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Under Armour George P Johnson Courtesy of George P. Johnson
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The Experiential – Agency Profile: George P. Johnson, Part Two

Bob Bonniol continues his conversation with James Klein, SVP of Live Production for George P Johnson, discussing experiential marketing, VR, and more.

It’s been a fruitful week for my experiential wanderings. With a nudge from Josh Weisberg, president at World Stage, I discovered the recent work of Craig Winslow, who is using projection mapping to restore billboards, murals, and marquees on the sides of buildings where they were either gone, or nearly completely faded. Winslow’s work sets up a delicious dissonance as your brain works to incorporate sensory inputs that seem almost like an aperture through time. This kind of location-based work is some of what I like best. Bringing context to an area and creating a vibrant sense and memory.

I also had the opportunity to pick up my conversation with James Klein, SVP of Live Production for George P Johnson. When we last converged, he regaled me with stories of festivals on Bondi Beach, which curiously, create the perfect skill set to manipulate all the handles of a complex, many layered production machine. We also talked a little about GPJ’s past, and how he’s bringing things to a new level. Check out Part One of the conversation first!

Bob Bonniol: So, you mentioned earlier that one of the first hires you made at GPJ was a lighting designer. I’ve watched, and been a part of a lot of agencies or groups vertically integrating. An LD seems like an interesting choice for an agency hire…

James Klein: Look, one of the most important elements on a show is lighting, no matter what type of project it is. GPJ has such a huge footprint that we could keep multiple lighting designers busy.

BB: I’m sure you do.

JK: For me, coming from that technical background, I needed to have a design team that I could collaborate and strategize with. We work together to improve the specifications of equipment, the design rationales, and the approaches to different shows. It was a natural step for me to hire a lighting designer, as well as build out my Live Production CAD department. Those are both areas I expect to continue expanding.


Courtesy of George P. Johnson

Car reveal

BB: I am seeing a pattern here. By having the expertise in house, you are making it a pillar of how GPJ works, and the heart of what it delivers.

JK: Absolutely. It has to be. GPJ’s shows have evolved. Our design rationale has become very heavily focused on technology. All of our clients are very focused on technology. As we push the boundaries of environment design across video surfaces, lighting, video blades and 3D sound design, the technical team needs to understand what that means and how to push our vendors to achieve things they’ve never attempted before. The best example of that is on the FCA auto show stand where we ran 1,200 DMX universes of lighting control, 32 outputs of video from a huge d3 server array and audio control via a TiMAX system that allows us to 3D map our audio across the whole booth, all controlled by timecode. That control system was so technically advanced that it took a dedicated production team to work out and specify that component of the show alone.

BB: If you were advising a student or young creative interested in experiential, what would you recommend they study or do to shape their skills?

JK: That’s a difficult question to answer because there are so many types of professionals that contribute to experiential marketing. GPJ breaks down into a ton of areas: account teams who manage the client relationships; event managers tasked with executing projects; creative teams of 2D and 3D graphic designers; special events teams that specialize in parties and customer appreciation events; warehousing and construction specialists in the fabrication department; design teams handling CAD and production design; live production, which is executive producers and technical directors tasked with executing and delivering shows; procurement who make sure we get the best possible rates on equipment rentals and purchases; events services, which is housing, registration, and logistics; and finally finance, legal, business development and other roles that keep the machine well-oiled and moving forward. Personally, I find the role of our strategists especially interesting. Their role is to represent the perspective of the audience. They make sure activations connect with people, give audiences a deeper understanding of the brand, and help the client achieve business goals.

With so many roles requiring wildly different skill sets, there are a million paths into experiential marketing. Just be great at whatever it is you do and continue to broaden your skill set within that space so that you are versatile. It’s also common to move into experiential marketing later in your career like I did so don’t think the door is closed to you if you don’t start your career there.

In terms of paths into live production, I’ve always been a big believer that experience is the best teacher. There are courses on event management and event production now that didn’t exist when I was getting started. But more important than any degree is getting as much experience as possible in a wide range of event types from high-end social to concerts to parties to marketing activations. Everything you learn can be used to deliver shows for the world’s biggest brands.

BB: Who are some of your biggest influences as a creative professional?

JK: I’ve always said that if I didn’t become an event producer, I would have been an architect. I draw a lot of production design inspiration from innovative architects like Zaha Hadid. I’m always scouring architecture magazines and blogs for striking images. I also find inspiration in lots of other creative spaces like art, automotive design, and even jewelry design. I keep tons of Pinterest boards that I look at when I’m brainstorming for clients.

