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  Industry Profile

Industry Profile: Justin Bolognino

— By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)

This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Justin Bolognino, founder and creative director of Learned Evolution, and The Meta Agency.

Incorporating art into large multi-media events is the latest new frontier.

At its crossroads is Brooklyn-based Justin Bolognino

As founder and creative dir. of Learned Evolution, and its companion company, The Meta Agency, he is becoming one of the world's leading brand strategists.

Among the top companies Bolognino has attracted are: Twitter, Samsung, Vimeo, Android, Lincoln Motor Co., Ralph Lauren, Coca Cola, Microsoft, Target, Google, Apple, Pandora, Hewlett Packard, Yahoo, Gawker, Spike TV, ESPN, Adidas, Guild of America, Variety magazine, and Embrace Presents.

Launched in 2006, Learned Evolution is digital agency that specializes in multidisciplinary design, social media marketing, and technology-driven experiences.

Founded in 2010, The Meta Agency manages visual, experiential, and interactive artists who can design for events, brand activations and permanent installations.

One of the breathtaking sights of South By South West 2013 in Austin, Texas was a five days and nights experience, #FEED powered by Twitter, that merged social media, art, parties, and technology.

Produced for SXSW for the second year by Learned Evolution and Twitter, #FEED wowed festival and conference goers by pushing beyond the boundaries of digital storytelling. Some 16 interactive media artists told the SXSW story in art installations curated by Learned Evolution, and The Meta Agency.

A nightly party, @NIGHT, brought DJs onto projection-mapped stages with interactive walls at the AMOA-Arthouse at the Jones Center.

Following graduation from Northeastern University in Boston in 2002 with a Bachelors of Science in Rhetoric, Communications and Eastern Philosophy, Bolognino’s first major job was as associate producer of the documentary film, “The Wetlands Preserved,” that profiled the celebrated Tribeca nightclub.

In 2004, Bolognino became production manager for RESFest, the most prominent digital film festival in North America until ending in 2006. Bolognino went on to be festival director for the Green Apple Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History.

In 2009, Peter Shapiro and Charley Ryan, opened the Brooklyn Bowl, a massive concert, bowling, and dining venue in an old Williamsburg warehouse.

Bolognino, retained by Brooklyn Bowl two years before its opening, crafted a unique marketing and design strategy that favored social media over traditional advertising.

Brooklyn Bowl has grown into a popular American brand with Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas slated to open next year. Learned Evolution remains Brooklyn Bowl’s creative marketing agency of record.

How many staffers do you have at your Brooklyn office?

There are 7 LE (Learned Evolution), and three Meta (staffers)

The Meta Agency is obviously still growing.

The beauty of Meta is the model is so networked and decentralized that the overhead is so low. We have 15 artists that we represent. They all have huge networks of creatives, production capabilities, and producers. So, for us, it is managing the relationships and contracts. I would love to have 10 (people) at Meta. It’s not the reality, right now. Still Meta did more business last year in its first year than Learned Evolution did in its sixth year, but its overhead is a third of what Learned Evolution is.

Is there anything out there quite like The Meta Agency?

With the model that we have? Not really. There are a couple of similar (agency) things, but not specifically targeting the event and the experience industry as well as representing the type of non-performing, experiential visual and interactive artists that we do.

A new wave of visual, experiential, and interactive artists—as well as the use of advanced technology--is providing greater opportunities than traditional event advertising.

It sure is. The Meta Agency was born out of an increasing demand, and a huge lack of supply. That this type of artist exists, but we really feel that there is a disease in the (entertainment) industry that thinks that visual, experiential, and interactive (artists) are somehow inconsequential compared to the music (artists). We believe that, especially in the electronic music world and (with) corporate events, as demand increases for this type of artistry, these people need to get billed, respected and represented in the way that musical talent does. Eventually, they will become draws in of themselves like musical talent is.

Live shows have evolved from vaudeville to spectaculars like U2’s 360° shows.

It’s come full circle. The Meta Agency is built on what we see as an unbelievable increase in demand for more show. No one is really representing the artist that are doing that show outside of the musical artists.

The Meta Agency isn’t unlike a literary, talent or ad agency pulling together varied creative talents.

Absolutely. The model is not different from a directors bureau or something along those lines. We like to say, though, that we are not a booking agency. We are much more a management and a development agency. But what AM Only did for DJs (electronic music artists) is, ultimately, what we want to do for this type of experiential artist.

