Justin Bolognino’s favorite thing is evolution. “I’m a huge evolution theorist at the end of the day,” he tells me. “Conscious evolution, specifically.”
He is the Founder and CEO of META.is and we’re sitting in a coffee shop in Greenpoint on Manhattan Avenue on an unseasonably warm winter morning. I want to talk about his company, META, but he wants to talk about evolution.
“The name of my first company was Learned Evolution and this neighborhood represents that,” Bolognino says. “A lot of people would question whether it’s evolution at all but I think it fits perfectly within the stages of evolution. You can still have an old Williamsburg, or an old Greenpoint-like experience any time you want. Or you can go to the William Vale and stand on the roof. I think that’s really cool. I think we’ve lost a little bit of the grit and dirt but it’s still out there. You can still go to a stinky loft party any Friday or Saturday you want to, but again, there’s the other side of it, the cultural evolution of it… it still is exciting for me.”
Bolognino is originally from upstate New York, the Saratoga/Albany area, though he’s been living in North Brooklyn for 14 years. He initially moved to New York City because his best friend was living here “and his life was so terribly exciting that I had to be close to it,” Bolognino says. “His name is Johnny Beach and he was like this prodigal music industry kid. When we were first out of college he went on to book Mercury Lounge and now he’s been booking Bowery Ballroom and T5 for 10 years probably…”
Ultimately, Bolognino and his then girlfriend, now wife, landed in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “It was the only place we could afford,” he says. Of course, Williamsburg in 2002 was much different than it is today. When I ask what his favorite thing about the neighborhood is, he answers with one word: “Food.”
“There’s just an endless amount of great food in this neighborhood,” Bolognino says, somewhat exasperated by the fact. “There’s a restaurant called Bauburg that no one knows exists. They’re actually opening a second location in Greenpoint, and oh my god, that place is just unbelievable. The duck confit ramen is probably one of then best dishes in the neighborhood. Cafe Mogador? Their lamb tagine with casablanca sauce? One of the best dishes of Williamsburg/Greenpoint… We just ate at Rider, that place was fantastic. The ingredients were super fresh… the staff was amazingly calm and patient amongst a screaming one year old. Her favorite game is to drop things off the table so she can watch you pick it up over and over and over again…”
He smiles, again somewhat exasperated, and continues to list more of his favorite restaurants: El Amacin, Shelter, Rosarito… “I love what my Argentinian boys have done,” he says. “Grand Ferry is another secret. They carry the same steak, the same exact steak as St. Anselm and it’s arguably as good if not better steak than St. Anselm, in my opinion. That said, I love St. Anselm, one of our best friends has worked there since they opened and we go there often, that place is amazing. The dish there is the spinach, I love that side of spinach. It probably takes you one step closer to death but it’s amazing.”
What he doesn’t mention is the Blue Ribbon fried chicken at Brooklyn Bowl, a now stalwart venue in the neighborhood, a design and experience project he lead with his previous company.
“While I in no way take responsibility for the totality of that,” Bolognino says of building out the Brooklyn Bowl look, feel, and experience. “It was me and and three other people really that collaborated from the jump to create that experience, and that experience truly represents META, even though that was done with my old company, Learned Evolution: you have a multi-sensory experience that ignites the human spirit and if you’ve ever been to Brooklyn Bowl, hopefully you feel that immediately… The way the screens are designed, the way the AV system is designed, the floor plan, the views you have from certain places, every single fucking screw in that place was designed for your experience. And yeah it really represents, I think in a really significant way, a precursor to what we do now.”
And what does Justin Bolognino do now? What does META do exactly?
“Let’s first talk about the difference between experiences, which is what we produce, and experiential marketing…” Bolognino begins, and I get the feeling he’s compelled to explain this to the uninitiated quite often. “With experiential marketing, the KPI is selling stuff. The KPI on an experience is elevating consciousness or inspiring somebody. The end isn’t how many units did you push; the end is how the person felt when they walked out of there. That can then lead to brand recall and selling stuff, but we’re not a marketing experiential agency, there are plenty of those and that’s not really the game that we play. We take that ethos and that spirit and apply it more to modular-style experiences. That’s ultimately our network.”
