When Imagination began winding up its Hong Kong presence in November last year, its Asia MD Chris Dobson took on a new role heading up The Labs — a new experience design consultancy under Project:WorldWide.
The Labs aims to take the experiential part of the events business and work with the likes of developers, architects and property owners to transform everything from airport terminals to museums into customer-centric experiences. Two months in, CEI talks to Chris about the transition:
How did The Labs come about?
When I started in the industry in London back in the ‘90s, the term ’experience’ seemed to be much broader, with agencies like Imagination, Fitch, MET Studio and others really straddling the divide between architecture, content, technology and brand.
I was always inspired by that diversity, and it’s always struck me that a well-constructed team can turn its hand either way — I tend to look at things as either temporary or permanent experiences, rather than event, activation or brand experience. The approach to me is the same from a creative strategy perspective, they just have different executions.
When you look at the needs of brands today, I think it’s much closer to that DNA. It’s not about more reach, or bigger advertising budgets. It’s about being able to combine spaces, technology, brand, content and now data, to create really compelling, connected and customer-centric experiences.
If you can create a great experience in retail, for example, and connect it with a strong data-driven CRM program, great content and clever social, then that is the most effective marketing mix you can get. People trust people, so it’s about focusing on them and letting them share the experience.
How can event practices be applied to other sectors?
The birth of the experiential industry, and the background of so many of its great practitioners, is the theatre. It’s that innate understanding of narrative, rather than slogans or messages, and the immediacy of that, rather than the remote manipulation of ‘channels’ that sets the industry apart.
Today that is needed in an array of sectors more than ever — technology is brilliant if used well, but when it becomes the main driving force it can be cold and un-emotional. As Joe Pine, the author of The Experience Economy, put it: “[it’s] no longer about “time saved”, but “time well spent” — and I couldn’t agree more.
The future of retail, for example, relies on creating and curating immersive physical experiences, otherwise you might as well just be an online store. In Hong Kong I love what HMV has done to re-invent its brand — they’ve really put a feeling of community and music culture back at the heart of their retail experience — that’s something you’d never get from Amazon or Taobao.
What has been interesting to note since you started?
Two things really. The first is that nearly every senior brand executive in the world seems to believe that ‘experience’ is their number one priority and growth driver, but few companies are actually set up to deliver this.
Does ‘experience’ sit within the ‘retail design’ team, with the marketing team, with brand? Obviously the answer is all of them, but without a central mandate you find fragmented teams, which are creating fragmented experiences.
The second thing is how hard it is to start a company from scratch! When no-one knows who you are, why you want to talk to them, or what you do, it’s a long hard road to get your name known and the work flowing!
But there are so many really interesting things happening across Asia, whether that be new commercial spaces, cultural districts, infrastructure or retail, I think that is a really interesting space. If you love your work, that carries through to the project and that’s what gets you noticed.
Chris Dobson is managing consultant, The Labs. Based in Hong Kong, Dobson has more than 15 years’ experience in integrated experience strategy and design, and has led environmental design, branding, communication, retail design, technology and brand experience programmes for clients including GE, IWC Shaffhausen, HSBC, Swire, Shangri-La and Carlsberg.