The mission is to make stars out of creative technologists.
As technology continues to open up new possibilities for multi-sensory spectacles, more and more brands want to engage consumers with “immersive experiences.” That’s where META comes in: the “experience production company” represents an emerging group of creative technologists, or “experience directors,” who specialize in “the art of being there.”
It all began in 2005 when Justin Bolognino, META’s founder and CEO, was in Barcelona watching a video DJ act called Eclectic Method, who were DJing with DVD turntables. To Bolognino, this felt like the future, so he decided to represent Eclectic Method and introduce video DJing to brands in the United States.
The successful effort evolved into a promising business venture, and in 2011, Bolognino began signing other talent. In March 2016, Bolognino relaunched the evolved META with the talent as the engine. We spoke to him about META and the nature of experiences today and in the future.
The talent represented by META is unique. Could you explain how you decided to represent experiential directors?
We started off representing talents from beyond (META means beyond). The idea was that you’d never find our talent in house at an agency, you have to go beyond a typical agency to find talent that we would represent. The mission was to make stars out of creative technologists. My daughter isn’t going to grow up dreaming of being an electronic guitarist like I did, she’s going to grow up wanting to be a VR artist, or perhaps we can’t even conceive of the career what she’ll want.
The coolest artists in the world are the ones creating visual, interactive experiences, and we don’t have a name for them yet. There’s a huge industry out there to represent this space.
You’re essentially establishing new job roles within the world of creative technology—what’s to come?
My whole business model is about how I think there is a new rock star coming. Not yet, but coming. Chris Milk [founder of VR tech company Vrse] is teetering on it. But not many more. When my mum knows who Chris Milk is, that will be a defining moment.
Who is the new rock star?
A tech star. Imagine that! A good example is Allison Wood of Reify. She just turned 27, and I truly believe she will be a star. A geek/coder/tech star—but also a fashionista, a CEO, an artist…
There’s a large demand for experiences, consumers are spending more on experiences, and statistics show that we’re choosing experience over material goods…
Great! My entire business model is predicated on this growth.
…so what are some examples of how you’re tapping into this?
I’m doing a big activation at Panorama. Goldenvoice, the event producers behind Coachella, are doing their first New York City festival, and it’s the first festival in the United States that celebrates technology as part of a festival. Think about that: there are no major festivals with tech infused in them. That alone is a signifier of what’s to come.
How has technology helped heighten experiences?
Technology is integral to the future of experiences, but I think it’s more about hiding the technology. For example, at South by Southwest 2013, for the project #FEED powered by Twitter, we had 16 different visually based interactive installations that were pushing and pulling social media in real time.
Since then, I have seen so many feed-like installations. This year, all my pitches were about hiding the technology—it’s not in your face; you have to reveal it. I think that sense of baking the tech into the materials is the future. It’s about using technology to forget about technology.
Which areas of tech do you think will be interesting to watch?
I’m huge on augmented reality (AR). AR is a connectivity tool, as opposed to an isolated tool, like virtual reality. We can share and revel in the use of AR. So, imagine a festival where there are triggers everywhere for AR—you can create an entire world between the viewer and the environment.
Do you think the future of experiences will always include tech?
Not always. I’m not hyperbolic about it. For example, I think Sleep No More will be effective for many, many years to come and there’s no tech involved in that show. The future of experience is about being there—it’s about ephemerality. We now have the emergence of FOMO (fear of missing out), which is all about being there.
META is threaded by experience: our tag is “the art of being there” because we believe that the deeper we get into digital, the more we want physical. For example, if we look at the rise of festival culture, it is perfectly aligned with the rise of mobile technology. When the iPhone came out, it didn’t mean more people sat at home with it. In fact, the opposite happened.
How can a brand be more than just an experience? I want to establish how a consumer can walk away from a brand experience and for the experience to continue, rather than end the moment they walk away.
A brand has to elevate your experience on some level and be the catalyst for your experience. We are doing a lot of augmented reality work with our talent Reify. During South by Southwest we created The Dream Closet with Refinery 29 for Neiman Marcus. We created a closet full of Neiman Marcus clothing and then we gave out iPads so you could essentially hold up the iPad, and the clothing would become animated via 3D augmented reality. That was the experience.
Now how do you take it away? Maybe we build an app that you can take home, and that same piece of clothing you can augment and use and share with your friends. Or maybe you can go to the store and the entire store could become augmented reality. Not just for fun, but for utility. It’s basically creating the dream layer—which exists always in reality—but being able to bring it to life.
It’s also the creation of a memory. We did a collaboration with Spotify and SoulCycle at SXSW with our director Volvox Labs, and no one’s ever going to forget that experience! We created a fully immersive connect-reactive SoulCycle experience. If you’ve never experienced the brand SoulCycle, you will never forget who enabled this experience. It’s all about being there.
Walk me through one of your projects that had the perfect digital and analogue balance.
#FEED by Twitter at South by Southwest. There were three components running everyday. We would start the morning with “body,” so we had spinning classes, yoga, meditation, etc. At SXSW there was nothing to do in the morning and I suggested body work (which has now permeated throughout SXSW, but was very novel at the time). And then in the day we had “mind,” where we hosted panels—inviting thought leaders and influencers to talk and share. And at night we had “spirit,” which was a dance party. The day moved from connecting with your body, to mind, to shaking it all out and reveling in spirit.
All of this was immersed within real-time social media, so Twitter would ask “What’s happening?” and the feed would be the celebration of what was happening. Social media and technology have collapsed time into being about the immediate—the here and now.
Do you think people are becoming more interested in connecting to spirituality along with the rise of technology?
I think we are redefining what spiritual means. Spiritual 10 years ago was very dogmatic; there was a specific way you were suppose to look, specific trinkets you were suppose to wear, there were specific forms of meditation to take… But now all of that has collapsed, and we seek to experience spirituality throughout our everyday lives. We want to work and live from it, and not see it as something separate. It’s about integration.