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Greg Bolton
Greg Bolton.

Greg Bolton Is Creating New Ways of Telling Stories Online

As a creative director at Toronto's Jam3, he pushes the limits of what's possible with design and technology

As a creative director at Jam3, a digital design and production company, Greg Bolton (BA 1992 Trinity) is part of a team that’s challenging the way stories are told online. Exhibit A: Sons of Gallipoli, an interactive documentary commemorating the 100th anniversary of the First World War battle. Bolton, who also works with corporate clients, such as Coca-Cola and Facebook, talked recently with Deborah Reid about the fast-changing state of his business.

Your company has a rep for defying convention. Is Jam3 a bunch of rogue 30-year-olds?
No (laughing), those people go broke. One of the partners likes to say that “we’re the batphone for stuff that’s impossible.” A question we always ask when considering a project is, “do we think this work will be good for us?”

What makes a job “impossible”?
Doing something that hasn’t been imagined or executed before – like creating a 3-D experience for the desktop. But any tech solution is wrapped in a piece of creative. We figure out how to make it look beautiful and make sense.

Taking big risks can sometimes end in failure. What’s the tolerance level for risk at Jam3?
We stick our necks out. We’re transparent with clients about the challenges, and some are comfortable with that, and others will choose a less risky path. Sons of Gallipoli was a very ambitious project for Jam3 both technically and creatively. If you like challenge and want to do what no one else is doing, then you accept that some of it is going to be hard.

What’s the biggest shift happening in your market?
A scary shift for us is companies taking their marketing in-house. A good example of how that can go wrong is the Kendall Jenner ad for Pepsi, done by their in-house content agency, Creators League Studio.

Was that ad bad for Pepsi?
There are a lot of people who say that attention is the new currency – that if you’re getting attention, it’s inherently good. But I don’t think you should set out to lay that kind of egg, even if you know it’s going to get a lot of attention.

Is getting a lot of attention – “going viral” – a good creative strategy?
I think so, but it’s one of those things you can’t plan. Anything we do at Jam3 we hope will become part of pop culture. Being seen and talked about are the halo effects of good work. You do that by creating things people care about.

We live in a binge culture, where every day something is the greatest thing ever. It makes it difficult to have staying power. It may be easier to get work out, but if you only get a big blip is that enough?

How do you deal with the fact that attention spans are decreasing?
We build our interactive documentaries assuming that viewers might have two minutes or 20 minutes to spend on the content – the 2:20 rule. It’s a good mnemonic for thinking about shallow and deep consumption. For Success Academy, there’s a 37-minute introductory documentary, but there are also short videos that drill down into subjects like math and reading. The content in a short segment needs to be memorable enough that a viewer is going to bookmark the site and return when they have more time.

In the movie Minority Report the ads are tailored to people through retinal scans. Do you see that coming?
Yeah, I do see that coming but whether it will look like that is hard to say. Ads tied to digital search is already happening, but it needs to be smarter. If I buy a product, don’t show me more ads for it. That tells me that people are watching what I do, except when I do the most important thing, purchase the product. That’s a loop that needs closing.

Where do you find inspiration?
I don’t think I’ve ever met a good creative who doesn’t read a lot. I’m enjoying the television series, The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s quite beautiful, and I’m stunned at its prescience. There’s a documentary series called Soundbreaking that’s fascinating.

What do you love about your job?
A big part of it is mentoring juniors to deliver their best work. We have an intern program called We3, and they have to pitch us. I give them my pitching 101 spiel and help them with their PowerPoint presentation or pitch deck. Teaching was my first career choice.

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