Over the last decade, San Diego the spectacular Comic-Con brand activations have become as impressive and talked about as anything in Hall H. They’ve also become a huge draw for the Gaslamp crowds who can’t get into the con itself. Evolving from simple set-ups – statues and balloons – to multi-leveled environments – people still talk fondly about the Flynn’s Arcade recreations – these activities are now essential to what people expect from Comic-Con.
But who makes them and how do they get there? I was lucky enough to speak with Seth Bardacke, an executive producer at at Grandesign, one of the companies that makes some of the most spectacular activations at con – including the now traditional Adult Swim area behind the convention center. I’ve long been fascinated by how these Brigadoon experiences come to be, and Bardacke offers a ton of insight about their development and just how tough they are to put together.
I spoke with Bardacke at the beginning of June – and he was 15 minutes late to the call hashing out plans for a SDCC event with a client. The time frame on some of these activations is very tight, and the people who put them together are just as creative as anyone at the con.
Huge thanks to Kate Kelly for helping make this interview happen.
THE BEAT: Seth, what was your first Comic-con?
SETH BARDACKE: In 2010 the Ubisoft gaming company had a game called Raving Rabbids (rabbits). So we had some custom costumes created. They were very small costumes. But you can’t have children in those costumes, as you can imagine, so we found some actors that were little people. My job was the mascot handler for these two characters. And I can’t tell you how many people stopped me and told me how unfair it was treating children like that. So before I started producing large scale activations, I was a mascot handler! It was it was a great first memory.
THE BEAT: So what’s your background? How did you get into this?
BARDACKE: I started in professional sports as a producer. I did in-game entertainment for the Sacramento Kings after college for several years. That’s really where I cut my teeth on production. My move away from in-house to an agency meant having a wide variety of types of projects that I was involved in. It was not just doing variations on the same show over and over again in one location, but having almost every project be a learning experience. Experiential marketing is [creating a] one of a kind of experience. You strive for uniqueness. Something to cut through all the noise and stand out and create that memory. And I’ve found that working for Grandesign and the agency world in general. I’m a producer at heart, but it’s getting to create something new and different every time in different locations some of which aren’t even specific locations. Mobile tours, on the ground moving activations, working indoors, working outdoors. Pop-ups and changing over an existing open space or changing an entire restaurant.
THE BEAT: Let’s talk a little about that canvas. What makes something stand out? What’s the goal when you’re creating an experience that people will remember?
BARDACKE: The memory is the take away. That swag bag is important – what they’re collecting from the different booths, the physical takeaways. But the longer lasting takeaways, the takeaways that truly can connect fans with the brand and establish that customer loyalty, is the memory of the experience. And today the digital and social content that is created and then shared from those memories is priceless. It’s the same for Comic-Con. You’re trying to give people a unique experience and building that brand loyalty by providing something positive, inspiring, and different. It’s not just standing in line to get some item.
This will be my seventh year in a row producing the Adult Swim event, which started in the Interactive Zone [The PetCo Park parking lot], but it’s now behind the convention center. Last year we did a state park. Before that it was the on the green carnival event. This year – we haven’t announced it yet! But people are already excited to see what it will be. One of my favorite things to do at Comic-Con is just to walk through that Hall H overflow line along the boardwalk, people who are camping out 24 hours and talk to them about what they’re seeing and what they’re hoping for. They are so friendly. The best fans are at Comic-con! It’s inspiring to me not only as a fan of the entertainment industry but as someone who is responsible for production.This is important. You’re not just something that people are walking by. People plan their annual vacations around Comic Con and it’s important for not just the brands but for the producer to respect that and really make sure we’re putting in a full effort into what is valued by fans and trying to provide that value.
THE BEAT: I’ve always been fascinated by the Adult Swim area. The sense of humor is incredible but essentially you’re setting it up in this tiny little salt marsh. It’s kind of a weird wilderness behind the convention center. What are some of the challenges of the actual terrain there?
BARDACKE: Number one: the lack of infrastructure. There’s no wall to hang anything on. There’s no outlet to plug anything into. There’s no Wi-Fi that you can access. You’re literally bringing everything in.
Event challenges are always different. In that particular space, the biggest challenge is loading. I mean, there’s not even a loading dock. Everything, everything has to be coordinated. [It’s not visible to everyone] but a challenge is sharing entrance pathways to the place with the convention center loading dock, and the amount of trucks that have to come in to setup the inside of the convention center.
Our neighbors, the Bayfront and FX and Fox share a similar challenge. There’s only so many pathways. The Adult Swim people are the most creative people I’ve ever met. Just getting to figure out how we turn their napkin sketches into something that exists in real life is a challenge. It’s a fun challenge but logistically how can we transport all that gear and get it set up in a very short amount of time?
