The Power of a Shared Experience: Q&A with Peter McGrath

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Creating a culture of creativity and what makes a great brand experience

What happens when you take Disney Imagineering know-how and apply it to events and brand experiences? We recently chatted with Peter McGrath, SVP Creative for FreemanXP, to tap into his creative expertise and get to the core of that very question. The resulting dialogue covered everything from inspiring innovation and theme park creation to virtual reality and what makes life great. Here’s what he had to say. 

Q: Peter, you’ve worked with some of the most creative people on the planet. In your opinion, where does a culture of creativity and innovation come from within an organization?

PMcG: Well, it starts by bringing together a variety of opinions and encouraging people to voice those opinions through healthy dialogue. It’s not important to have everyone agree with one another — in fact, the opposite is true. Allowing individuals to disagree in a respectful manner can actually be additive. It creates the necessary tension that should exist in a truly creative organization.

At Disney Imagineering, for example, we worked with Bruce Mau to create our Imagineering Living Book of Know-how, which was a book of our cultural norms, processes, guidelines, and so on. We wanted to build the book over time and solicit input from Imagineers across the organization, so it was designed to be interactive — anyone could add his or her opinion. What resulted was the foundation of the repository for the know-how of the company. But a secondary result was that we all got to know and trust one another really well. And so, although we may not have always agreed, we always trusted each other. And the tension of trust and dialogue allowed more robust creativity and innovation to occur.

Q: Part of your expertise is in theme park design. How does that translate to brand experience?

PMcG: This is something that I am very excited about. I think that my know-how from theme park design can overlay nicely into this space. It’s all about telling the stories of these companies and organizations and bringing the experience of these brands to people in new, interesting, and compelling ways. 

Take, for example, one of my proudest accomplishments — the design and build of Tokyo Disney Seas, which opened in 2001. The experience of Tokyo Disney Seas was very rich in storytelling and place-making — you are completely immersed in it. The Mermaid Lagoon is just one instance within the park. It has elements that put park-goers in worlds both above and below the sea, featuring the animated characters from The Little Mermaid. Another example representing immersive storytelling is the Lost River Delta featuring Indiana Jones and the Temple of Crystal Skull (the Japanese love Indiana Jones). As a result, we were able to craft a physical space that represented something meaningful for the Japanese consumer.

When we apply this type of thinking to brand experiences, we must start by determining the inspiration behind the brand and then applying an experiential point of contact for the audience. It’s about knowing how these brands and organizations want their audiences to feel and how the brand can affect their lives in a positive way. With that information, we can then bring storytelling into a space to allow attendees to interact more intimately with the products and services on offer and in new and interesting ways.

Q: At Disney, your work was all about creating experiences. Tell us, what makes a great experience?

PMcG: You have to keep in mind that everyone’s experiences are unique. And so what makes an experience great is how we tailor it for individuals. There should be a notion of interactivity and personalization to everything we create, and technology can help us do that more easily now than ever before.

But in this world of mass personalization, keep in mind that not every single thing needs to be customized. Why? Because there is a certain beauty in the moments that we share with one another. So now the question becomes, how do we create these moments that are customized to the individual, promote interaction among people, and generate a feeling of community from shared experiences? That’s what makes a great experience. 

Q: In your opinion, how will technology impact brand experiences?

PMcG: Technology can be a great tool, as it allows us to create worlds around products in new and interesting ways. Media and the digital world play a big part in this. So it’s a malleable move toward augmented reality, virtual reality, 3-D printing, and so on. These can be incredibly powerful storytelling devices for brand experiences. 

Q: Last question for you, Peter. Coming back to your response to a previous question, how does sharing experiences with other people help to amplify them?

PMcG: Well, as individuals, we are all different. And the wonder and beauty of the human condition is that we are all going through life at the same time and having unique experiences that define who we are — they become our fingerprint. We should never underestimate the demands that we put on our quest or hunger for personalized and shared experiences. Those experiences are augmented or amplified when they are shared with others. The sum of shared parts becomes greater than the whole.

Any time you can bring human beings together, you create a net positive outcome. In other words, life is better when we experience it together. 


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