Interactive artists may be entrepreneurs but they often lack the necessary contacts to get ahead.

That’s true. It varies. Some of our artists are much more business savvy, and want to be involved (in negotiations). Some don’t have to think about business whatsoever. It varies from artist to artist.

It’s hard for these people to stay on top of things when the terrain keeps evolving.

Absolutely, but I think that it’s more a layer of protection (with us). It’s very hard for a creative to negotiate, and get the prices, the respect, and the contracts that they deserve in working directly with an (advertising) agency or a brand. Not always, but more times than not, they will get taken advantage of. You never want to be in a position where you are the person responsible for negotiating, and being the creative.

That’s a traditional problem for creative artists.

It’s an incredibly difficult position being the person who has to ask for checks and deliver presentations at the same time. Often times that just leads to an unnecessary layer of stress. It gets in the way of the creativity. It causes problems. We represent the artist’s interest on behalf of them so that they can be artists at the end of day. Everybody gets a better product at the end of the day.

Creative artists tend to undersell themselves, particularly if they want the job.

Yes sir. Sometimes the best thing that you can do is say no. It’s one of the hardest things to learn.

Any push back from The Meta Agency representing visual, experiential, and interactive artists?

Absolutely. I’ll tell you a story. We were talking to one of the large festivals out there. We were talking their interactive art buyer. He looked at The Meta Agency, and what we do. We got on a (conference) call with him. He was like pretty upset with us, saying. “You don’t understand. I’ve been doing this for ten years. Now, you are telling me that I have to go through an agency to get to these artists. I have always dealt with these artists direct.”

Allow me to translate that for you.

What he was saying was, “Wait, do I have to pay these artists now what they deserve? I have to give them artist passes rather than vendor passes? I have to promote them on the website? I have to put them in the press releases?”

What happened?

Funny enough, a couple of weeks later, this guy called us up again, and said, “You know what? You guys got into my brain. I have been thinking about this and you are right.”

Was this a music festival?

It was a music festival. The music industry is the worst with the disease of thinking that you can pay a DJ $100,000 to get up onstage and press “play,” but the visual artist, who is half the show if not more at this point, is getting pennies, if anything at all.”

For years electronic music artists and DJs were below the radar and could hardly get a dime for what they did.

And we use that metaphor all of the time. What the DJ industry was 10 years ago…..If you were doing a product launch party, you didn’t bill the DJ. The DJ was the guy in the corner playing the background music. Now, he is the draw to get people to come and see the product.

Plus filling out stadiums.

And selling out stadiums. Basically, our attitude is imagine a world where, “What are you doing this weekend?” “I’m going to see the new Incredible Machines’ collaboration with CTRL.” Who’s the DJ?” “Oh, I’m not sure.”

One would expect that visual would be easier to pitch because of having a “wow factor.”

Like anything else, I think that it’s (about) the market demand. The audience needs to demand this (aspect) first and foremost. It’s getting there. The Amon Tobin (ISAM) show is a big turning point for the industry. But still, even with that show, they don’t bill V Squared Labs as the creative geniuses that are producing that for you. It is still Amon Tobin. In our world it would be Amon Tobin with V Squared. We don’t represent V Squared but (if we did,) we would fight to make sure that artist is properly represented to whatever percentage that they are part of the show. If they don’t have a name now, just like (electronic musician/DJ) Richie Hawtin didn’t have a (mainstream) name 10 years ago and wasn’t selling out stadiums, we keep plugging away at it, and keep insisting on these artists be credited. Eventually people will start to demand that these artists be part of the (live)experience.

[The ISAM tour features a stunning 25' x 14' x 8' multi-dimensional/ shape shifting 3-D art installation surrounding Amon Tobin and enveloping him and the audience in an ultra 3-D experience.]

How do you promote The Meta Agency’s roster to potential clients?

Certainly, I think #FEED is the biggest, and most obvious vehicle for that. But it’s really coming from (being in) the music industry, and from having the contacts that we have developed over the past decade or so; and building relationships on that front; and really positioning ourselves as a partner for them to rely on us.

Okay, you know that you want to do a big projection map stage, right? Where do you go to find the right artist? You can go to a big agency like Mother or an R/GA or someone like that, if you want to pay a few million dollars. But if you got $100,000 or $200,000 budget how do you find these people?

We are trying to make it easy for large event producers, and brands to source this type of talent that is at the highest level and knows how to activate some brands; and knows how to build systems that are robust enough to work at a festival or a large scale event; and then give them access. That’s really what it comes down to.

You offer a smorgasbord of services. Often things that a client may not have thought of.

Absolutely. We call it a toolbox. Right now, we are big on fashioning ourselves as strategic partners both on the event and festival side, as well as on the technology provider side. So we are almost a broker of access between those entities. We have a lot nice festival and event contacts, and we have a lot of nice technology and production contacts. Helping them speak to each other through our medium which is this huge toolbox of talent is how we are really position The Meta Agency right now.

Give me an example how that works.

Sure. Probably the best example is the Lincoln Motor Company re-launch that we did in early December. It’s a great case study because it was a huge project with a very short time-line. They needed a host of creative services from the production side to the technical side to content development and story-telling. We brought on one of our artists, Incredible Machines who, for this particular project, were kind of the overseers, and really the technical producers. It was their concept but they needed additional resources in content development. So they brought on CTRL and VovoxLabs—two other Meta Agency artists—to complete the mission. So where some artists are stronger in some areas we have other artists that are stronger in other areas. We have a nice palette that you can mix colors with, accordingly.

[On Dec. 3, 2012, the Ford Motor Company made a major announcement regarding Lincoln’s new brand direction. Beginning with a press event on Lincoln Center’s Plaza, Ford debuted the reinvention of the 90-year-old brand with a public premiere of the Lincoln MKZ premium mid-size sedan.

Open to the public, a one-day innovative and interactive installation, spearheaded by Incredible Machines, and design collaborators VolvoxLabs and CTRL, merged technology and design to highlight the new MKZ. The event culminated in an audio visual performance featuring projection mapping onto Avery Fisher Hall.]

A potential client may not know what they want. An education process?

Absolutely. And this (interactive) stuff is so near to us, but it is still so foreign to a lot of our clients that educating them is one of the things that we do on a regular basis. We often have clients that will go through an education process, and nothing will come of it. Then a year later, they will hit us up and say, “Hey, we now get this.” That happens all of the time.

What services do you offer clients?

We basically have three different approaches we take. The first is the fully custom approach. This is where a client says, “We need to do a launch. We don’t really know what we want to do. We need ideas.” For this, we shop and RFP (a request for proposal) from our artists that we feel are right for the job. Sometimes, it is with all of our artists. For this (approach), we demand a kill fee because the artists go above and beyond to create these presentations, and they generate a lot of high-level intellectual property.

Meanwhile, the client may be talking to five other parties.

And they could be talking to five other people at the same time, and usually are.

So that’s the custom approach. That’s what Lincoln was like.

Then there’s the second approach that we call the slot method. This is where a client says, “We are doing this huge event. We want to do projection mapping with an interactive Twitter feed on the wall.”

They have a better idea of what they want.

They have a better idea of what they want. They are looking at us to slot in something. That’s why we call it the slot method.

The third approach we call the turnkey, which is simply, “Hey, we want an installation. We’ve got $20,000. What can we get?” We have a host of turnkey installations that are essentially out-of-the-box, and that have pre-made pricing. That is they are ready to go. That the client can purchase like a product, (they can) license for their event as a one-off or as a permanent installation.

As a social curator, you would enjoy the 2003 Danish film “Five Obstructions” in which a director is given instructions to make five separate shorts films with the same script, but with restrictive parameters for each film.

I yearn for parameters like that as a creator. Clients don’t realize. They say, “Do whatever you want.” No, please, give us parameters. So much more creativity comes from parameters than just a vacuum. Vacuums often lead to paralysis.

[“The Five Obstructions” is a 2003 Danish film by Lars von Trier, and Jørgen Leth. The film is a documentary, but incorporates experimental films produced by the filmmakers. The premise is that von Trier has created a challenge for his friend and mentor, Leth, another filmmaker. Von Trier's favorite film is Leth's “The Perfect Human” released in 1967. Von Trier gives Leth the task of remaking “The Perfect Human” five times, each time with a different 'obstruction.”]

Parameters by clients have been relaxed in recent years.