THE BEAT: Another area is the parking lot by PetCo. It’s just, to be brutally honest, a parking lot. But once again it’s turned into this magical space.
BARDACKE: Yes. After my first Comic-Con with the Rabbids, by second one was my first ever experience in the Interactive Zone. We were there for a short lived Fox show called Terra Nova that came out after Avatar. We had an RV with a green screen room in the back and we were inserting people into clips from the show. At that time the Interactive Zone was pretty sparse. The following year we brought the Adult Swim Fun House and that space grew over the years with more and more activations and more of a key player in the entire Comic-Con world. We also developed our relationship with the Padres over the years. Last year we actually took over management of the lot and we did rebranded it as The Experience. We really put more of an emphasis on nighttime programming and had a great time doing it. Now the Padres are going to back to handling it and we wanted to make sure we’re not putting all our eggs in one basket. We have some Marina projects going on this year and other things throughout the Gaslamp and in the Interactive Zone in addition to Adult Swim. I’m really glad we did it last year. But that space holds a lot of the same challenges as the grass space does – the fact that it’s a parking lot and you’re turning the parking lot into a village and [building it from scratch.]
THE BEAT: Can you give us an idea of the range of timeframes that you have to work on these kind of activations and experiences?
BARDACKE: We started planning for Adult Swim in February. And I just got off a call [on June 7th] with a client who had not yet finalized their concept! We pride ourselves on ideation and so if someone comes to us next week and says ‘Hey what can we do a comic con?’ there is still room. Over the years, we’ve partnered with various businesses. One year for USA Network we did a promotion for their show Dig, which included hidden symbols. I think we had 30 partners around the Gaslamp. We had a party at one space, others, we just put a put a sign on their window or branded their bar coasters. With one, we used some special kind of mud to make the symbol on their windows. So the areas are there, it’s really just about having a creative concept and understanding the brand’s objective while also understanding where the fans derive value. You’re looking to do something that changes someone’s experience. It could be your server at a restaurant is wearing the T-shirt of your favorite show and then you see that all the menu items have been renamed. It doesn’t have to be a giant million dollar fabrication to stand out. There are other ways that you can do that right.
THE BEAT: What’s been one of your biggest challenges?
BARDACKE: Well, we’re dealing with the entertainment industry, where anything is possible on screen. Actually building something in real life that you can walk through, something you can touch and feel andis durable [is very different]. The challenge is making sure that you’re able to meet the expectations and have it be your favorite thing at Comic-Con. It’s not just in a camera. It’s an actual living breathing item. Every year, the expectations are set, and the big challenge is just how are we going to [live up to that.]
THE BEAT: And a favorite?
BARDACKE: I’ll go back to that Fun House that we did many years ago for Adult Swim. The ideas were sketched on boards by illustrators and we had to turn those into real life. There was a squid room where people went in and put their hands inside squid holes, and the ice room where they walked through a door and found out Santa Claus was sitting in there. The idea was a peak of creativity, but now it was like oh damn, we have to figure out how to do this. It was a unique experience for everyone! If you went through our space three days before the event, it was a parking lot, and two days after the event it was a parking lot, but the quality of the set was like a carnival amusement park that is constructed over months. And we did it in a few days. But the memories it created – I still get comments years later from people who remember the Fun House.
THE BEAT: So everyone I know talks about how far can San Diego Comic-Con go. The con gets more and more elaborate every year. Some brands move out and others move in. Are there some parking lots that haven’t been discovered in San Diego or other places to go?
BARDACKE: [Amazon’s] Jack Ryan was in that other parking lot last year. But one of one of the challenges is that it seems like every open space in the Gaslamp is being turned into luxury condos and apartments! I think we’re actually losing open footprint areas faster than we’re gaining them.
But overall, some brands elect to skip comic Comic-Con some years. Others come in for the first time. To me, nothing compares to Comic-Con in terms of these types of brand activations. It is the epicenter of the brand activations in the country. I’ve done some international work but I’ve never seen anything that compares to it. And really that’s a testament to Comic Con attendees and the fans more than anything – they’re the ones that create the environment and the sell-outs. They come not just to be spectators but to be participants in what’s going on. We are just answering the call from those fans. So to me as long as we have those fans stay as interested and engaged, and I don’t see [things] slowing down.
THE BEAT: I 100% percent agree with you. In my time, the fan experience has become so much more interactive. And it’s the comics element that led the way, with the first con where you could go and meet Jack Kirby.
BARDACKE: I make it a point every year to visit artist alley. That is the origin of Comic-Con.
[This interviews has been edited for length and clarity.]
Photos of past Adult Swim activations: