By Brad Foster

His interest piqued by a recent interview with former Imagination UK creative, Richard Foulkes, editor Brad Foster went in search of what the local office was up to, speaking to director Heath Campanaro about all things Imagination.

The set of glass doors to suite 116 at 26-32 Pirrama Road in Pyrmont belies the huge upstairs downstairs floor space inside that is home to over 70 full time Imagination employees.

To the left is a reception desk. To the right, a boardroom with bar-height chairs, a table and a wall-mounted TV that would look great at my place if I had a wall big enough. Just minutes after I’m shown into the boardroom and offered water, tea or coffee, the spritely director, Heath Campanaro, bounds into the room, all smiles and energy, a laptop under his arm.

Coffee orders taken, Heath gives me a quick tour of the office that I surmise was once a waterfront warehouse probably home to ship builders or wharfies a century or so ago. Today the space is full to the brim with creatives working in a range of disciplines for what Heath describes as “the world’s best experience agency”.

Founded 50 years ago in the UK, Imagination’s tentacles have grown to span the planet, with 13 offices and more than 1000 staff.

Its roots as an agency that did great launches for some of the biggest car makers now goes well beyond just creating events, although they continue to do those too.

Campanaro began his career in advertising agency land before working on sponsorship and activation in the UK, followed by strategic internal communications and cultural change projects for large organisations. Looking to better service its Australian clients, and probably with one eye on the growing Asia market, Imagination knocked on the door of the boutique agency Campanaro was working at and purchased it. Fifteen years later, and now Director, Heath obviously still has an enormous amount of passion and energy for Imagination and what it does.

Depending on what they’re doing, staff numbers can swell to 90, 100, 120 people. And they do a hell of a lot!

“You need a pretty long elevator ride to do the Imagination elevator pitch,” Campanaro says.

“We’re quite an unusual agency that historically was very much borne out of running events and exhibitions. It’s been in our DNA for over 50 years.”

Campanaro hits the Imagination showreel on the big television screen in the boardroom to give me a taste of some of the work the company does.

Footage shows a major light installation at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands; the Telstra Business Awards – 16 events every year; Telstra’s annual Vantage conference; Ford’s Vivid Installation a few years back; Samsung’s Vivid installation for the past two years; the 23-city Spirit of Anzac Centenary Experience; the announcement of the redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial; Westpac’s Bicentenary Program; the design and build of innovation labs for a variety of companies; and the Australian Navy Centenary.

No wonder Imagination doesn’t position itself as an event company, preferring to call itself a “creative agency”, Campanaro says.

“If an event’s the right nail to hit with the hammer, we’ll hit it. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s a whole range of things and not just one element. Our clients see us as one of their strategic agencies, not as one of their event suppliers.”

And I get it. I can’t see Imagination on a list of “preferred suppliers” created by a procurement manager because they’re so much more.

Yes, the company does events. But it also does brand activations, immersive tech-led experiences, graphic design, copywriting, motion graphics and film, exhibition builds, 3D design, content, digital work, and brand work… and for the last eight years have been the Creative Team for Sydney New Year’s Eve Celebrations.

“If you look at one of these areas we’ve got a massive competitor set in each of them, no question. But I would argue that there isn’t one company who can do everything like we can.”

What this means, Campanaro explains, is that Imagination isn’t set into solving a client’s problem with just one option, like a company that only does events would try to do.

“For some projects we deliver a turn-key solution, from advertising, employee communications, digital, and social media campaigns to anything in the live space. It many cases that full-service model is helpful to the client because they don’t need four or five different agencies managing one thing. We do it all for them. But in other cases we stay in a pre-defined swim lane.

“We’re lucky enough to have a lot of experts who are masters in a range of very different things. We have really talented people. The reason we get the interesting work we get and the scale of the work that we get is because of that mix of talent, and the great people we attract.”

Having this pool of talent, Campanaro explains, has given Imagination greater opportunity to grow along with its clients in new and exciting areas.

