What is an experience?
Does anything we feel, touch, see, hear or smell count? Or is there more to it than that? What causes a moment to rise above the others, to become something visceral and authentic?
Some say true experience requires community. If so, where does that leave virtual experiences, which increasingly dominate our lives? Does an experience matter if we are alone, in front of a screen, watching something that already happened to someone else?
Today, we are seeing the rise of a generation that holds experience sacred. More than money, more than prestige, Millennials define and judge themselves based on the quality and quantity of their experiences. This is the generation that will up and quit a job they've held for three years to work on a farm in Kenya, just because they want the experience.
At the same time, they are happy to experience much of the world virtually.
Millennials are mobile, yet glued to their screens. The average Millennial racks up 18 hours of media use a day, according to a recent study. If they do end up at that farm in Kenya, they will still live a life online that is wholly separate from the one in front of them — without seeing a disconnect between the two.
As creative professionals, we have to ask ourselves: How can we create genuine experiences online that will resonate with this generation? What does the virtual version of a music festival or a European excursion look like? How can we make experiences that Millennials will feel are real, invigorating and worthy of sharing with others?
To commemorate the anniversary of Sept. 11 last year, I worked with the New York City ballet to stage a rooftop dance performance called New Beginnings. On the morning of the anniversary, just as the sun peeked over the Manhattan skyline, two dancers delivered a moving, somber performance atop 4 World Trade Center, the nearly completed Freedom Tower lit up in the background. In person, it was gorgeously poignant and moving. But how to share that experience with millions of distant others?
Using just one camera and a bare-bones crew, we filmed the entire dance in a single, continuous shot. There was no editing and no sound except for the music — a single piano and violin. The effect, like a documentary of a private moment, was haunting and powerful. The video has been viewed more than 1.3 million times on YouTube.
But more important than how we filmed it was what we filmed. The event itself — two dancers moving together under an auburn New York sky on that particular tower on that particular day — was striking enough to survive the translation to video without being diminished. To see it was practically to be there.
David Rockwell, in his book Spectacle, argues that "the experience of a virtual community pales in the face of the physical experience of a spectacle." I wouldn't necessarily argue with that. But using today's technology, I believe we can come pretty close.
How should we, as modern communications companies, create experiences today? What skills do we need? And is our current agency model optimized to deliver those experiences?
One reason I joined JWT in June is to help pioneer a strong multidisciplinary approach to advertising. In many ways, the old divisions of writers, creative directors and account people no longer make sense. Ask yourself: If you were to build an agency today, would it look anything like the one you currently have?
We need to borrow heavily from Hollywood. We need to embed P.R. and event management right in the middle of our agencies. As creative people, we know a lot about making art that touches and moves people to action. That doesn't mean we understand the nuances of staging an impactful event. We should build our agencies to produce authentic, real-world experiences that translate potently online.
For me, this was part of JWT's lure. With so many disciplines under one roof, and more than 200 offices in more than 90 countries, my new 150-year-old agency resembles nothing so much as a mini-holding company. And if my many years in the business have taught me anything, it's that all these disciplines need each other to succeed.
As Millennials increasingly define our culture, so, too, will they define our understanding of an experience. If advertising is a conversation, and experience our lingua franca, we need to rethink what we are saying. That starts with the conversations within our own agencies.