Go Behind The Scenes of Giant Spoon's SXSWestworld: The Best Activation Ever?
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
In the aftermath of this year's SXSW, there seemed to be a clear consensus of the winner of the groundbreaking festival: HBO & Giant Spoon's impossibly immersive Westworld experience. The praise-heaping reactions didn't stop there. Much of the immediate news coverage declared it the greatest activation ever and one of the best publicity stunts of the 21st century. Below, we interview WNW Member Josh Yeston, the Associate Creative Director of everything agency Giant Spoon, to get a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of some of the many creative logistics involved in this undertaking. Part of the beauty of the experience is that the show's entire premise almost begs for a simple one-to-one recreation more so than activating a non-interactive plot. But Josh is quick to add, "It seemed simple to our audience, but it was a symphony of complicated decisions behind the scenes. The experiential producers at Giant Spoon are magicians." There's a lot for everyone involved to be proud of. And there are also some great creative takeaways. "No ego, no territorial nonsense. It was a refreshing reminder that when you let creative people do what they’re good at, it often falls outside their job description but wholly in the purview of what has to get done."
A lot of the press + reviews for this experience noted 1) how frustrating marketing activations have become, and 2) that this one is different, probably the best one ever. Was the general weariness and staleness of "activations" and "marketable experiences" something the creative team considered from the start?
Some brands are checking boxes when they build experiences because they’re filling a hole in a spreadsheet. We owe our audience more than that, and the team knew they had a massive responsibility to deliver. SXSWestworld was successful because we started with the simple idea to build Westworld and went from there. We didn’t have to do an experiential event; we wanted to.
The very premise of Westworld almost begs for a simple one-to-one recreation more so than an “activation.” Was part of the conversation how to not overly complicate things?
We’re very proud of how authentic our audience's experience was at SXSWestorld. We wanted to make sure they got to go to Westworld and not spend 2 hours in an ad. Just like the show, behind the humanity of it all was a beautiful infrastructure of technology and logistics. That took an incredible amount of planning from every single person at Giant Spoon and HBO to pull it all off. It seemed simple to our audience, but it was a symphony of complicated decisions behind the scenes. The experiential producers at Giant Spoon are magicians.
Is the process of building these experiences a drastically different process from other marketing and advertising campaigns? Or is there a lot you can pull from experiences working on the latter?
SXSWestworld wasn’t like anything else I had ever been a part of. But in the end, the same human truths prevailed. Keep it simple, be generous, and understand your audience.
What were some of the other challenges and breakthroughs behind the scenes of bringing this to life and giving it an immersiveness not seen in other activations?
Westworld is a destination that is so close to being real, it could be. So we treated it like it was. We had Delta fly a plane with fans to Westworld from LAX. There was an in-world tourism campaign that ran both digitally pre-SXSW and at SXSW as OOH. Not only did we build Sweetwater, a 90,000 sq. ft immersive space with 66 actors, but we also built Mesa Gold Station for guests to check in to so they felt like a millionaire arriving at a Delos Destination. The shuttle ride between the two destinations was a part of the show. The challenge was not how can this be immersive, but how immersive can this be!
With the use of some incredible technology, every single guest was deeply immersed in the experience. Their faces appeared on wanted posters. Handwritten letters waited for them in the post office that sent them on unique missions. The photos they took at the Photography Studio revealed Season 2 easter eggs when they got back home. All of that technology was invisible to them. There was no “Instagram magnet” because the whole experience was one.
Were there certain ideas for the experience that were left on the cutting room floor... maybe too expensive, too dangerous, or too complicated?
When you tell creative people they get to build Westworld, ideas take on a new context. We weren't bound by 30 seconds or pixel dimensions. We had 2+ hours to tell a deep narrative in 3 dimensions. There was ample room for a a lot of great ideas instead of needing to kill your darlings because of the time or space constraints we normally run into.
What were some of the Season 1 / Season 2 easter eggs within the experience? Were there any that weren’t picked up on?
There were dozens of easter eggs we were given access to. HBO was a terrific partner and collaborator with us on that. We buried mazes 6 feet deep that fans dug up within minutes of the park opening. There were hidden messages in the linings of the hats we gave out that just yesterday became relevant—a month later! If you found a hidden code and the corresponding keypad, you gained access to one of the biggest twists of season two. There was a shogun hiding in a hidden bar. That’s just a handful. My favorite easter egg at the park was never discovered. And it was hiding in plain site every day the park was open.
What from the resulting experience is the creative team proudest of?
What we’re all most proud of is how we at Giant Spoon, our production partners, and our clients at HBO all acted as one team. We all had different jobs to do but everyone’s role was the same— build Westworld for real. Our clients placed an immense amount of trust in Giant Spoon, and we didn’t take that lightly. We had to move thousands of people from downtown Austin to the outskirts. Turns out that shuttle logistic schedules look a hell of a lot like a media plan. So our media team ran transportation. No one asked them to. They just did. Strategists wrote scripts. Creatives took vendor calls. No ego, no territorial nonsense. It was a refreshing reminder that when you let creative people do what they’re good at, it often falls outside their job description but wholly in the purview of what has to get done.