by Jonathan Sievert, Marketing & Operations Intern
John Ellard recently joined the SHW team as SVP of Creative & Production. Over the past 25 years, he’s worked on some amazing programs any event planner would love to be involved with: Cannes Film Festival, SXSW, and Microsoft Xbox events, as well as many concerts, brand activations, conferences, and expos.
John’s passion is to support bold creative ideas that support client brands, and help those ideas come to life, creating brand experiences that evoke emotion.
SHW summer intern Jonny Sievert spent a few minutes talking with John about his work.
Jonny Sievert: What inspired you to open your own event agency after leaving Microsoft?
John Ellard: I was at Microsoft full time for nearly a decade and had worked with them as a client for several years prior. I had a fantastic experience there, especially being a part of the original Xbox team. I realized one day that as I progressed up the corporate ladder, I was increasingly stuck in the office in meetings and getting further away from the part of the work I enjoyed the most, which was being on site at an event location, working with the talented technical & creative professionals to bring the event programs to life. Starting my own company allowed me to stay closer to that part of the business and opened opportunities to work with new brands and partners on a broader array of projects.
JS: What is the most unusual or out-of-the-box event you have done? How did you come up with that?
JE: I’ve certainly done some unique events! One of the more memorable ones is a secret 48-hour video game festival we built in the Mojave Desert for a product launch. After a lengthy location search, we found a 400,000- square-foot airplane hangar called Plant 42, used by the USAF. We designed and built an indoor/outdoor experience complete with hundreds of video game stations, a movie theater, performance stages for live bands, 300-foot-long food tents, taiko drummers, geodesic domes, 1,500 bean bags, a digital forest complete with live white rabbits. We even had to hire a snake wrangler to keep the rattlesnakes out of the hanger. The heat from the lighting, and probably the rabbits, attracted the snakes in the evening. Nearly 4,500 gaming enthusiasts from around the world found their way to the location via an online viral marketing campaign. Some international contest winners were even flown in via a private plane, landing on a runway adjacent to the hangar.
JS: What do you tell clients when they want they want a big bang with limited bucks? How do you work around budgeting issues?
JE: Sometimes being budget challenged forces creativity in how you approach an event design. It also requires that you constantly and consistently evaluate how each element helps achieve the end goal. It keeps the team focused.
With the evolution of event technology and the cost of LED going down, creating a visual focal point or beacon that accomplishes that “big bang” effect with an audience can be done without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. Compromise and trade-offs are part of every event program, even those with robust budgets.
JS: Can you think of an event that wasn’t as successful? Why do you think this was the case?
JE: I try not to. Therapy has helped a lot with that. All joking aside, there is always risk in a live event environment. No matter how well something has been planned and how many contingencies are in place, sometimes things just happen that are out of your control.
I was part of a team that designed and produced a global E-sports tournament last year. We kicked off in Paris, France. The event was designed to be broadcast globally on ESPN and Canal+, and live streamed on multiple websites including YouTube and Twitch to hundreds of thousands of people. The event was shot and broadcast in high definition, so we brought in a special satellite truck. About an hour into the 8-hour live broadcast, we lost the program feed that we were sending to the broadcast partners. Chaos ensued and after a lot of panic and trouble-shooting we discovered one of the local French crew members had leaned against a cable and inadvertently disconnected power to a portion of the satellite truck. Needless to say, the client was not pleased. We ultimately recovered and the next two shows in Sydney and Miami went much smoother.
JS: How can you create an emotional connection with an audience through an event or an experience?
JE: Our emotional reactions to an event can be guided by sensory information. We use sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing to investigate the world around us. By designing an attendee journey at an event that plays to the senses, it can trigger emotional processing, learning, and interpretation. This to me is the basis of experiential marketing.
I was thinking about this when I attended a concert several months back. It was me and thousands of other fans simultaneously watching the same show and when it was over everyone left having that same shared experience. Conversely, on a sensory level each person walked away with a unique memory of their own individual experience at the concert.
JS: What is something you have always wanted to do in your job?
JE: I’ve been fortunate to have been able to do some amazing things throughout my career and have checked quite a few boxes. I love doing shows with a live music component. Years ago, I wanted to create an intimate series of concert events filmed at some of the world’s most iconic natural locations or UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I even went so far as to location scout a floating dive platform on the Great Barrier Reef, and locations near Uluru (a.k.a. Ayers Rock) in the Australian Outback. Other projects and priorities have put this on the back burner for now, but you never know.
Jonny Sievert is a student at the University of Denver studying Hospitality Administration/Management. He's passionate about bringing people together in meaningful ways through live events, and working with clients to bring brand experiences to life. In his spare time, he loves to spend time exploring the outdoors and finding new spots for backpacking trips, rock climbing, or skiing.