News & Views

Secret Location's James Milward on Great Brand Experiences

by Contagious Team


 James Milward is the founder and executive producer of Secret Location, an Emmy-winning digital agency based in Toronto that creates content around entertainment properties. 

James will be a speaker at Now / Next / Why Chicago on 19 May in the Evidence & Execution section of the day, where Contagious briefings are squared up with stories from practitioners big and small to help understand how some of the world's most interesting brands are obsessing the multifaceted concept of experience. 

Secret Location is a part of VRSE, the recently-formed creative powerhouse VR production company. At Now / Next / Why Chicago James will be explaining how filmmaking and creating immersive content experiences needs to be fundamentally re-thought for this new medium.

We asked James some questions about the his current favourite brand experiences in advance of the day.

Let’s cut through the jargon: what does ‘brand experience’ mean to you? Why is it so important?

To us, it’s just creating a great story or memorable moment for the audience which uniquely marries the brand to that experience, without it being overly overt or offensive as a result.

The best ‘brand experiences’ position that brand as the enabler or benefactor of an awesome impact in some way that transcends the brand message and uniquely delivers the overall feeling, therefore creating a more compelling resonance.

When we work on brand experiences, there is inherently something participatory or interactive to them. For us that defines how we connect that brand to the actual audience – as a user of the experience and story drives the reason why anyone cares.

What’s the number one mistake you see brands making in their attempts to create customer-focused experiences?

The classic mistake is that the brand and the people who work for the brand are obsessed with their own self-importance or have a myopic view of why anyone will care, beyond their inner circle.  Hence they try and hit the brand’s message or role in that experience too hard. 

The best brands assume and accept no one inherently cares and try to make the experience feel meaningful to the audience, understanding the brand will land right in the centre of this feeling if done right.

Who, other than you, is nailing brand experience right now?

I think there are lots who are making great experiences that we don’t process as brand experiences, but are working.

Red Bull is the obvious answer because its brand, from its original events, media channels and content, action sports enabler and CPG are so intertwined that they become indistinguishable.

A lot of alcohol brands excel at this as well because they get that it’s aspirational feelings and fun that sells their brand better than hitting the audience over the head with detail.

What current marketing buzzword or trend is the least important, in your mind?

The ironic thing at this point is that ‘Storytelling’ has become such a buzzword that can really become meaningless when thrown around. However as a trend, good storytelling is fundamentally the most important piece when creating any media.

The rub is that the way it’s being tossed around classifies any idea as a story – that’s risking the integrity of great stories actually getting sold through and made with the right methodology and expectation.

What recent changes in marketing will cause a lasting impact for brands and agencies?

I think it's less about changes in marketing and more about changes in how people behave and conceptualize their relationship with content, media and messaging overall.

To me the continuing ability for on-demand everything is the largest cultural and utilitarian trend globally that will change people's expectation and relationship with advertising being a necessary part of their lives.


Join Contagious at Now / Next / Why 2015. Limited tickets available; book now:

CHICAGO / 19 MAY  (in partnership with SOCIALDEVIANT)

SAN FRANCISCO / 9 JUNE (in partnership with BSSP)

Contagious magazine and Contagious I/O subscribers receive a 10% discount.  For more information email or call +44 203 206 9275.