Well, it depends. It depends. To answer your earlier question. Are there another other agencies like this? I don’t think that there have been because it’s so customized. Everything is a unique thing. It’s not cookie cutter. It’s not here’s this DJ. His set is 90 minutes long. It’s 10 grand to book him. Yes or no.” Everything that we do is nuanced and back-and-forth, and it’s a conversation. And we are trying to tell a story in a new and inventive way, and it’s tedious. It’s tedious work.

Having #FEED at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference and Festival is advertising for your two companies, really.

It is. I didn’t position #FEED as this in the last two years as we did it (at SXSW) but moving forward, I am now calling #FEED an advertising platform that integrates innovative entertainment—be it the social media or (being) at night parties with all of the awesome talent that we have with the inspiring panel discussions and educational stuff that we do—and also (it is) a technology incubator that is fostering the next big thing in technology and in apps.

So yes, #FEED IS the culmination of The Meta Agency and Learned Evolution, which is my production company that does the design, social media and event side of #FEED. Then The Meta Agency provides the artist side of #FEED.

#FEED is really the vehicle that is going to get this out into the world in a big way. There’s no reason that #FEED shouldn’t be at Coachella, Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, Fashion Week, and in Cannes (for music and film festivals). Art Basel Miami, we are definitely going to do. Basically, #FEED could be existing all the time somewhere around the world, and needs to be. It’s a platform for huge growth. That’s why I am focusing on #FEED right now.

#FEED could be a 24/7 social-based CNN.

It literally can, should, and hopefully will be that, but in a much more fun way. How about #FEED New York or #FEED San Francisco where it is just as museum that has different pieces that are telling the story in real time around the city on social media?

With #FEED, you have partnered with Twitter with the branding being, “#FEED powered by Twitter.”

Yes sir. First and foremost, they allow me to use their name in conjunction with #FEED which is something that they categorically do not do (with others). It took me nine months of convincing them, and sharing my vision and restructuring what our relationship was (to accomplish that). But Twitter needs to be a revenue generating entity right now, and I have structured my relationship with them in such a way that it will hopefully lead to revenue generation with them.

Does Twitter have exclusivity or can you go to Facebook and other platforms?

I could. It’s on a per event basis. But I wouldn’t want to because Twitter is really the centre node of the (social media) ecosystem and I want to celebrate the ecosystem. If I did this with a Facebook, they’d want everything (to be) Facebook. Or if I went Google, they’d want me to use all of Google’s products. Twitter wants me working with SoundCloud. Wants me working with Spotify etc. They are agnostic, and I’m agnostic, and I want to celebrate the ecosystem. I don’t want to be making #FEEDs for Facebook. I would love to be able to take In Facebook feeds but I want it to be about the ecosystem and not walled off.

You would have made a poor Apple executive.

I probably would have. But I take Apple’s approach in systems and marketing.

What work did Learned Evolution do for Ticketfly?

Ticketfly came to us at Brooklyn Bowl in late 2007 or 2008 when we were still heavily in construction. They presented us with a vision of this social media-rooted ticketing system. The strategy that I developed for Brooklyn Bowl was for it to be the first social media routed venue. So it was a no-brainer for us (to collaborate). Andrew Dreskin (Co-CEO and founder of Ticketfly) and Pete Shapiro, the co-owner Brooklyn Bowl) were also old friends. So it made sense on a lot of levels. We really helped Ticketfly when it was an idea to a very basic platform. There’s all the huge evolutionary leaps they have taken since. We were there as their first partner, helping them to build a system on a client side.

Today, Vimeo is a natural ally for you.

My relationship with Vimeo is one that starts in love and trust for their product. It is where creatives go to show their work. The quality (there) is phenomenal, and the community is phenomenal. We first did a bunch of stuff with Vimeo with Eclectic Method which we used to represent at The Meta Agency but no longer do. Then we did a big event with Vimeo three years ago at South By South West called “Light After Dark.” That was really the precursor to #FEED in a way. it was after that event that my friend Chloe Sladden (Twitter's director of media partnerships) literally shook me, and said, “Why doesn’t Twitter do this type of event?” In that moment the whole concept of #FEED was born and didn’t change at all.

Today, people are being bombarded by audio and visual stimuli. I’m wired to my iPhone wherever I go, and the stimuli provided is leading to more stimuli which still has to be created.

That’s what we are trying to capitalize on. I like to say that I want to create real time film. I don’t really know what that means yet, but I feel that is what this is all leading toward.

(Author and inventor) Ray Kurzweil’s virtual reality embedded in glasses.

It’s here. I just finished “How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed.” It was a little heady. Not my favorite of his. But, he’s outrageous. It’s scary what he says. But you can’t deny it.

Forbes has described Ray Kurzweil as “the ultimate thinking machine.” So many things he has predicted have come true.

Yeah, like 80 plus percent or something, which is crazy. But I look at my two year old daughter, and how she interacts with an iPad. We never showed her but she will pull up Netflix, and go to a specific shows. My parents will call me, and ask me how to find Netflix on their.iPad. What is it going to be when she’s 10? That’s 8 years from now. That’s incomprehensible.

So in a decade….

I hate to say it ,and people think that I’m kidding, but I really think that chips are going to start getting into peoples’ brains. We are going to merge with technology. Ray Kurzweil was the first guy who said it. I have a Basis watch that I was given at South By. It tracks my steps, my heartbeat, the sweat on my body, my temperature, and then it sends all of that information back to my computer so I can look at the data of what I am doing day-to-day.

That is incredible to think about but there’s no reason that it needs to be a thing on my wrist. Why can’t it (a chip) be injected into my body, as scary as that is, and people don’t want to hear that? But when I look at my kid, and I see her interact with it and I think, “Shit, where is she going to be in 8 years? And if other kids have access to all of the information in the world at a thought, you can’t bet your ass that I will want my kid to. That’s the problem.

Why is there such a strong link between musical and visual experiences?

If you are asking me personally, I have always been able to see music. It has always been a visual thing for me. So it has always made sense when I see an auditory experience manifested visually. It just makes sense. I have always seen music. I don’t see the metronome. And I am playing at the “one” which is a thing that I see. It’s not a ticking clock.

So the marriage seems the most natural thing to you.

Just like visualizing social media now is the most natural thing to me. The internet, in my perception, is a manifestation of the true nature of consciousness. The internet is a physical manifestation of metaphysical reality. We are all interconnected. All the information is floating between us at all times. Now we can see it. It has been physicalized. Evolution is a process of taking what you can’t see-- which is metaphysical--and manifesting it into what is physical. That is really at the heart of everything that we do. Trying to make things that you can’t see and make them seen. It like when you put the leaf under the paper and scratch it with a pencil and the leaf emerges. But the leaf is (always) there. You just can’t see it. You have to figure out how to shade it, and bring the leaf through.

Technology is accelerating that transformation as well.

Absolutely. It’s another facet of the metaphysical world constantly trying to manifest itself into reality. You can go as spiritual as you want with it; as scientific as you want with it; as cultural as you want with it; but I really believe that is what reality wants. It wants to manifest itself.

As the transistor radio enabled us to take music anywhere in the ‘50s, the iPhone has freed us to take internet-driven media anywhere.

But it has also constrained us. You can’t forget that it’s a doubled-edged sword. Basically, doubled-edged swords and getting sharper and sharper. On one hand, we have all of this freedom. On the other hand,we are so beholden to these devices that we are their cage. We are free but we are caged. There’s that constant dance and that constant doubled-edged sword.

What was a cluttered content field in TV and radio has now become even more cluttered with social media via the internet. You need the proper couplings to break through that clutter.

Absolutely. Very well said.

You have a musical background.

Yeah. I’m a musician. I was trained as a guitar player, but I play a lot more drums than guitar at this point. In 2000, I started Learned Evolution as a band. It was kind of like a Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” philosophy. We would go onstage and improvise 100%. It was all live electronic music. That’s originally what Learned Evolution was.

Your dog Charlie Mingus is named after the late jazz icon.

Ahh, you picked up on that. Yeah, Charlie Mingus is my dog. Mingus, to me, talk about form and improvisation, my gawd. Such a great orchestrator, yet such a great improviser. That is something that I am constantly harping on here. (Being) practiced improvisers.

Learned Evolution morphed into being into being a digital agency in 2006.

Learned Evolution has always been my guiding operational principle for life. The idea that you have to constantly educate yourself and constantly evolve and create a feedback loop that the more that you learn the more you to grow and it (learning) accelerates and accelerates. That’s the idea.

Weren’t you planning earlier to be a filmmaker?

I was toying with it. I still like the idea of it. I have three pilots that are just sitting here.

Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.

Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.

He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”

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