BB: What do you see as the future and value for AR or VR in experiential?

JK: VR is such a hot space right now that we get tons of requests for it. And there are some good applications of VR but, in general, when you put on a VR headset, it takes attendees out of the actual event and isolates them. That’s the opposite of what you want to do at a live event where you’ve brought people together. Where I’m seeing the greatest potential for VR is as a business development tool. We can immerse a client in the space we’ve designed for them and transport them into that experience. It brings our concepts to life for them.

Jakub Mosur Photography

Dreamforce 2016

BB: I couldn’t agree more.  That ‘interface’ moving people from within an already carefully calculated immersive experience, into engaging with a device is…hard.

JK: Exactly. It’s really tricky so we use VR in very select cases. AR, on the other hand, keeps attendees aware of the actual environment that they are in and allows them to share a communal experience. We’re already implementing AR for clients using Microsoft HoloLens. Right now, there are still quite a few technological limitations to what we can do, and large-scale implementation across thousands of people at an event is cost prohibitive. But that’s changing fast. In the next couple of years, we're going to advance so far that walking around these events with your glasses on and augmented reality all over the place will become a standard thing.

BB: So it’s starting to pop for you… How are you implementing it?

JK: Suzanne Hanson, senior creative director for the Cisco account, recently executed an amazing AR activation to support the company’s revolutionary rhino conservation work being done in South Africa. The brief was to use a high-tech way to emotionally connect the event audience with the disappearance of one of the world’s most unique species. Technology needed to feature, but not in a way that would detract from the conservation story.

Suzanne created a narrative where attendees could see a life-size rhino appear directly in front of them. The rhino and a collection of secondary rhinos would appear and continue with their business unaware of the “human visitor.” Gradually, the rhinos would start to disappear and when the “hero” rhino disappeared, a message read, “Is this the only way you want future generations to see a rhino?” With its interactivity and visual appeal, the virtual rhinos evoked an emotional response from the user.

Since the activation was linked to a badge scan, participants were sent an email that gave them more information on how they could help the Connected Conservation project.

I can’t give away the details but we also have an AR activation coming up for Nissan.

VR we are actively using to present concepts to clients, and there will be a VR activation at Cisco GSX this year that you can look out for, which solves the issues associated with VR by using a VR theater.

BB: How do big brands derive value from experiential? 

JK: With the decreasing efficiency and effectiveness of digital and social media, brands need to look to experiential marketing to break through to consumers. Experiential marketing is about creating a physical, tangible representation of a brand where people can interact with and touch the brand. That’s super powerful.

And, as the space has evolved, experiential marketing has gotten more strategic, more focused, more effective, and more measurable. Traditionally, the downside of experiential marketing is that you reach fewer people even though the impact on those people is much more powerful. That’s why a huge focus of mine at the moment is extending the impact of experiential marketing to enormous numbers of people through a broad range of content types, particularly live broadcast, and we’re seeing huge results with this.

BB: It seems like the potential for metrics derived from experiential has gotten huge.  I think the proliferation of media layers and direct engagement has made that possible.  OK, speed round, what are some of your favorite approaches at the moment when thinking about spaces and phenomena?

JK: I’m very bullish on kinetic architecture. When I worked at Tait Towers, they always said “rock and roll leads the world of entertainment,” and it’s really true. We see exciting new technology get developed for concert tours that then filters down into the rest of entertainment. The technology and automation systems designed for concerts have enormous potential for our clients.

The use of drone technology, both from the camera point of view, as well as a synchronized show point of view, will also start to show up in our shows.

BB: Excellent. I do love drones. What thought do you want to leave us with?

JK: I want George P. Johnson to be considered the agency where we can create anything under any circumstances and deliver any moment, no matter what challenge a client throws at us. I know that we can do that because I’ve done it for clients throughout my career. I’ve always been the guy people come to with ideas someone told them were impossible, and I want to keep being that guy.

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.   

Other clients have included Marvel Studios, The Walt Disney Company, Live Nation, AEG, Feld Entertainment, Chrysler Corporation, Activision/Blizzard, America's Got Talent, X-Factor, American Idol, Blue Man Group, Microsoft, Nokia as well as countless recording artists, Broadway producers, opera companies, theme parks, cruise lines, dance companies, and architects.

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