“We’re working with Mastercard on their B2B technology experiences right now, we designed and built CommBank’s Innovation Lab, we’ve build five for GE around the region, and we’ve done 3M’s in London. These kind of projects allow us to flex our strategic, creative, tech and content muscle as we help these brands tell their complex products and services stories in engaging ways. They need a cohesive narrative, they need a beautiful look and feel, they need a reason to bring customers in to engage with them in a different way. We do a lot of that kind of work.”

Moving with the times

Part of the growth of Imagination has no doubt come because of changing consumer behaviour.

“Customers want more information and new ways of engaging with things that are interesting and exciting,” Campanaro explains.

Much of that involves around telling stories and creating experiences that Campanaro describes as “memory burns”.

“Everything’s about storytelling. Sales are a result of people believing in a story. If you can convince someone you’re the right organisation for them, because they believe in your story, you can sell products and make connections.

“Many people who have ended up at Imagination, me included, could never go back to traditional marketing or advertising roles; it just doesn’t offer the variety or the scope that we see everyday at Imagination. Our executive creative director has come from a digital creative background and often talks about the sad fact that digital advertising has pretty much compressed into two channels – Facebook and Google.  Marketers are trying to capture someone’s interest in the first two seconds of a pre-roll in order to grab their attention. We’re so lucky to be playing with so many mediums to deliver really impactful experiences to people. It’s a real privilege.

“That’s why we believe in creating experiences where you can emotionally engage with someone; [where you can] get them to interact with your story and your brand in a way that is truly memorable.

“I always say that when you look back on your life there are always a series of what I call `memory burns’ – those moments that are just so unforgettable because they were so awesome or unexpected – that they just blew you away.

“I think back to when I went to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. I was backpacking. I walked in and went wow this is so cool. I expected to just go and walk around a dusty old brewery but it was so much more. I remember saying to my then girlfriend, now wife, this is so awesome; what kind of company would do this? As it turned out, I found out much later that Imagination did it in 1990. It’s still one of our most iconic projects and still one of Dublin’s top tourist attractions to this day.

“I try to get back to the Glastonbury Music Festival in the UK each year, and I remember that first day of walking in the gates and you look down on the whole site and you see 250,000 people and you go holy shit. Those are the unforgettable moments that only experiences can deliver.

“You don’t get that from TV or press ads; you get it from feeling something, from experiencing something that makes your jaw drop on the floor. That’s why we still do what we do – we get to deliver that moment for people.

The Spirit of Anzac Centenary Experience is a great example of storytelling at it’s best.  The exhibition, created by Imagination with stakeholders including the Federal Government, Australian War Memorial and Department of Veterans’ Affairs, was half a football field in size and toured 23 Australian cities over a two-year period (with transportation on 12 semi-trailers).

The entire project took 18 months to develop and had a mix of old and new technology. High-tech devices included an app that visitors used – almost 500K of them – as they toured the exhibition complete with commentary and original music, right down to the simple display of traditional WWI artefacts. Following the first few exhibition openings the team brought in chairs and tissue boxes to one particular part of the display to cater to the outpouring of emotion by visitors.

“It’s such an important story. It was one of those jobs we’re really proud of and it shows that there’s a real heart and soul to what we do. That’s what I’m talking about when I say `memory burn’. It’s really important to capture emotion and make something memorable.”

Keeping the creativity going

Campanaro says his team loves being challenged.

“We’re pushed and pulled every day by our client briefs. Every brief is completely different. One day we might be working on a gala dinner event and next day we might be asked to figure out how MasterCard engages with its biggest customers and finding a solution for that. That stretches our guys in so many different ways.

“What’s great is that it forces us to continually be out there, not just looking what’s best in market and interesting around the world in one thing but what’s interesting in a hundred different things because we never know what the next brief is going to be.

“What’s also really interesting is that one piece of inspiration in technology might influence an event or it might influence the design of an exhibition stand or it might influence a communication program.

“That’s why clients love working with us because they get such a variety of thinking. They don’t just get the same way of thinking back at them.”

Time’s almost up. There is a group of people standing in the lobby. Heath has another appointment. He’s excited about a big thing they’re doing in Saudi Arabia in partnership with their Dubai office. He hints that it could be the biggest piece of work they’ve done.

By the sounds of it and what I’ve learnt over the past hour, I don’t doubt it. This is one company that doesn’t look like it’ll be slowing down anytime soon.