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Interview with Peter Hutchings: formula D_ 

Bella Devine: Tell me about your career background and what drew you to work for formula D_. 

Peter Hutchings: I originally studied event management as I have always loved creating live experiences, which I have found to be very powerful and often memorable. At the time I was meeting people who were studying traditional subjects and then falling out of university. I wanted to have a clear objective even if it meant that I needed to study a tricky, four-year advanced degree in event management. In the fourth year, for my honour’s degree, I had to prepare a long dissertation paper and I tried to find out what is relevant and topical. When I heard about experiential marketing, which was a new term at the time, it piqued my interest as it was using events to tell stories, and ultimately, for marketing purposes, to promote things.  

I started looking into experiential marketing in detail and reached out to a few companies. Their main focus at the time was how you measure the impact of live experiences, and I ended up researching this topic for my dissertation. I interviewed many important people in the industry and wrote a paper which led to me receiving my first degree. I benefited a lot from this exercise as I focussed on the specific area of measuring the impact of experiences. The course leader went on to formalise that work in our own capacity, which was a big compliment to me.

I then did an interview with one of the biggest experiential companies at the time, rpm, and was invited to visit them in London (I lived in Leeds in northern England then). I was offered a gig with them, which was super exciting. While at RPM, I immersed myself in the world of experiential marketing and events. Later I joined a company started by a friend in Cape Town and we grew an experiential marketing agency together at a time when it was still a very new field. This was in 2011 and just after the Soccer World Cup in South Africa when there was a great deal of excitement and quite a lot of business. Cape Town then was in slightly better shape than it is now as there was a lot of positivity, which helped to propel us forward. Our business went from strength to strength, we got up to about 35 – 40 employees at one stage, and it was quite a big, scary thing at times. It was an amazing experience. 

In that business I headed up strategy and creativity, which, I guess, is similar to what I do now in formula D_. But, after several years of selling things, the rewards as I matured as a human became less and less fulfilling. It was also very stressful and new deals were becoming increasingly harder to come by. So, I started to plan my route out and we were able to sell the company, which was amazing. At a time when things were starting to squeeze a bit, we were one of the last sales of companies in that space in the market. Then it was a question of, what now? What is my skill set? I realised that storytelling through live experiences is a skill that can do more than just sell things.  

I had heard of formula D_ over the years and occasionally crossed paths with the company. I met with Michael and Marco and basically managed to persuade them that they need me! Actually, I almost volunteered my time. I came in with a lot of confidence and felt that I could add value. Somehow, we managed to make it work as Michael and Marco were looking to rejuvenate the strategy and the business at the time, which was a field in which I had experience. I was able to help facilitate workshops which led to some repositioning and rebranding of the company. At the same time, I was able to become involved in the work of the company and continue to contribute to its strategic development. It was a kind of serendipitous timing for everyone involved and the result is that I find myself telling stories for objectives that are way more rewarding. Working with clients whose objectives are wildly ambitious and beneficial to society was the original appeal. It still remains the appeal today. So, I am very excited to be here. I was fortunate to have built a relationship with Marco and Michael early on, which helps with my level of comfort.

Bella: How did your ego adjust, coming from such a big role with huge responsibilities? 

Peter: To be honest it was challenging to transition from being a director of a large business and now a subordinate to others. Thankfully, I’ve got my ways to handle my ego, and I respect Marco and Michael. I don’t claim to have experience in their area of work so, for me, it has been a learning opportunity as well. As long as I am adding value, and enjoying my work, I am happy. Yes, in the creative world there are a lot of big egos, and especially the marketing sector which tends to attract a certain type of individual. That was one thing I wanted to get away from, and it is certainly not something I would want to bring with me as it is quite a toxic trait. I do not think that formula D_ has been born from that world and it would be a bit of a tragedy if it adopted any of that behaviour. 

Bella: I have been quizzing Michael and Marco quite a bit recently on why formula D_ is so mission driven and where this ethos comes from. It feels so far from being poisoned by egos. 

Peter: I agree that it starts at the top as I think that businesses are ultimately the product of the leaders. If the leaders come with a certain energy, whatever that might be, it manifests throughout the business and its ecosystem. 

Bella: What was the memory you have of an experience that prompted you to follow this line of work?

Peter: There have been a series of memories over the years, as opposed to a specific thing. I remember going to Wembley Stadium and watching our local team play. There is such an energy that comes with many people, particularly with the crowd chanting. I remember that making an impression on me. There’s a certain spirit that I have always found quite fascinating and thankfully, all my memories of events have been positive. My mantra, or rather my way of being, has always been to not necessarily ignore the rules in a rebellious way, but also not to follow the crowd. I have been fortunate in that my degree was quite business orientated so it gave me a decent underpinning.

Bella: What is your approach when it comes to designing experiences grounded in empathy and understanding?

Peter: One of the great things about being with formula D_ is having to take a much deeper dive into how people feel or experience an exhibition or exhibit. That’s because some of the messaging, the take-away messages, are a little more complex. Previously, if I just wanted you to buy whiskey, that was the primary objective of marketing, which sometimes involves some emotion. But getting you to care about, for instance, ocean health, requires a different approach, and some really wonderful storytelling, in order to get people to develop empathy and, ultimately, compassion.

Over the last few years, we have had the opportunity to think about how we can achieve empathy and compassion. We have developed an Experience Action Model, whereby a number of different people are put into a ‘blender’ and different things come out the other side. The basic realisation is that our clients, like our visitors, can be inspired to take action when the connect with a cause that resonates with their personal values.

As we move into an increasingly measured society it is becoming more difficult to hide the fact that we expended money but what return did we get on it? It is also becoming less acceptable to just do an event as a flash in the pan thing.

So what has been on my mind is how do we drive action, and I looked at storytelling again. We know that we can create empathy from a beautiful story. If you’ve ever watched a great film, or read a great book, you will know that a story can really drive an emotional feeling. It can inspire you. If you tell the story in the right way, you can make it resonate with more than just one person. The challenge is always connecting with people.

We realised that we need to take people from this base level feeling and send them to a place where they have to think. Depending on the message or the story that we’re trying to tell, that might require us to look at the slightly darker side of the story. Invariably, if there’s something that needs action, and there’s a problem, those problems may not be too big a deal. On the other hand, when we talk about the environment, the problems can be quite serious. But if we look too far into the dark side we might create a sense of anxiety, which may delay any sense of action, out of fear. So, there’s a real craft here, which I think is not researched enough, not written about enough. I think that what we are trying to do is look into this more.

Once we have engaged with people, we need to engender a bit of hope even in the pit of despair. And then the realisation comes that you, as a visitor, could play a role in changing the picture. This is different from just taking you through a journey and leading you to this place of compassion. It is crucial to make visitors realise that their role in solving the problem is critically important. That is the recipe for success in the work that we do.

Bella: There needs to be a level of empowerment as well, I suppose, because I know so many people who feel that their individual contribution will not make a difference.

Peter: Yes, that is the other thing we’ve been looking at. We recently worked on a project on ocean health and realised that peoples’ relationships with the ocean vary dramatically. We have found that this is dependent on their personal perception, how they use the ocean, what their past history is, and even on their level of privilege. Some are likely to be more spiritual in their relationship with the ocean, some more actively engaged in exploiting it. Some people go to the beach even if they don’t like to swim. Some use the ocean as a source of income. The bottom line is that you should be telling stories and engaging with your audience in ways that resonate best with them and their life experiences.

If I live near the coast, I might be motivated to do a beach clean-up. If I am a wealthy individual who has investments with fossil fuel-based businesses, we might trigger a thought that I should look at my investment strategy and try to support businesses that are more sustainable that use renewable resources. In other words, we should suggest actions for different types of people so that the most beneficial action is possible in each case. We need to customise the story to the user.

What we were doing is learning about visitors through a few simple questions so that, by the time we reach the end of experience, some of the recommendations will be based on their individual relationships with the ocean.

And then, in two months’ time, we can ask a visitor about the goal that he or she committed to undertaking. This kind of research reveals that our approach, our methodology, increases the likelihood that that person will go ahead and take those actions. These little things are often forgotten about in the budget and experience, but they are the things that make it possible to achieve the objectives that the client wants.

Bella: Which segues into the next thing I wanted to ask about, which is, how do you quantify whether you are making an impact or not?

Peter: This methodology allows us to track how many businesses achieved what they committed to do and we can even ask questions about achieving goals within a particular time frame. A simple survey via email to people whom you are tracking can provide valuable feedback. With a little more thought we could enhance that further. If you have experiences that have repeats, such as visits to the Wonderdal Children’s Entertainment Centre where we have IP trackers, you can then build up profiles of visitors. You can track someone through their experience and see how their knowledge is building. So, depending on the intricacy and complexity of the experience, there are ways and means of improving our ability to track behaviours more than ever before.

Bella: What are the major challenges that you have experienced while tackling this nuanced kind of work? 

Peter: The complexity of the information is one challenge. The challenge also varies according to the topic. We are working on alternative energy at the moment. If you are not careful you may, for example, fall down a slippery slope into science and engineering, which is very technical content that a lot of people simply won’t understand, including myself. And particularly an eight-year-old child, if that is the end user. So, we rely on basic learning approaches in terms of how a child will absorb information and how it needs to be broken down to make it more understandable. You need to ensure that the child takes away what they need to know.

Often the level of detail is a challenge in the space we work in. Our job is to pick the information apart and communicate it in a way that keeps people engaged and does not delve too deeply into the science because it will go over a lot of people’s heads. In doing so, one must still focus on certain key take-away messages. You also need to cater for those people who want to dive a little deeper. So those are challenges. Lately, language has been an interesting challenge as we globalise, particularly with our work in Arabic-speaking countries. That has been a huge, huge challenge because their language is constructed so differently. 

Bella: And cultural nuances also need to be taken into account. For instance, rainbows or other colour patterns that replicate rainbows cannot be used in Saudi Arabia.

Peter: I agree. Also, the choice of technologies is interesting. When the new VR headsets came out, we were keen to use them as they are exciting to many people. But if the end experience does not meet the objectives, then we must not be led by technology, which is very tempting in our space.

Bella: This is especially the case when our competitors use that technology. If you look at any of the UK or US agencies that do the same work as us, it is always high technology stuff.

Peter: One needs to find the happy medium between using the latest technology and achieving the quality of experience that you aim for. We need to avoid getting caught up in technology trends while also keeping an eye on these trends to ensure that we make use of the latest stuff when appropriate. We must ensure that what we are offering is content driven, story driven, objective driven. Finding the balance between doing work that is cutting edge and grabs attention but is also solid in terms of our clients’ needs, will stand the test of time.

Furthermore, these displays are often in use seven days a week, for long days by multiple people, with kids that just slap them around. So, they must be robust and able to function under these circumstances. It is depressing going to experiences where 60% or even 30% of the exhibits are broken or non-functional because they weren’t built properly.

Bella: Or the facilitators weren’t trained to maintain them.

Peter: Or because it is too technical to maintain them. Exactly. So there’s a fine line.

Bella: What about the element of inclusivity and making everything accessible, taking into account cultural nuances and the importance of developing empathy?

Peter: The work that I personally do is not as challenged by that as it is usually based on human traits as opposed to necessarily cultural ones, but there are definitely cultural factors that we need to be aware of. Let’s say that an Italian speaker tells a story in the way an English speaker does, the actual journey that they go on would probably be very similar. The Italian person might be more expressive, and the English person might be drier, but ultimately, the actual journey is quite similar in the way that the information we receive is processed. The challenge starts when we get deeper into the content. Some things may be taboo in another culture, and others may be offensive. Or, from a language perspective, some things just don’t translate well.

Cultural differences and language barriers come into play when working with foreign countries, especially in the Middle East. Truthfully, the main thing we are battling with here is Arabic but we will probably experience similar difficulties with, say, Asian languages, although they may not be as extreme. Of all the languages and cultures around the world, Arabic and the Middle East have been fundamentally different in so many ways, at least in terms of my background.

On our own continent, Africa, we have so many cultures and languages. As a business we have done a lot of work in South Africa, which means that we have had to deal with all the 11 languages here. But culturally, I don’t know whether we have really pushed ourselves in terms of what we can do on this continent where, I think, we will come up against similar barriers. So, I think that there is still a lot of learning to do. As humans with our own cultural stories, we obviously bring in a lot of our own baggage as well. But we need to remember that we have a great team here that is very diverse.

Bella: And also very research oriented. We also try to ensure that everyone is as comfortable as possible. Can you discuss any ethical considerations that come into play when designing interactive experiences that deal with the topics that we have touched on?

Peter: One of the things that we often think about is disability. It is inexcusable to make experiences that are not usable for different levels of disability, whether it’s mental or physical. That is something that we need to consider and keep top of mind, especially during the design phases. The team here has a good understanding of things to watch out for, but I still think that there is room for improvement, particularly around designing experiences for people with autism. We need to ensure that they enjoy the experiences we offer with differences in sensory motor coordination.

COVID-19 has been an interesting game changer. Although it has faded a bit, there was huge sensitivity around anything that was contacted. Virtual reality (VR) was not a word that was used for a period, because of the sense of skin on an object. It has made everyone in our sector a lot more conscious of anything proposed that involves touch because the chances are thatCOVID-19 is not the last pandemic we will be experiencing. So avoiding investing in anything that is reliant on touch is something that good planners are thinking about.

Bella:What advice would you give someone who wants to create interactive experiences, specifically those that promote empathy and understanding?

Peter:First, learn how to tell good stories. That starts with ingesting as many good stories as you can because, in doing that, you work out those little pangs of emotion. And you see those patterns. In the work that I am doing I am learning more about story arcs. It is not a complex science and I have been doing it for years. Classic stories and arcs are well known to anyone who writes or tells good stories. Understanding that is a good start.

Also, I think trying to remain ‘zoomed out’ is important. One of the things I try to do here is to be the person who is a little bit more zoomed out from the details. The work we do is very complex in terms of the level of information and complex in terms of development and data. So, there is a whole swarm of suggestions that come in to make things happen and make magic connections. But, as soon as we get into that phase, we get very zoomed in on the detail that it must all work. Then there is always the danger of a loss of engagement somewhere due to some oversight. Trying to be zoomed out and thinking of the big picture is such an important part of designing great experiences.

Another bit of advice would be to visit as many experiences as possible and not just museums but anything that is alive and creates a reaction, whether it is an art gallery, a beautiful building, or anything that encourages people to go somewhere live. It is also important to visit digital spaces. Exploring VR spaces is useful, not necessarily because they are the future but just to know the pros and cons of that space. What it feels like to go into those spaces and come out of those spaces. How it changes your perception of what’s around you. That is part of the future, but not all of it. Generally, an app in the formula D_ space is a piece of the puzzle and we have to consider how it works within the whole. If you come out of it feeling sick, or confused, or it feels like a weird separation from the rest of the journey, then it is a bad story.

So often you will be part of an experience in which you come out with that sense of, “Yeah, it was cool” but you lack additional adjectives to describe what it was or what you were supposed to take away. Whereas a good book, or a good film, or a good experience, it might be different for everyone, but you do take something away. What we should be aiming to achieve, is for you to go away a little bit more informed or engaged in the topic than you previously were.