJ is well-known as a huge player in experiential, coming from humble beginnings as a fabricator for trade show booths, to a full-service creative behemoth. Klein now occupies his position at GPJ after taking a perhaps unexpected path. The resulting conversation was both long and interesting. This week I’ll focus on how the journey began, both for George P. Johnson and Klein.
Let’s start with some background.
Entrepreneur George P. Johnson founded the George P. Johnson Company in 1914 to manufacture sails for the growing Great Lakes region shipping trade. He re-oriented the business with the rise of the automotive industry by designing and creating branded automotive environments at festivals, fairs, and public spaces.
GPJ still lives by the mantra of its founder to “Make no small plans.” In the century since its founding, George P. Johnson (GPJ) has continuously evolved. The company has patented numerous technologies, rolled out the industry's first global strategy practice, grown to 1,400 employees across 30 offices worldwide, diversified its client base across industries, and expanded its capabilities to capture every facet of experiential marketing including strategy, creative, fabrication, operations, live production, and analytics. Today, GPJ delivers an average of 23 events per day for Fortune 500 clients like IBM, FCA, Salesforce, Cisco, Toyota/Lexus, Under Armour, and many others. No small plans indeed…
Bob Bonniol: James, let’s start with your ‘origin story’…
James Klein: So, I come from Australia where I started my career in the events industry. I started off specializing in large music festival parties, doing New Year’s Eve parties on Bondi Beach for 30,000 people. That led me to working with MTV Networks where I was the technical director of the VMAs Australasia for six years. I then went overseas to Europe to work for the electronic music festival group, ID&T, doing festivals all through Amsterdam, Germany, and back in Australia.
I moved my career to America in 2010 to work on rock and roll stages at Tait Towers, and then started my company, James Klein Events. I eventually crossed paths with GPJ during the course of my work for a mutual client, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, and the rest is history.
BB: How does production culture and production process differ between Australia and the US?
JK: The Australian event market breeds some of the best event producers and technical directors in the industry because the market is so small. In Australia, you have to wear multiple hats. The budgets aren’t big enough to have a different person for every role so, if you’re the technical director, you’re also the site manager, the production manager, and the CAD draftsman. You need to work across multiple disciplines.
Also, because the industry isn’t as large as America, you can’t specialize in only one genre of event. I came up doing music festivals and concerts but I was also doing New Year’s Eve celebrations, product launches, corporate activations, film premiers, broadcast, high-end weddings and bar mitzvahs, and even a funeral once. You’re doing it all to fill your year up, so that gives you a very wide range of experience in different styles of shows with a wide range of budgets.
BB: It’s interesting… The flexible nimble ‘you’ of your early career really prepared you to be effective in your current gig. So now that you’re operating at the scale of GPJ, what does your role look like?
JK: My role has evolved in the industry. I now have teams that plan and execute the shows. My role is to lead those teams, and my guys work their asses off to deliver shows for our clients. I sign off on over 100 million dollars’ worth of technical spend a year. I’m constantly bouncing from project to project, ensuring that GPJ’s quality, standards, and design approach to shows is perfect.
Because of my background, I’m able to see how all of the pieces are coming together from a unique perspective and offer insights on all facets of the shows. I’ve got the history and the experience in jumping around all those different types of projects throughout my career to draw on.
BB: Your music background, in particular your experience in EDM, seems totally at odds with the corporate world. What drew you to corporate work coming from the exciting world of concerts and festivals?
JK: The idea that corporate work is less creative or challenging than concert and festival design is simply not true, especially for someone like me who comes from a high-level technical production and show design background. Today, clients are pushing the envelope when it comes to what they want to have at their shows, and what technology they want to integrate. Corporate shows have evolved to integrate some of the largest and most technical design systems around. Some of these auto show stands are 300' wide and 150' deep. When you consider the sheer volume of technology—from screen surface area, to lighting and audio gear, and ways in which all of the technology has to integrate—these shows are much larger and more technical than most of the biggest concert stages.
Philosophically, the approaches are more aligned than you would think, as well. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an auto show or a keynote session or product launch. All of our clients want their moment to shine. It’s no different than a popstar or DJ walking out for their moment to shine on a concert stage.
Storytelling is another commonality. Electronic music stage design and show design is all about delivering key moments throughout an artist’s set. An EDM artist is only a single person or DJ standing on a stage. The stage has to evolve and tell a story to engage the audience. At a corporate event, these stages also need to transform and tell stories. We may be selling a particular item or product, or trying to make a crowd remember a key messaging point, but it’s no different to rock, pop, and EDM where you’re also highlighting and accentuating key moments.
I’ve carried most, if not all, of my techniques from the music world over into my work at GPJ. It’s part of what makes our approach to live production so unique.
BB: Can you take that further? What approaches are you deploying at GPJ?
JK: It’s not the sexiest part of event production but I’ve dramatically altered our approaches to labor management and pre-production. One of the main ways I’m revolutionizing our live production work at GPJ is by using rock and roll style techniques for loading shows in and out of venues. When I look at my yearly spend on production, the highest expense is labor. So I’ve brought the use of techniques like pre-rig trussing to GPJ activations.
When I took a look at the production schedules for expos, it was clear that the most important thing is to get the booth guys building the booths as quickly as possible. If I can pre-hang all my lighting fixtures, pre-cable it, bring it in, and get it up and out of the way so that the booth guys can get their job done, that is not only saving us time on site with our labor, but it’s also making the whole production schedule flow a lot better. We’ve just started getting that implemented, most recently at shows for IBM Interconnect in Las Vegas and for a press launch for FCA in New York where we only had 24 hours to load in.
I’ve opened up a full show visualization department where every show is loaded into show pre-visualization software. Every single lighting fixture position is checked prior to turning up on site, swapping the fixtures in and out, depending on what’s available from our vendors. That level of oversight and pre-design has never been applied to corporate events before, and that has not only made our specification of shows a lot more accurate, but it’s sped up our time on site. We know that the equipment that we’re installing is going into the right location and is the right choice for what we need to achieve.
I made the people at GPJ nervous when I started telling clients I could load a show in 24 hours. But I draw on my history of concert touring and production design where shows are designed on the mentality of “we only have eight hours to set up.” I design a show from that technical approach of pre-visualizing, pre-programming, and pre-setting. Then you’re able to set up a show really quickly, just like loading a concert tour into an arena.
Our clients’ budgets aren’t getting any bigger and they’re not renting the venues for any longer, but they push us to deliver more for them. So how do we deliver the spectacle that they’re after? The way you do that is you become more creative and strategic in your approach to your design.
Bob Bonniol is a director and production designer known for his implementation of extensive media and interactive features in his productions. Currently he is the creative director for the massive renovation of The Core at General Motors' World Headquarters in Detroit. The installation features the largest permanent interactively driven LED screen array on earth. In 2016, he was production designer for the Star Wars Celebration segment of ABC’s Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special, working closely with Lucasfilm, Disney Music Group, and director Amy Tinkham.