Grant Dudson on trite and triumphant creative

Grant Dudson on trite and triumphant creative

Creative Moment chats to creative maven Grant Dudson about his inspirations, work ethic and industry journey.

Grant Dudson has made a name for himself on Linkedin, captivating and challenging audiences through his world-spanning thirst for all things out of the ordinary.

The award-winning experiential creative director specialises in the ideation and delivery of powerful brand experiences, events, spatial design and immersive art.

From driving Johnnie Walker's global experiential creative for Blue Label and Black Label to designing immersive art installations for brands like Tudor and Talisker among others, he's known for pushing the boundaries of possibility within the experiential landscape.

Tom Hall (TH): Do you have a mindset or process for being creative?

Grant Dudson (GD): My process has changed over the years. I used to work for a company called Dr Productions who’d do big projection mapping shows. We would have everyone in a room and just brainstorm. We’d discuss the brief and have blackboards out. Everyone would be scrawling on the walls and using Post-it notes: even people that weren't supposed to be there. This method worked really well for us.

Generally what I would do is distil all of that creativity into something that I felt had a bit of direction, finding a solution that fit the brand. I would tend to add my own flair to it, even if I couldn't find anything from the brainstorm, then I'd ultimately try and deliver an independent idea as well with the creative team, who will work out how to visualise it.

I don't do brainstorms as much as I used to. It's more of an independent process. I'll go: “Look guys, I've got three really banging ideas that I think are going to work. They tick all the boxes in terms of the ambition of the brand. Which one do you like most?”. Then it becomes more of a joined-up team effort. But both ways can work well. 

TH: When do the practical concerns come in?

GD: Once we all agree on the direction, we'll start thinking about the production practicalities. A production designer will chip in to discover what will work physically, then a visual artist will start to articulate that from a creative perspective.

There’s always some sort of manipulation from the client to make an idea fit for the space we're working in.

Budget-wise, things chop and change all the time too. One minute they've got £1,000,000, but the next minute it's 500 grand, and the next minute it's 50 grand. That’s why scalability should be factored into early conversations.

TH: What is your personal creative happy place?

GD: I'll start work at 8pm. When everyone's going to sleep or winding down, that's when I come alive. I tend to listen to classical music, and really emotive, beautiful film scores that free up my imagination.

TH: Where do you get your inspiration?

GD: I work a lot with Pinterest, and if you've seen my LinkedIn, you'll be privy to a lot of Midjourney stuff as well. It's kind of like Pinterest on steroids and it allows me to think about all of these crazy ideas and how they sit within what the brand is trying to accomplish.

I think it's really important to keep abreast of the latest technologies. A lot of the stuff that I started out on was big projection mapping shows, but that soon started to expand out into other realms of technology-driven experiences.

When working with HP, we wanted to get people excited about its Pavilion 360HP laptop, and a Bastille concert was chosen as part of the experiential project. I came up with an interactive dance floor that would power the light show. So the more people jump up and down, the more it converts that energy into the light show.

TH: AI seems to be a movement you’ve embraced, where do you stand on its creative application, and what technologies have inspired you creatively?

GD: Everyone was slagging AI off when it first came out, and I'm sure there's still that conversation, but if you ignore it, you'll never be able to sit at the table and work out how to shape it. It's here, so try and learn how to use it.

Since 2010, projection mapping has been the big thing. Dr Productions made the most of the technology, and that's why they got the gig with Ralph Lauren, handling its ‘40’ experience at the flagship stores in New York and London. They took projection mapping to a completely new level: green screening polo horses running towards the camera. There was this really filmic quality to it.

Since then we’ve seen everything from multi-sensory EEG headsets all the way through to the different embodiments of holograms. These are all essentially illusion-based. When the 3D anamorphic billboards started to appear publicly, we were looking at those about 7-8 years beforehand. It takes a company in Shanghai to do it really well for everyone else to go “This is what we need”.

Everybody wants something that's never been done, but they're too scared when it comes to the crunch because they don't want to be the first person with their neck on the line.

TH: So it’s about taking the time to understand a new technology?

GD: There are brands with lots of money that still have a sense of agility – making creative on April Fools day for example, and reacting to trends. They can still be responsive to things that happen. When AI appeared, brands were like: “We’re not going to touch it”. Whereas Martini, were like: “Hold on, let's figure it out”. They created a whole campaign using these generative images and got to say that they were the first brand to actually use it.

TH: Which experiential events stand out that didn’t involve technology?

GD: We had a brief that came in from Ford. They wanted us to reset the way that we present its car at a big press launch just outside of Madrid. They were asking what technologies they could use. There were, of course, loads of cool technologies, but it’s not just about technology: it's about the way that you present an experience.

So we did a whole series of immersive experiences that were very analog, inspired by [Swedish artist] Carsten Holler. He borrowed the concept from an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery where you go through this dark tin tunnel. There's nothing to it, to be honest, but it was the fact that you just slowly disappeared into darkness. It worked on a very visceral level.

Ford wanted something fun in which the interior of the car, with calf leather and stitching, was the focus. Traditionally, they’d end with a PowerPoint presentation and little swatches that are handed out. I wanted to go with a completely different pitch, so I recommended a black labyrinth which you need to navigate through, but in which you're forced to reach out and put your hands on the walls to navigate around the twists and turns.

We put lots of natural and man-made textures in there that you would find within the car itself, from tree bark to grass, then you would go to an acoustic foam sticky wall. We also put up a collage of rubber gloves spraying out water to freak people out. It became a real experience for people and afterwards, when they met the interior designer, they were literally hanging off her every word.

It was as analog as you get, but we used an infrared camera to capture some of the responses to the rubber glove collage. Their imaginations went a bit wild, but it meant that they could take those moments away and share them on social media.

TH: It seems like retail in particular could use an experiential shake up like this to invigorate the sector – which is facing competition from online, as well as rising rental prices.

GD: I agree, retail needs to be experience driven! Every time you go on TikTok or Instagram, half the stuff is these crazy immersive worlds that have been designed. You have to ask why are brands not pulling from that and embracing it as their bedrock?

If you go to say a Louis Vuitton shop or a Reiss you know that you're going to have a really cool branded experience first and foremost. Another thing is tapping into the wellness trend. I was looking at the stats on 18-24 year olds in terms of mental health and over a third of the global population have symptoms of a mental health disorder. 

We need to gravitate more towards joyful experiences.

Authentic, purposeful joy is what we were used to when we were young, then we’re told to ignore this instinct. Brands are finally starting to understand this.

TH: Yes, brands do seem more keen to fully realise their visions in a fun and playful way, like Coach, who recently launched a café with the brand’s pantones and iconography in 3d. Are there any brands pointing the way forward?

GD: If you follow me, you'll know that I do try and provoke. Not everyone agrees with what I say. That's fine. But I've always struggled with television commercials. Above the line for brands has always been driven by TV scenes. Why are we pretending that half of what we see in these TV scenes is content we want to watch, because it's not. It's often pretty forgettable. And brands are still ploughing millions of dollars into these commercials. It's not ‘owned media’, right? It's paid media, it's forced media.

Brands should instead create experiences that consumers will pay for and share because they love it. Pepsi did this at the Super Bowl, which was a whole shift in the way that they target their consumers at the event. They put all of the huge budget that they would normally spend on really cool ads into experiential and did a Las Vegas takeover. They took over the sphere, and there were a lot of experiential elements throughout Vegas. It was a huge success.

They also got various influencers to take part and, combined, their audiences were far above mainstream reach.

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