META currently works with a variety of clients and brands and over time plans to introduce their own branded events. Bolognino is aiming to flip the traditional client-based RFP pitch process. “I want to be able to say what I want to say and employ freedom of speech,” he explains. “I want to have something that is uniquely ours that is unencumbered by anyone else’s interests. Down the line I’ll be looking to work with brands but I want to get to a place where, ‘Yes, send us a pitch, Brand. And by the way, it’s due tomorrow and no, you’re not getting paid for it, and yes, we’re soliciting pitches from 10 other brands.’ That’s the goal, to get to that place, where the whole script is flipped because my heart is too sensitive to deal with bullshit. It’s just that some people don’t quite understand what goes into creating a compelling experience. There is no ‘Can’t ya just?’ That’s one of my favorite things that clients say, ‘Can’t ya just?’ No, ya can’t just. That’s not how it works.”
Last year’s Panorama Festival hosted The Lab, an incredible technology and art exhibit, presented by The Verge, “powered by” HP, and designed and curated by META. “It is really the first big coming out party of our new model,” Bolognino says. “We designed that experience, we laid out all the chess pieces, sold it through AEG, then went and curated the talent.”
Really, The Lab was the first project of its kind for all of the companies involved, not just META. Bolognino had some friends at AEG who introduced him to some key players but ultimately, META was competing for an RFP shared with 10 other agencies and companies. And META’s pitch won the project.
“We won against a lot of our competitors who we’re used to losing to,” he says. “We packed the thing up, they brought in HP, but then I sold it through. There’s no rulebook for what we do, and it’s very very complicated, and you have to speak many, many different languages to sell this stuff. And you have to be able to articulate it. That’s really fucking hard. There’s a reason you don’t see a lot of these things out there. It’s really complex stuff. But it worked. And HP had their best activation in their history, their numbers were off all the charts, blew away all expectations.
Now, AEG and The Panorama Festival have asked META to design and curate another presentation of The Lab at this year’s festival. It seems everyone wants to double down and META is ready.
But Bolognino will be the first to tell you how hard he and his team have worked to get there. His one piece of advice for a young creative, entrepreneur? “Find a great lawyer,” he says. “Don’t look at lawyers as the enemy, like I did for so long. Don’t look at lawyers as an expense, because a good lawyer will make you more money than they cost. And if you need them, holler, because I love hooking up my lawyers with new business.”
Bolognino smiles and nods empathically to make sure I know he’s serious. “You have to understand that business is law and law is language,” he preaches. “Every single word has to be shaped towards the success of your business. This is not something I would advise a creative-type like myself to even mess with. Understand it, yes. You have to understand it. But, man, it took me 10 years to bring on a business partner who’s a lawyer, intellectual property, partnerships attorney, and the difference is so unbelievable. How much I’ve learned about business through the filter and lens of law has been extraordinary, and it also really makes me scratch my head to think how did I do this for a decade without a lawyer business partner? I can’t even fathom that I was that stupid. That would be my advice, don’t think you can do it yourself. Understand it, but bring in someone who’s better than you. And that goes for all positions.”
Along those lines, META recently welcomed a new group of Experience Directors, who combine design, artistry, technology and storytelling to create unique moments and experiences. META’s new “xDirectors” include Android Jones, Studio Sebastien Leon, Future Wife, Gabriel Pulecio and Sensorium Works.
If 2016 and The Lab was any indication of what’s coming next in terms of interactive design and technology arts, well… then I suppose the near future holds some interesting surprises to say the least. Technology is progressing exponentially and now larger and larger companies are interested in engaging consumers in new and strange ways. Who knows what will come! Perhaps the only thing we can be sure of is that META’s roster of artists and visionaries is leading that charge, leading this experiential evolution.
To learn more, visit META.is