Michael Blatter - Conversations with Artists
What is the art of what you do?
I never considered myself an artist until recently. My mom was an artist, my dad was a fashion designer, but because I had a big mouth they always said: 'you'll be a businessman, you're a business guy.' But I was always creating - starting as a little kid, from pieces of art and sculptures to experiences and parties as a teenager. Four or five years ago someone said: 'you know Blatter, you're an artist.' My response was, 'I'm not really an artist.' But they said, 'yes you are -- you create, and your medium is the live experience.' I had never looked at it that way. Sometime after that, I was invited to an event that was absolutely spectacular. It was a speakeasy thing. At the end, the proprietor came up to me and introduced himself and said, 'Hi, my name is Nathan, welcome to my speakeasy. I'm an experiential artist.' It was then that I realized, 'wait, that's what I do.' Now I realize that I'm a fine artist when I do experiences for my friends, I'm a commercial artist when I create experiences for brands, retailers, institutions, whatever it may be. I think like an artist and I've finally embraced the fact that I do art.
So what is the art of it?
The art of it is I try to move people. My goal in life is to try to get deep down into people's soul and find those emotional touch points that changes people in one way or another. For many years I knew how to shock people, I knew how to disorient people. That's stuff I learned in the nightlife business early on and juxtaposed against all the happy emotions was a relatively easy thing to do. It wasn't until recently that I started to explore the entire spectrum of emotions. Now what I've been doing is cataloging over 700 emotions so far and when I design an experience I actually design the memory first. Our experiences are very different than our memories, and it's the memory that we're really trying to instill somebody. It's the memory that's going to move someone. It's the memory that's going to influence decision making. So if I can use emotion to influence memory, there’s something really special there. Now I look at this wide range of emotions and I think: 'am I trying to deliver wonderment or enchantment?' There's a subtle difference there. Wonderment may involve exploration and discovery. Enchantment may involve more fantasy as opposed to just happiness or sadness. I like to take people on a journey. So all of my experiences start with an engagement that involves curiosity, build towards anticipation, and at some point in time delivers some sort of shock and discovery that leads to exuberance or euphoria. I take them through that into other experiences within the same context that may build courage or deliver nostalgia. And all of these various emotions are triggering all different types of brain chemicals. When we get that warm and fuzzy feeling on our back or the hair standing up on our arm, or butterflies in our stomach - that's all our neurochemistry going to work. It's genuine scientific stuff that certain emotions will trigger serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine in particular. If I can start influencing that neurochemistry to happen by designing experiences with strong emotions - we know we're making people feel certain things, and we know we're changing the chemical makeup in people's bodies. It's sort of like being a drug dealer in a sense. So I've evolved this art and what I used to tell everyone is that it was magic. People used to say "you do these great experiences, they're so outrageous" and I would say "yeah, we really create magic" and the truth of it is , it's not magic. I've been creating science for many, many years, not knowing it. It's only very recently that I've been digging into the science of what's happening in our brains, the psychology of how we form and retain memories. So now it's got a lot of structure and depth to it. But before it was shooting from the hip. Always great, but now even better.
Why do people seem to need these types of experiences?
We live in this over-mediated society guided by screen-based culture, particularly young people. We are so up for that dopamine fix we get looking at our phones - whether it's looking at an email or a text or an Instagram or a Facebook post or Snapchat. We constantly need that stimulation that gives us dopamine. We've become reliant on it from this device which is artificial. So when we get it in a more natural way from human touch, from hugging, from being around other people, from communication - we put down the devices and it's even stronger and more powerful. People just don't know how to attain it. There's huge opportunity - everyone talks about the death of retail and how it's spiraling out of control. Retailers have the greatest opportunity right now and they're just messing it up. They have no idea what they're doing. The opportunity now is to change their entire way of doing business from being transactional to being entertainment. They're going from where there're doing transactions all day to where they need to engage people constantly. They need to play with people's emotions. The purchase, the transaction should be secondary to the experience that's delivered. But they're focused on the merchandise. They can't seem to understand that you need to put the experience before the merchandise. The merchandise will sell. I think that when you look at immersive theater, like Sleep No More, participatory sports like Tough Mudder or Spartan Race, when you look at these breakout rooms, the Panic Room game you do at malls now - these are all participatory experiences. As a culture and a society, we've taken experience for granted. When we go out for dinner we go to the same restaurants, we go to the same vacation spots, but if you change it up a little bit and you focus on the experience that you're delivering to your partner, your spouse, whatever it may be, there's so much to get out of it. I think we are moving towards what we like to call participatory culture. And within a participatory culture, there are all sorts of opportunities for fine artists and commercial artists. That's where I'm looking to play more. I'm looking to take all of the battle-trained experiences that I and my team have from putting on experiences that last from four to six hours and then everything goes in a dumpster, to taking that experience and making it permanent. That means working with museums, working with sports stadiums, working with retailers, restaurant chains. Asking how can we improve the human experience, so that everyone that comes into your realm and into your world walks away with some emotionally moving experience.
All of the props and paraphernalia from your events may go into the dumpster, but people are changed by what they are experiencing.
We have been told, for example with the Jack Daniels' thing in Chicago, people walk out and say, 'this was the best experience of my life.' There were certain moments and certain things that we delivered that when we disorient you when we put a little fear into you, when we make you a little bit angry because you had to wait on a line, all with intention, and then when we throw you into a room with 2000 pillows and feathers flying everywhere you have this sudden sense of euphoria. Crossing that spectrum from the negative emotions to the extreme positive emotions releases all sorts of crazy endorphins and neurochemistry. People don't know exactly what happened or what went down but they feel like it's the best thing that ever happened in their life because it was such an unusual circumstance. So there's a lot in there that still needs to be figured out.
When designing an event, if you're starting with the memory that you want to create, are you white-boarding it?
We actually have crafted a framework that involves identifying the behaviors that we want to elicit. So if we want you to feel courage, which is an emotion but is also a behavior, if we want you to evangelize and tell our story, if we want you to purchase, if we're doing a commercial experience, we look at what are those array of behaviors, and ask what emotions are most likely to influence those behaviors. People may say 'oh yes, well if we add a little happiness and a little sadness and a little bit of excitement...' these are big primary emotions. You really can't design around that. You're casting too wide a net. So we took those emotions and broke them down into core emotions. So within each primary emotion - of which there are about a dozen, there are about three to four primaries within those. But within those primary emotions we've broken those down into another half a dozen to a dozen target emotions, ones like wonderment and enchantment. When we look at the target emotion we really create a template, it's almost like a painting palette. We look at the palette and we say let's go create an experience using this particular palette of emotions. That's the magic that happens. That's this new thing that I've been doing talks on. Experience designers in the field are like 'holy shit!' Everyone's very caught up with measurement. Everyone's super caught up with asking: 'is what we did successful? Did we touch enough people? Did we do this, did we do that? Did we meet the particular metrics?' There's all this post-science. But there's no pre-science. All of these ideas are essentially based on a few consumer insights or a few human insights. Oh, people like sports. People like music. That's about the most information you have to design an experience. The rest is pulled out of your ass. So we said, 'what about focusing on the science beforehand? The science of the idea? Is there any idea science?'
Are you working with psychologists?
I got really lucky at Burning Man two years ago, I was introduced to a doctor named Dr. Easton Anspach, who's a Columbia University Ph.D., he's a cultural anthropologist. Easton is an academic. He and I sat and had long discussions about this. I'll say, 'Easton, let's go find the academics to back up the neuroscience. Let's find the academics to back up the typology of emotions.' We've done all this work and we're working on a book. It's all backed up by academic research, it's all officiated and we're talking to more and more psychiatrists and psychologists. We've talked about how trauma victims are stuck in a big negative space and how doctors use medication to play with their neurochemistry to make them better. I've suggested that if I were to take a trauma victim who is stuck in their house or their head, and take them on a whirlwind tour of some wild experiences and crazy emotions over a short period of time, that we can readjust their neurochemistry. That's not proven yet, but I've had a lot of psychiatrists agree that there's something to this idea. So with PTSD in soldiers, imagine if there was some program where you're going to experience some crazy stuff that resets your emotional framework in your head.
We call it the emotional roller coaster. I talk about how we take people across the emotional spectrum like we did at a recent Jack Daniel's event. At the Jack event you went to the rave room, but then you went into the singer/songwriter room where a songwriter is writing you a boring song. So you went from euphoria to melancholy in a total juxtaposition of emotions. What it does is it makes the euphoria even more euphoric and the melancholy even worse. That's what's special. That's when the neurochemistry fires that much more.
So that's why you would build in the negative emotions.
We always build in the negatives. The negatives are just as important as the positives. We'll go talk to a client and most event clients, whether it's a private party a bar mitzvah or a big corporate client, they'll all say, 'I want a little surprise and delight. Surprise and delight my guests.' I say, 'fuck surprise and delight! That's only two of 700 fucking emotions!
Do you actually say this to them?
I do! I say, 'surprise and delight? That's fucking amateur hour! Give me a freaking hamburger and surprise me with some good music. Boom - surprise and delight!' That's not anything interesting. You gotta go deep, deep into the depth of emotion to really move someone. We get surprise and delight all the time.
Do you research your demographic for a particular event and say, ok, this is what moves them.
We use what I would call human insights. So Gen-Z responds very different than Millennials. Gen-Z'ers have pack mentality - they're called squads. They don't do anything without their squad, nothing unless the guy next to them is doing it. They're super followers. Millennials are more independent. Gen X’ers are really independent. So yes, we design around age groupings.
Do you have an app that you plug in all this data?
Shhhhh we're working on it. It's all being built into a piece of software. Yeah, you throw it in, put in your behaviors and here are the negatives, here are your positives.
I've been listening to you trying to figure out well, as an artist, what exactly is his canvas? The events aren't the canvas.
Peoples memories are the canvas. We're painting with memory, we're crafting memories. So again, there are certain things we do that we know will just not be part of the memory, and there are certain things we do where we know everyone will be taking something away, and it will be permanently etched in their brain. If you want to get deep into how memories form and how we sorted this whole thing out... As humans, we store memories. Our brains are super duper efficient hard drives. You put too much in and they slow down. We take all of our similar memories and we store them in single files. So all of your beach vacations, they go into the beach file. All of your live music shows, they go into the live music file. Museums - museum file. Crazy ex-boyfriends, boom. Hats, boom. Right? But it's when you take one of those experiences in that category and you stretch it beyond the imagination and the narrative is really different and the emotions are really intense... so hypothetically if you went to a beach and a shark there ate a surfer, that shit's getting stored in its own file. The other memories all merge and become one and they eventually dissipate. That shark memory, that time you were on the beach with that guy getting eaten by a shark? That's living on its own and its living on forever. Or the time you were at that live concert and you met this hot chick and took her home .... you'll never forget that concert. That's living in its own file. All the other concerts merge into one file. So we know that creating really deep narratives, which is part of the art, layered in with intense emotions - those roller coaster emotions that we really have the ability to help craft the actual memory, but also make sure it's powerful and long-lasting. Cool shit, right?
Very cool. You're shining some light into some areas that we hadn't thought about before.
You know who does this really well, but they don't talk about it in these terms? Movie directors. Movies, the best movies, the ones we walk out of saying 'wow, best fucking movie ever' - that's the one when you went on the emotional roller coaster. It's the one where you cried and you laughed and you cried and you laughed. Right? It's about the spectrum. It's not like, wow I really felt joyous throughout the whole move and it was the best thing I ever saw. No. It's the one where you're like holy shit, up down, up down. This is much easier to do in a movie because it's all artificial. In the context of live events, it's interactive theater.
Never thought of events in that way, always just thought of them as a party with sparkly shit.
I think I've picked up a lot of it from my nightlife career early on, particularly at Area. I remember always doing secret parties and surprise things that would happen. I think as a kid I wanted attention and it was my job to get attention by shocking people. So I would do crazy shit, and the crazier shit I did, the more attention I got. That translated right into my events which I started doing in 8th grade.
Your first event was in 8th grade?
I think even earlier than that. 7th grade maybe. I threw a crazy disco party. I have pictures, me in my John Travolta outfit.
Do you think that's still what motivates you?
What I always said motivated me for many years was smiles on people's faces. When I worked in the nightclub business for 10 years, there was nothing that made me happier than standing in the corner watching people smiling and raging and hooking up and meeting other people. Now I ask why are they smiling? It's the emotions I'm giving them. It's the design of the whole experience. I was looking at the surface of it for many years and now it's the depth of what's happening in their heads.
And you walk away feeling what?
I feel the reward. It's very selfish.
You're changing lives.
In some cases we have changed people's lives. There are people that have met and gotten married and had children when they wouldn't have ever come in contact with each other if they hadn't come to one of my experiences.
I wouldn't call that selfish. When somebody takes inspiration from a work of art from a museum, it's very similar. The artist creates because they need to, but they also emote through that canvas.
That's exactly what artists are trying to do. Frankly, it's much harder to do that in the flat medium. In live experiences, we have all the dimensions to play with from people talking to you to theater, to everything. We have the ability to really go deep with it. I've yet to meet anyone who thinks of events like that. In theater, they think of how they want to move people, but they don't think beyond the fourth wall, with the exception of a few great directors like Randy Weiner who's doing Sleep no More as well as other immersive theater things.
You deal with emotion as part of your art. Are you aware of your own emotions on a daily basis?
I wasn't before, but I am now. It wasn't until I went to Burning Man and felt that warmth down my spine, and I felt the fear of being lost in a dust storm. When I felt exuberance on seeing a giant yacht mounted to the bed of a cement truck with a DJ on it drive past me in the middle of the night. I felt the fear of climbing on a rickety wooden piece of art that no one from the Buildings Department looked at, all within 24 hours. Coming away from Burning Man, everyone's all shook up, and you're shook up because everyone, 70,000 people, are all going through the same thing in different ways. That's what really inspired me to start researching emotions. Like, 'holy crap, I just came off this crazy roller coaster of emotions!' That's kind of what I do at my events, but I don't do it by design. It made me wonder if we could reverse engineer experiences and find out what the actual emotions are and design to the emotions as opposed to just winging it and seeing what emotions we get out of something. That's what we've really done. We've reverse engineered the craziest experiences out there, and now we've reconstructed them for commercial purposes. When and if I get the luxury, I'd love to do some of these strictly for the sake of the art. I do that in the office, I do that with our company events, always, every year.
Do your ideas come from the recesses of your mind?
I'm a keen observer of popular culture. I view that as my job. I go out a lot. I go to a lot of shows. I see a lot of things. And I store it all, for the purpose of pulling it up for events. I don't think there are any original ideas out there. Everything I've done is an extraction of one piece or a component of something else. It's how I've stitched it together to make it my own.
The need for these experiences as a culture, is it because we've lost something that we used to have?
I think it's not that we lost anything, we just picked up something different. Again, we get dopamine every time we look at our phone for an Instagram post. That's a new way to get dopamine. People evolve, things evolve, cultures and society evolve. But you could say that this is a lost art. It's the lost art of experience. Theater is thriving right now. Theme parks are thriving right now. This experience economy - someone coined that phrase in the 90's - is booming because people want more and more because they get less and less of it. Now it's being applied to things you wouldn't normally expect it to be applied to. If you go to a baseball game, they have this great catering and all sorts of things you can do. It's a much more dynamic experience. That's happening across every genré. So there's a unique opportunity for experience designers to do their thing. Nostalgia is one of the most common emotions that we like to feel. It's all based in the past, in things we like and it's something we pull upon in times of discontinuity. So if we're having a bad day, our brains tend to go to a happier time or place, and our neurochemistry changes with nostalgia. It's almost like protection mechanism we have built in our brain to make us feel good. So as the experience artist or experience designers, we have an ability to help people by offering them nostalgia and a host of other emotions. There are a lot of positive things that can be done with the art itself. I've been preaching to people who are event planners or experiential designers, telling them they are experience artists and we have to focus not just on the experiences for our corporate clients but the experience of humanity as a whole. There's a higher calling for this type of art.
In some ways what you're talking about here is working each individual's voice. You're grabbing hold of it and telling them to think about something else.
Stop going to the same Italian restaurant. Let's do it differently. Go on an adventure.
Where do you see this going? How far is this going to go?
I believe that retail has no choice but to get hold of this. That's the first big thing that will bust it out in the open. But I think you'll start seeing everything from the laundromat to the dentist's office start to think about the experience they offer. The dentist thinks: 'we need more comfortable chairs.' Why doesn't the dentist partner with the nail salon so you can get a manicure while you're there? There are a million things you could be doing while you're in the dentist's chair. The new hot dentist has a video screen and headphones. That's a pretty big improvement. But think about all the other things you can do. I want a foot massage at the same time. There are so many opportunities to make things better because so many experiences suck. Chain restaurants for example. TGI Fridays. LongHorn Steakhouse.
But those places are booming.
They are but imagine how they'd win bigger if they fixed their experience.
If you could back to Michael at 10 years old, the one who needed attention,
That poor soul!
If you could go back to that poor soul and sit down with him, what advice would give him?
Two things. We talked about one earlier. Patience and focus. Don't try to change everything. Don't try to do a million things. Just stay focused on very few things. And don't expect anything to happen quickly. You've got to stay at it. Things come in time. But you've got to stay focused. As somebody with ADD, I think I had 54 jobs before I founded Mirrorball. I have a list. I tried everything. I tried it for a week, a month, a year. Every career, every category, there's nothing that I didn't do, because I couldn't find what I wanted to do. But if I'd stuck with one of the better ones I may have stuck with one that may have panned out. But I had no patience for anything. Maybe that was just a result of my upbringing. But I think patience and focus. And I'm only learning focus now. In my 50s.
What are you really excited about?
I want people to not take experience for granted. And realize it's a thing! People don't realize it's a thing. Experience is a thing. When you get up every day, ask what experience are you delivering, and to whom? Every day I deliver an experience to my employees, to my wife, to my children. I ask: 'what can I do this weekend?' Or 'what's the experience I'm planning for somebody' because that's my contribution to their lives. We all need to provide better experiences for each other, whatever it may be. Is there a nicer way to make tea for my wife -- different than the way I made it yesterday? It's simple stuff but can have a big impact.
Michael Blatter is a marketing maverick and the driving force behind the non-conformist culture at Mirrorball. As a pioneer in experience design, Blatter has a penchant for creating concepts that move people out of their comfort zones and open them to new ideas and associations.
Blatter has built a family of strategists, designers, producers, and creators united by a clear mission: to design experiences and engagements that stimulate people’s emotions and create deep meaningful memories. Under his leadership, Mirrorball has retained prestigious clients such as Perrier, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Harley-Davidson, L’Oreal, Bayer, Dos Equis and Jack Daniel’s.
After years of creating award winning experiences for events, Blatter and his team have expanded their services to shake up the worlds of retail, attractions and hospitality.
Early in his career Blatter identified the value of “influencer marketing” and “cultural relevance”. Utilizing these concepts he formed KBA Marketing, which paved the way for the entire experiential marketing category. KBA grew to 1,600 employees in 30 cities and served clients including Coca-Cola & Nike. The agency was acquired by Interpublic Group. In 2003, he launched Mirrorball.
Blatter's deep knowledge of popular culture along with his energy and urge to innovate, is what keeps Mirrorball buzzing 24/7. He is known in the industry as a provocateur. Blatter holds Mirrorball to a standard of excellence in creativity, originality, and execution. He believes that as a society we undervalue the importance of great experiences and powerful memories. He has made it his mission to integrate those experiences wherever possible and lives for taking clients, companies, and guests on emotional journeys never before imagined.
Check out Mirrorball for more information.