Design Ethics Across Cultures – Academic & Practical Collaboration

On March 20, we published an updated conversation on ethics of and obstacles to creation of experience across cultures and geography. This was picked up, examined and further explored by Margaret King Ph.D and Jamie O’Boyle Ph.D. of The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis in Pennsylvania. The two of them delved far deeper into the dynamics observed and questions asked and have carried the conversation well onward.

Shared, here, in it’s entirety; an evolved conversation possibly opening enlightening doors on pathways toward a more powerful diversity and compelling solutions for our industries…

Some areas of concern for designers working in other cultures are proposed as “Consciousness Conversations.”  These topics come from Kile Ozier’s IMHO online posting of March 20, 2017, at  (“Sharing what I’ve learned…of creating experiences with deep emotional connections”), on his blogsite. Coming off his most recent pre-Expo 2020 experience in Dubai, Kile declaimed on several aspects of concern for professional ethics for Experience designers working overseas.

Exploring topics of expectations, mentoring, problem-framing, attitude, open communication, and installation maintenance should become standard for discussions about best practices and the ethics of cross-cultural project management, with designers as “Ambassadors of Best Practices.”  We responded from our cultural analyst perspective below.

Kile asks:

Might we find ways to communicate these things, cross-culturally, to the benefit of future projects?

Is it too late to impress these lessons on EXPO 2020

Do we not have an obligation to support the ultimate success of all projects in order to continue to build and evolve the industry? Is it possible; would such advice be or have been heeded were it to have been given, supportively and early on, without coming across as paternal?

What are the realistic possibilities?

….It has to do with self-awareness, responsibility for the business, the future of the business, the sharing and spreading by example of best practices…and the obligations inherent in leadership.

Cultural Studies & Analysis offered responses to clarify cultural differences.  Often this is a matter of pointing to the contrasts between American values and developing world cultures, roughly dividing culture into East and West.

  1. Maintenance and upkeep post-design:  “It’s natural to evaluate the likelihood of good or poor maintenance at the pre-design stage, under ‘How will this installation be used and abused?’  Our job is to do the absolute best work possible to prepare the receiving client to manage and maintain…in the best way.”

CS&A:  The maintenance concept can often be an outcome of culture, which is the outcome of environment. Many tropical and subtropical countries have evolved a fatalistic – and quite environmentally sensible – culture that says “You can’t fight nature or God’s will.  Things will fall apart.  The cost of keeping up outward appearances is steep in labor and materials.  So it would be futile – if not outright blasphemous – to try to maintain when the environment always wins out eventually.”

Maintenance is a cultural issue, based on the environment, not a personal character quality (which also works for health care, for the same reason). It actually makes sense from a cost/benefit analysis, so deterioration is viewed as natural and just another aesthetic stage. That’s mostly confined to Africa and Asia.  However, Louisiana began as a French colonial possession, and culture evolves very, very, slowly. You can see evidence of this in the tourist zones of New Orleans. If you were trying to theme New Orleans, you would have to build in a sort of genteel deterioration to make it look right. That’s what they do with new construction in New Orleans. If you are building a Cajun restaurant, it can’t be sharp and polished.  No foul here.  It’s the way groups think based on long experience within their own environments of extreme heat, humidity, and the sheer cost of upkeep.

  1. Condescension:  Across race, age, gender, ethnicity, education, and language:

CS&A:  Concepts of respect and honor vary widely across the globe. In the US, we promote the concept of “constructive criticism.” That value doesn’t exist in many countries, where any criticism, even “constructive,” equates to a personal affront. Americans are not culturally conditioned to the extensive social negotiation of the Middle East and Asia–particularly whenever they have one eye fixed on the deadline.

Condescension in working teams between client and consultant: this is a tough one. As professionals, we are always selling our ideas, but people accept or reject them on the basis of their own reasons—of which a newcomer may be totally unaware.  So as a professional, you have to recognize that their local colleagues are not unintelligent or willful. They have reasons – and these may be reasons they are unwilling to share with an outsider out of mutual consideration.   Some of the dominance and hierarchical behaviors that go on in projects are outcomes of stress; others are culturally driven.  We are engaged on a project for a major music school to identify some of the cultural awareness points that need attention — and finding that intense competition and professional stress at a young age are the core issues, not cultural insensitivity or ignorance of other ways of life.

The short form: when working outside the US: never criticize, condemn, or complain. Not even “constructive criticism.”

  1. Speaking Up with negative communications: “Is there an approach where projects known to be at risk can be rescued before it’s too late?”

CS&A:  This one has strong cultural underpinnings. In many strict hierarchies, including China and the Middle East, you don’t ever, ever, give a superior bad news. Army Special Forces are specifically taught the “no criticism, overt or implied” rule when dealing with foreign nationals.  One polite fiction was to ask their advice, then say “Very good…and may I also suggest we … (do what actually needed to be done).” This would generally be OK’d, not because they were unaware of our ruse, but because they themselves probably invented that particular tactic of face-saving dialogue.

Now nobody seeks criticism, but in many cultures “critical thinking” can/will be interpreted as setting up an adversarial relationship. Arab business relationships, for example, are built on a history of personal exchange – they are trust relationships, but they are also fragile. The only true trust relationships in these settings are family (extended). No matter how good your relationship, as a colleague, you are not family. And criticism or trying to set realistic deadlines when someone higher up the ladder has already made their wishes known places you in the role of adversary – and trust-breaker.

  1. Raised expectations at openings:  “Today’s opening-day expectations are far more sophisticated, aware, and critical of failure than in the past.”

The world is now full of lifelong theme park experts: they are the sophisticated guest list.  They’ve seen the best and rest, led by top-shelf design.  This is one reason museums hold “soft openings,” to learn from their own mistakes as part of the process of fixing what doesn’t work in real time.  Perhaps that’s a way to frame the opening as experimental – making the audience part of it as evaluators. Raised expectations are part of the equation for competing in the experience economy.  Beginning with Disneyland, the designers made it better than it had to be – setting the A-plus standard for the industry ever since.  Unless you can exceed expectations in novel ways (as innovation across park-design parameters), there’s almost no sense in trying to be creative.

  1. Role of mentors / rescuers:  “Can we effectively offer advice, mentorship, responsibly sharing cautionary tales to contemporaries in other parts of the world or industry?”

CS&A:  This would be far more routine if the profession were more self-aware and didn’t view one another as rivals bound by trade-secret silence.  We’d love to see this happen as what we should all be pursuing.

If you are working in another culture and you have a good working relationship with your local counterpart, think of that person as a guide, interpreter. Don’t offer your opinion, ask him what he thinks of this or that idea. Placing yourself in the eager student position is flattering and you may start hearing things that would never occur to you otherwise.

  1. Problem solving for best design answers:  “And how do we create these answers? By applying our bodies of knowledge and experience to what we learn before we act in a new context; using our judgement with that experience to craft original approaches to the cross-cultural work.”

CS&A:  Problem-solving – and problem FRAMING, especially – rather than just coming in with off-the-shelf answers, is the heart of the creative enterprise.  This is what expert opinion is all about: the “lay of the land,” understanding the context of any project and its opportunities and limits — as we do for the cultural and human factors side in cultural analysis. The Japanese might spend years preparing, thinking, and learning before they initiate action. Then they go straight for their goal.  Americans tend to jump right in and correct as they go rather than spend their time making certain that the problem they are solving is, in fact, the problem they should be solving. We think we have a planning stage–but compared to other cultures, our background research and percolation is ridiculously brief.

  1. And finally, Social Media:  “…will cut the [subpar] project down before the day is out,” if it’s found wanting.

CS&A:  Think about Black Sunday, July 17, 1955, at Disneyland in California–as a social media event.  Half a century later, such a disastrous opening would have set the proto-park off course for the next two years or killed it.  Social media leaves almost no margin for parks and events to develop and grow within the audience experience feedback loop.  Instant feedback presents yet another aspect of design to be considered and weighed in the pre-opening equation.


“IMHO : Creating Compelling Experience” remains a free download from the Apple bookstore and iTunes. Yep; Free. Read it. Here’s the Link.

About that Pepsi Ad – What Can We Learn…and Do?

A few years before the turn of the century, just weeks after having left my position as Creative Director at Universal Studios Florida and moved to Manhattan; I attended a Silicon Alley dotcom launch party.

Approached by the prime VC, I was asked what I did before coming to New York. I told him what the job was about as Creative Director for a theme park; of story, experience, immersion, engagement… He was, “Wow, I should have you come work for me!”

I laughed and said, “…No, thanks!”

“Why not?” was his surprised response.

I told him, “Well… If I consult for you; you’ll pay me well and listen to what I say, when you question me you will treat me with respect and value everything I tell you. You will likely follow my advice and I’ll deliver a project for you that will probably exceed your expectations. On the other hand, if I come to work for you; you’ll pay me less, dismiss what I say if you aren’t comfortable with it, challenge me on everything, veto my recommendations, act like you own me and all your other VP’s will suspect me of wanting their jobs.”

He looked at me for a moment and said, “You’re Right.”

You want the truth and to challenge yourself; you want to evolve? Bring in outsiders.


So, this Ad: Link to the Pepsi Ad

The video has already been universally reviled; described as being “tone-deaf” in a digital avalanche of negative response.

Rightfully so; as it is a prime example of the expensive and expansive dangers of the in-house agency model. The supposed savings sought in the name of Time and Money puts at far greater risk the money actually spent and the time taken to produce something that ends up at best ineffective if not – as in this case – actually damaging to the brand.

Many Agency Voices are jumping on this example as evidence of the faults inherent to the in-house agency; citing this as the case for outside agencies as the choice of greater potential.

I don’t know that this hypothesis is entirely accurate. It ain’t necessarily so black-and-white; though it certainly does point out the vast pitfalls of the in-house model; those being myopia, subservience, sycophancy, fear of losing a job.

Agencies, however, are not the only alternative.

There are some who would posit that the age of the agency is over; certainly the mammoth agency is barreling toward irrelevance. Large, legacy agencies are most often burdened with bureaucracy, overhead, sluggishness and an inventory of resources they must employ and sell in order to profit.

For instance: a client may get the agency’s best writer; but is that client getting the best writer for them, for the project, for the audience?

To that, the best agencies are generally small, nimble, flexible…able to ride trends and embrace cultural evolutions; offering clients and their brands options that may even make the client a tad uncomfortable … which might be a good thing, serving to evolve the culture and communicate the message with resonance and relevance.

Or, maybe build specific teams to specific projects or campaigns.

A note on Relevance:

“To me, Pepsi is more than just a beverage. It registers as a pop culture icon and a lifestyle that shares a voice with the generation of today”

– Kendall Jenner

Speaking only from my own experience from teaming with Millennials / Generation Z / and those minds of prior generations who have remained active and current; the thinking behind the “I’m a Pepper” & “Pepsi Generation”-type ad campaigns (1977 and 1963, respectively) is just plain out of date. People aren’t interested in being identified as part of a legion loyal to a high-fructose soft drink; that doesn’t symbolize anything for which these individuals might stand. They certainly aren’t defined by it.

As was explored and articulated in August’s “An Emerging Market for StoryCrafters and Opportunity for Business Leaders”, people – especially those below 40 – are not interested in being a part of a “sponsored” generation.

Rather, today’s Millennials, Millennial-adjacent and Millennial-friendly thinkers want to be a part of and support something that makes a positive difference in the world. Health, fitness, sustainability, peace, equality, fairness; they will align with brands and products of integrity, conscience, authenticity.

A Protest Party Rave Parade full of Smiling Faces, Pretty Girls and Hot Cops ain’t gonna engage this audience.


So, How did this ad happen? 

One accomplished principal in this industry, Jim McDonald of SuperString Theory, offered this opinion:

“…bunch of us have been commenting as to whether a big issue with the tone deaf nature of this spot was the result of it being created by their internal agency, Creators League Studio. I argue that part of the rising problem with creativity in US is a lack of courage. 

They want epic, but not willing to be authentic. Outside agencies, in an effort to keep the account from flipping, bend to the will of the client who want “big” but not “real”. The Agency has a harder and harder time telling the client, “No, that will suck.” 

Then the rise of the internal agency, spawned from cost-cutting, has no backbone to push back to their bosses and say, “Wow! that will really suck!” So you get this sh*t. We are at a crossroad in the creative fields…”

Perhaps go Bespoke. Look further afield.

There is a vast, worldwide cornucopia of storytelling artists, designers, experience architects and messaging professionals from which a specifically-qualified and talented team can be cherry-picked to specific corporate cultures, brands, products, budgets and audiences.

Look to theatre, theme parks, talented individuals who create entertainment experience in other contexts. Bring them in and add them to your team(s) on a project basis. They bring real-world experience to your table, are able to refresh the talent on your team, offer perspectives unforeseen, challenge what may be conventional with approaches that can re-define and evolve what is being created to reach further and last longer to greatly extended value-life.

Well worth exploring is the global network of creative professionals that is the Themed Entertainment Association. Hundreds of writers, designers, composers and producers with experience from all over the world in myriad contexts – most all with experiences of having parachuted into one culture after another and have developed superb sensitivities to the cultures for which they create – are a part of this group.

And then, there’re the New Kids

Beyond the Broadways and Hollywoods and not to be overlooked are such institutions as the Savannah College of Art & Design, Carnegie Mellon, CalArts, virtually any university or college art or theatre or dance department. There is something solid to be said for bringing-in the unrestrained imagination that is coupled with a responsibility and commitment to the planet. This is a consciousness that seems to manifest more universally in the current wave of 20-somethings; offering experience in the realities of the work we do while embracing the untempered points of view and perspective.

Pair young people like that with experienced producers and let the collaboration begin. Learning flowing both ways in the context or creating the message and experience will likely yield the brilliant and new.

In My Humble Opinion, a recipe for the most effective success is the augmenting of what may exist in-house with those of disparate, successful experience from outside along with a fresh-out-of-the-box mind or two to explore and create the messaging.


IMHO: Creating Compelling Experience is a free download from iTunes or the iBook store.

Elephants in the TEAroom 2017

Extensively updated from Original Publishing – March 2015

[NOTE: Have we in our industry let down our Dubai and Emirati colleagues? Are we letting down our peers in other parts of the world…at home? Might the disasters of IMG Worlds of Adventure and Motiongate (and prior to that, the lessons offered by the Ferrari World experience) have been avoidable were we to have spoken more strongly at, and to, the highest levels of the importance of seamless experience, of unbroken and immersive storytelling pathways; would a difference have been made and the now-passed precipice of eliminating key elements over which these projects have fallen perhaps have been avoided? 

Might there have been some way for the problems we all saw coming that have now materialized been more emphatically and effectively communicated to those whose hands we shook in the years leading up to these projects’ opening? 

Might we have communicated more compellingly the importance of the intangible, unquantifiable, unspreadsheetable value of the more ephemeral components of storytelling experience? Might we find ways to communicate these things, cross-culturally, to the benefit of future projects?

Is it too late to impress these lessons on EXPO2020

Do we not have an obligation to support the ultimate success of all projects in order to continue to build and evolve the industry? Is it possible; would such advice be or have been heeded were it to have been given, supportively and early on, without coming across as paternal?

What are the realistic possibilities?]

It is again the virtual eve of the annual TEA Summit Conference  and Thea Awards Weekend; arguably, the most Important annual event in the Themed Entertainment Industry, just a few weeks away. Soon, hundreds of members of this community-slash-industry, The Themed Entertainment Association — Production and Creative Executives, Writers and Technical Experts, Inventors, Project Directors, Artists — will board flights and head to Disneyland for two days of seminars, iconic speakers and intensive networking: all to wrap up on Saturday night with an Awards Night of Glamour that almost rival’s Cinderella’s Ball.

The Best of the Year’s Work is acknowledged, awarded and celebrated over this three-day show-and-tell at the highest of levels. And while the stages are filled with What Has Been Built This Year, the conversation on the floor is about Who is Building What, Next Year.

As hands are shaken and awards are given, amidst the congratulations and the laughter and as “would you believe it…” anecdotes are shared; there exists, on the periphery, a vibrant and growing conversation on responsibility, honor and integrity.

It has to do with self-awareness, responsibility for the business, the future of the business, the sharing and spreading by example of best practices…

…and the obligations inherent in leadership.

To be more direct:

  • We, as leaders, are responsible for how we and our peers represent when working in other countries.
  • We are responsible for delivering the best possible product irrespective of context or client.
  • There is no excuse for delivering substandard work; we can and are morally obligated to encourage our colleagues and peers — and competitors — to maintain the highest standards.
  • We can be Ambassadors of Best Practices.
  • This includes how to treat laborers well and the financial value of that philosophy.
  • This includes the concept of Green-ness and awareness of resource consumption.
  • This includes plenty of other stuff…
  • We pay the price for conduct unbecoming; whether such conduct is intentional or inadvertent.
  • That being said, we can be responsible for maintaining, within our industry, awareness of negative trends that can (and have) become virtually cliché and we should support methods of eradication and enlightenment to said trends and actions.

These are areas of paramount importance to any industry doing business, offshore or local; from across a state line to beyond national borders, across oceans and most especially across language barriers.

Many in our industry aspire to become positive influence. Conversations on these subjects are taking place everywhere; kitchens and patios at parties, over cocktails, over dessert at dinner, over lunch on job sites, at picnics. Consciousness Conversations such as these are becoming part of the casual agendas of multiple trade and professional organizations; in that light, we offer this…

An Open Agenda for Casual Business Conversation.

After having asked, “how’s the family…?”

Perhaps an informal chat about these…

Condescension Communicates

To paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, You might be a racist if… you’ve ever said the words, “Those people…” and followed with some generalization applied to what a given population or demographic will or won’t do with regard to maintenance or upkeep to original design or production.

  1. That is a racist comment, full stop. It could be sexist, too, depending on who says it and when. Whether or not some of one’s best friends and colleagues are also members of that group, and whether or not one is at all comfortable with the fact that one may be just a little bit racist does not alter reality. Not even with a magic wand. Be aware of it, guard against it, nip it in the bud and freaking acknowledge it when one sees it in oneself. We’re only human; most of us aren’t perfect.
  2. What the client may or may not do with a project or property, after handoff, is irrelevant in the context of quality of work delivered. Nothing excuses “designing-down” to a population or client. Our job is to do the absolute best work possible, to prepare the receiving client to manage and maintain in the most efficient, best possible way, and hand it off. Period.
  3. Nothing mitigates that obligation.

“Those people” are just as smart as any of us and, while there may be an absence of knowledge in certain areas of experience and expertise, while there may be a virtually crippling lack of experience or failure to grasp certain concepts with which we Westerners may be almost inherently (or culturally) familiar; this does not mean the mind across the table or desk from us is not just as sharp as (if not sharper than) our own. Maybe even smarter, as we are likely speaking our native tongue which may be the other person’s third, fourth or fifth language.


Publicity, Press Releases and Reality

Used to be, development companies could issue a press release and make promises and predictions about a project. Those releases would be picked up by industry or mainstream press and repeated. People would read them and consider them to be truthful, make assessments (and, in our case, plans to visit or participate) and do so. Showtime would come and people would travel from far and near to see this thing and, having been told nothing different, would embrace what they experienced as exactly what they’d read it would be…trusting that this is the best, possible experience without even thinking about it.

Now, It’s all google-able. If we say, today, that our park will be the utmost in immersive guest experience; those words will remain in audience consciousness to fuel expectation for Opening Day…and today’s Opening Day Expectations are far more sophisticated, more aware and certainly more critical of failure than those of generations past.

This raises the question of how to report on ongoing, developing and soon-to-open projects.

In the name of supporting the industry, our industry press is skittish about reporting negatively and candidly on projects coming down the pike. This makes sense in terms of the revenue stream that supports these publications, as well as in the context of not wanting to undermine potential successes.

That being said, is there an approach, avenue or forum where projects known to be at risk can be rescued before it’s too late? How can we help? In recent forums, industry audiences have been adamant that they want to know the truth about projects in development as these projects go from concept to reality. Might candid, clear-eyed reporting offer opportunity for the appropriate Rescuing Colleague to step up and offer White Knight services?

We, as an industry, could embrace a moral obligation to be policing ourselves, mentoring and encouraging one another. How to do that in a positive way? Can we effectively offer advice, mentorship, responsibly sharing cautionary tales to contemporaries in other parts of the world or industry?

Social Media Will Bust Us

Day One: “Opening Day:” 4- and 8- and 10-hour flights land, the doors open and thousands of Tweeters and Instagrammers and FaceBookers and YouTubers and Snapchatters eagerly flood through the gates or to the box offices.

And if, on said Day One, the experience delivered falls short of what was promised; Social Media will Cut <name of project> down before the day is out. The reality will be everywhere, the reviews will be legion, the worldwide message will be “don’t come!”

Business and Management Skills: ExPat Agony

“Well, back at Disney…” or “When I was at Universal…”

Seriously, Just don’t say it.

This talk even bugs the other alums in the room. Pretty much everyone has worked for one or the other or both the Big Boys by now. One makes no friends with name-dropping and, frankly, one is definitely making one’s own job significantly harder…probably more so as millennials fill the workspace. Such talk tends more to imbue the speaker with an aura of arrogant irrelevance.

Experience is respected most when it is presented in the context of the problem before us.

As an Expert Expat, one has been brought in because of one’s experience. There is no question that Disney and Universal generally do it best, have some of the best processes and procedures and offer great models for approaching a given project.

These Big Boys do not offer the only way to do anything, nor always the only best way. We must not lose sight of the fact that even these iconic creative fonts have learned massive amounts from mistakes made and as a result have evolved their own processes and philosophies from Paris to Hong Kong to a quantum evolution in the approach to Shanghai.

As Expatriate, Western “Experts”; we are brought in not because we already know the answers. Rather, we are best and most effectively brought in under the assumption that we have the ability to discover and create the best answers.

And how do we create these answers? By applying our bodies of knowledge and experience to what we learn before we act in a new context; using our judgement with that experience to craft original approaches to the cross-cultural work.

The methodologies and processes we apply, the way we build and create may look very similar to ways which we may have learned have worked well in other contexts. But, if we parachute in and begin to apply without first truly investigating and learning the lay of the land, where to avoid the cultural rifts and gullies; we are shortchanging ourselves, our clients and ultimately our audiences.


The Ever-Present Burden of White Male Privilege

As a Middle-aged White Guy (or Gal, but not so much I think); perhaps keep in mind that we are often and actually burdened with exhaustive and sometimes exhausting Privilege. Such privilege does open doors, elicit deference and favors…

…and it can also get in the way.

That privilege, more often perceived by the viewer, can become a significant barrier to being told, presented with or hearing a valuable Truth when such a Truth needs to be spoken. There is often an inherent and ubiquitous fear or reticence to bear bad news upward, especially with staff and colleagues predominantly of other races and nationalities, when we are working in the often caste-like environments of other cultures.

The message may not even be articulated when we most need to hear it, for retribution can be feared (and in many cases, appreciably so), as many believe they risk their own jobs by offending or even delivering bad news to higher ups.

This can threaten the quality of an entire project. Important information can be missed or hidden.

Aggressive Listening.

Such Privilege obligates outreach and mitigation by those privileged. It is the responsibility of the privileged to alleviate the fear of candor and to invite initiative. It’s a big job; and many a powerful executive from the west has failed without comprehending why.

Talking to everyone. Learning names, asking after families and work backgrounds.


Chances are, with aggressive listening, that valuable relationships, nuanced understanding and enlightened appreciation of the the possibilities inherent in the blending of cultural approaches will result in a team that produces results far greater than the sum of parts.


 “IMHO – Creating Compelling Experience”  , read and studied in both Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, is a free download from iTunes and the iBook Store. Free.

Link to the Themed Entertainment Association site.

What Will Sheikh Mohammed Do?

Expo2020Dubai is in trouble.

This is, arguably, Dubai’s last shot at credibility in the world of Destination and Themed Entertainment. Globally and historically, Dubai is known as much for the “biggest” and the “newest” and the “most”-est as it is for Grand Announcement followed by Failure to Deliver.

Massive projects have been announced and launched, grand models photographed, hands shaken and press released; then these projects often disappear. Grand Openings are announced, the original published Opening Dates arrive and pass without reference and, more often than not, if the projects do actually open, they often open weeks, months and even years late; often still unfinished and incomplete.

The world knows this.

In private, non-public conversations between professionals, worldwide, about the prospects for Expo2020Dubai, conversations are as much along the lines of, “…let’s see what Dubai does with Expo…” as they are voicing the question, “…do you think that Dubai will be actually be able to pull this off?”

And this is a legitimate question. The world is skeptical, and rightfully so.

As of this writing, much of the same dysfunctional dynamics are in place at Expo2020Dubai that prevailed at Meraas / Dubai Parks as far back as 2012 and 2013. These dynamics have very publicly resulted in extremely late openings of projects that are still incomplete when they open. Despite repeated recommendation on the part of consulting experts in these fields, warnings were ignored and advice dismissed, systems were not streamlined, input was not embraced at the appropriate times and result is that the parks have opened late, incomplete and over-budget.

Motiongate in particular has opened…late and incomplete…to reviews that range from lackluster to downright scathing, and appropriately so. This writer visited the park as it opened to discover only a fraction of the rides and shows operating at all, and those in operation fall far short of anything approaching World Class.

The two rides experienced, “Ghostbusters” and “Hotel Transylvania,” are straight-out embarrassing. Vast open and empty spaces between disconnected vignettes drain the energy from one scene to the next; creating an energy- and intrigue-free experience of what amounts to a showcase of some pretty cool scenery…but the absence of continuity renders the entire experience lackluster and boring.

What is sad about this is that some exceptionally talented and skilled professionals designed and built these attractions. Hampered by inexperienced Corporate officers who lack an understanding or failed to give priority to the importance of Story and the critical quality of seamless immersion in creating Experience and seem, instead, to be focused on shaving budgets to the detriment of actual Experience; these creative and technical professionals found themselves handcuffed to unrealistic expectations, uninformed timelines and deadlines and a critical absence of understanding of the craft of Creating Experience.

And, to be completely frank, many of the “experts” – mostly white guys of a certain age with “pedigrees” from the School of Disney and Universal who are on the verge of retirement – seem to come to the UAE more interested in a well-paid “last hurrah” than the integrity or ultimate success of the project for which they are responsible. Caving to the unrealistic expectations and unmeetable deadlines levied by clients who have no understanding of the business does not support a finished product of which one might be proud…nor one that will be profitable.

IMHO, it is the responsibility of these individuals to hold the line on unrealistic expectation and educate the client rather than kowtow. This responsibility seems not to have been fully embraced.

That being said; another critical facet that impedes success in large-scale projects in the UAE is a deeply-ingrained fear in the Emirati culture of Losing Face. These are in many cases exceptionally intelligent people who are handicapped by a fear of not being seen as knowing everything about the project(s) for which they are responsible.  Somehow, the value and honor of taking advice and being willing to hear facts that may not fit with original expectation is absent in many an executive suite.

Note: It’s okay to not know; it’s okay to change one’s mind when presented with facts and experienced advice that contradicts original decisions. It is even honorable to acknowledge having learned something.

Insistence on things such as unrealistically short deadlines, an ignorance of the importance of the soft-edged creative in the hard-edged design and architecture, across-the-board budget cutting without a sense of how such action affects the substance of the project – all things that came into play in the shortfall and negative experience offered by the Motiongate project – is what undermines the best of project intentions.

Thus, the money that has been spent on such projects has been effectively wasted, as the unfinished spaces, the gaps in individual Experiences, Rides and Shows seriously undermine and diminish the quality of the product.

IMG World is it’s own example. In April of 2014, IMG announced in the local and worldwide press that IMG World was going to open in November of that year, and was going to “rival Disney” (a preposterous projected rivalry, in and of itself). The boastful announcement was met with worldwide cynicism; as one photograph of the unfinished structure was all anyone needed in order to know that the park would not open in 2014, at all.

This continued; with successive announcements of opening dates that came and went without comment followed with several announcements for an Opening that never took place…and the doors finally, quietly opened in mid-2016 to a vastly underpopulated cavern. The destination hasn’t yet been host to a crowd anywhere near capacity; yet they’ve just announced a second gate.

Ferrari World, too, is a prime example. Opening late, incomplete, over budget; it has taken six years for that park to begin to show fiscal health…and they’re not out of the woods, yet.

The world sees and remembers these things.

The world is watching Expo2020Dubai.

Expo2020Dubai must open on time and complete.

The world will arrive on 20 October 2020 and expect the promised perfection. The Expo cannot open a month, a week, not even a day or an hour late.

Sheikh Mohammed has decreed that the Expo site must be audience-ready six month’s out; by 20 April 2020. As of this writing, there is virtually no chance of this happening; not if the vision of a cutting-edge, lush, never before seen, exciting new paradigm and evolution of the Expo Experience is to be realized.

The absence of experienced and knowledgeable leadership at senior level is impeding the work of the Department responsible for all the live components of Expo2020 and affects the reputation of that department throughout the UAE and in the industry, worldwide.

This knowledge and experience gap is such that it affects not only the ability to accomplish key tasks and run the department efficiently and effectively; but it adversely affects the national and global reputation with respect to credibility and, more critically with respect to valuable human resources, appeal as a place to work.

World class designers, producers, entertainment professionals will not want to work in an unsupportive environment.

The agency and vendor community in the UAE, while anxious to partner, collaborate with or work for Expo2020, is as a community vocally trepidatious about engaging with EXPO as the process is cumbersome, confused and amateur.


Information is of greatest value when it is shared.

Seeing to it that the Architects and Builders, Operators, Designers and Experience Designers share the same meeting table, creating and engaging in a dynamic, ongoing conversation, discussing and exploring thoughts, concepts and options as spaces and venues are developed and prior to projected “finalization” of a Master Plan will inevitably save massive amounts of time and money.

It is key to remember, too, that such a Master Plan is only “successively final;” as many things can, must and will evolve and change as new creative ideas come to light and new technologies become available or are developed specifically for the Experiences envisioned at Expo.

The fact is, as well, that the architects and designers, builders and planners generally want to know what’s being envisioned as the actual experience in the places being designed as they are being designed. These professionals want to design and build toward vision…thus, they need to know what is being envisioned.

The architects and the Creatives should be Friends!

Collaboration is Key

Design being undertaken in a vacuum of actual creative concepts envisioned for given spaces and places will result in either;

  1. decisions made as to power, space, utilization and flexibility that will limit the possible experiences and productions that can be effectively mounted in those spaces, or
  2. when and as cutting-edge and groundbreaking creative ideas for Experience and Show are presented, accepted and embraced; expensive and time-consuming post-construction retrofitting of spaces and infrastructure may be incurred in order to accommodate the Better Idea.

Possible Resolution:

  • Casual, conversational information sharing should be encouraged at all levels between departments; sowing seeds of inspiration and inspiring collaboration throughout.
  • Inter-departmental lines of communication should be open and supported such that when any of these principals has an idea or question, s/he can contact any of the others, directly.
  • Regular, inter-departmental “touch-base” meetings on design and what is envisioned to take place in that design, with the site map on the table and all parties standing around it, are critical. In-depth, ad hoc follow-up conversations can be scheduled from this meeting between the immediately-involved principals that will likely result in evolution of design and the breaking of new ground in Experience.

Free, inter-departmental communications at all levels will enhance and speed the momentum of the entire project and empower all teams to embrace responsibility for achievement and meeting the goals of Expo.

Most Important

My admiration and respect for Sheikh Mohammed is no secret to the readers of this site. I embrace his vision for Dubai and want to see it materialize and prevail. It is my fervent hope that Expo2020Dubai is a spectacular success; that it opens on time, breaks new ground in the context of World Expos, shows the world that Dubai can, in fact, deliver on this most grand of plans and realize His Majesty’s vision.

It’s going to take a brutally realistic realization of the inherent cultural dynamics of the UAE that directly impede the path to envisioned success. Simple things such as relentless commitment to deadlines, clear and open communication throughout organizations, the taking of sometimes bitter-truth advice and the seeking of solutions that work will be the core of a successful initiative.

With that, there must be resistance on all fronts to the inclination to placate Power and acquiesce to the un-doable.

Embrace the lesson so publicly offered by the failure of projects such as Motiongate to deliver on promises of Guest Experience and Opening Dates. Bring close those who tell the truth in the face of potential wrath, those who stand for quality, those who can teach while collaborating with the brilliant-yet-inexperienced.

DubaiEXPO2020, as described in the vision statements, has the potential to be a spectacular showcase for Dubai and the UAE and to change the way Expo’s are created and presented; challenging, changing and evolving the form and format of the Expo phenomenon.

To accomplish this; eschew those who acquiesce to Power when Power asks what is not possible…find and gather those who love what they do, who know how to accomplish what is envisioned, share what they learn and know, are committed to quality and nimble collaborators.

Listen to them. Take good advice and put distance between the project and the Yes Men.

And with that, I’ll probably never be allowed in the UAE again.

[As it happens, “IMHO : Creating Compelling Experience” is still a free download from the Apple bookstore and iTunes. Free. Read it. ]

The Splinter of Our DisContent

First to Work: Dubai

You remember…

Walking down the street in Paris, early morning, passing a bakery and being enveloped by the light, buttery aroma of warm croissants wafting through the doorway. Turning, entering, eyeing the slightly steaming trays of fresh baked delicacies as they are being placed into the display cases; one caught your eye.

Pain au Chocolat!


Standing in the brisk morning, leaning against the stone façade of the bakery, lifting this fluffy, flaky, melted chocolate-filled treasure to the lips, inhaling the sweet, lush, steamy aroma and then biting off that first morsel… Powdered sugar coated your lips as warm, viscous liquid chocolate flows onto your tongue; the entire experience was heavenly, and you said to your companion, “mmmm, this content is delicious!”




This morning I received this email:

Hi, my name is <redacted> and I am a content-manager. If you are interested I would love to write a post for your website that I think your audience would really love.

I have a list of content titles I can send you and if you like any of them I will write a blog-post of about 500-1000 words including images and video.

 The more high quality and relevant links we get the more Google loves us right?

 Please let me know if you like this post idea or if you would like me to write about something else and I can get started right away.

Best Regards 

<also redacted> | Content Manager


A “Content Manager”?

What does that even mean?

As though one can simply put a dollar into the slot marked “Cats & Dogs,” “Summer’s Over,” “Underage Drinking” or “Managing Creativity” and out will come Content That One’s Audience Will Really Love.


Let’s roll this one back and stop calling Art “Content.” It’s demeaning; it lacks dignity.

This one’s been on my mind for awhile.

Do we say, “wow, that video content was excellent!”?

Does a writer of story say s/he “creates content”? (And if s/he does, how does that affect self-image and billing rates?)

Calling creative work “content” flattens it, implies that it’s interchangeable, existing simply to fill a box and that it’s the box that has value when fundamentally it is what’s in that “box” that offers value.

Throwing writers, storytellers, architects, filmmakers, lighting designers, set designers, producers, actors and all the other professionals who collaborate to create something meaningful together into this ambiguous catchall basket of “content creators” seems to me to be dismissive. Commodifying. Thoughtless.

There’s a lot goes into that to which Some Business Sorts refer as “content” – similar to sales people referring to “units” whether they’re speaking of automobiles, tickets, desk sets or fur coats…”units.”

Especially in our own industry; let’s refer to one another as the hard-working, sleep-deprived, creative artists, artisans, craftspeople and technicians we are.

You are a filmmaker, an editor, an experience designer, a creative director, a producer, a costume designer, a set designer, a choreographer, a storyteller of myriad possibilities. Neither accept nor be guilty of tossing off and applying labels such as “content” or “content creator” unless you’re talking about corn flakes…

…and I’ll bet the people who make the corn flakes don’t refer to themselves as “content creators” either.

Words are important. Let us use them wisely and well to communicate, enlighten, honor, respect.


“IMHO: Creating Compelling Experience” is a free downloadable eBook on the tenets and methodologies we use to…create compelling experience. Read, shared and quoted throughout the Milky Way Galaxy, it can be found in the iBooks app on any Apple device or in iTunes at this link.

A Moment of Silos

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-10-57-07-amCorn, wheat, missiles, architects, experience designers…none have much affect on the world around them when kept in silos.

It’s not until taken from the silos and mixed with other things that they become effective and able to fully realize potential.

Hence Collaboration.

The Destination Entertainment and Experience Design communities began to experience a learning curve long ago, beginning with a now-anecdotally legendary design for retail success but entertainment disaster with Horton Plaza  in San Diego in 1985.

The was the first example of Jon Jerde’s “Experience Architecture” experiment-that-became-an-industry; the five-level shopping mall that changed one industry and launched another. [Interestingly for we connoisseurs of SciFi, er, geeks, his concept was based an essay of Ray Bradbury, “The Aesthetics of Lostness.”]

Comprised of twists and turns, cul-de-sacs, ramps and walkways, colonnades, archways, sudden drop-offs and multicolored façades at odd angles with one another; it became a “must-see” magnet for creators and designers from all facets of the themed entertainment, retail and architectural design industries. It changed the world of retail in many ways and opened many-shaped doors to what have become vastly new practices and approaches to customer experience across many industries.

Horton Plaza was, financially, wildly successful and is credited with revitalizing downtown San Diego.

It was through the failings of this place, however, that the beginnings of a decades-long detente between architects-builders and Clients-Operators were born.

There were built-in “stages,” performance areas, entertainment-friendly plazas (not many, but some).

There were also no backstage areas or physical access to said stages; no power sources, dressing rooms nor places for them… There were walls that would make good projection surfaces but no camouflaged or otherwise designed-in audience gathering areas of any size or configuration…and, again, no power sources.

Any “entertainment” support had to be brought in and temporarily retrofitted into the space – expensive, ugly, and often hard on the space and façades.

How’d this happen?

Easy; the architects were working in a vacuum (or “silo”), assuming they knew what was needed to support all these “fun” things the more or less imagined would “activate” the spaces and attract audience-shopper-diners. These assumptions were made innocently enough; from the perspective of professionals who were in this context more audience than creator of anything experience other than static.

This is not meant to denigrate the architects. As a profession, they are amazing, visionary creators of building, façade, space. Without the knowledge of what is envisioned for within and around those building, though, the most beautiful structures can become unusable, inefficient, ineffective…falling short of vision only out of absence of information.

Remember Exploration of Assumption? We’ve talked of this, before, many times.

We all assume, all the time; what others think or need, what their motivations might be, what they might plan for a given space…all without actually engaging with them, because….we think we already know!

But. We don’t.

…and neither did the architects of Horton Plaza.

What this experience did, though, was get some people thinking; spurring the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA)  to initiate conversation with and bring further into the the active theming community these brilliant architects and structure designers: to lobby for ongoing conversation between and among all facets and factors involved in the end-use of these structures being designed, as they are being designed, so that what actually becomes designed evolves through the process to something even greater than was envisioned at the outset.

Collaboratively Designed Experience

It wasn’t easy: there was resistance. The architects tended to be protective of their work – and appreciably so, as we all so often experience the egregiously detrimental effects of input-by-ignorant-client. (You know who you are; no names being named, here…but we all remember you.)

Most all creative people tend toward protection of their work; as it is so often threatened by ignorance (oh, and budget). The exciting thing is that, with courageous, sensitive, inspirational leadership and teamwork, all are likely to come out the other end with an appreciation of an enlightened, collaborative process that has yielded an evolution in the way theme parks, shopping malls, retail experience is resonantly, compellingly designed.

There has been a lot going on during these decades of evolution. Not only the TEA and this one, cited group of insightful architects are responsible for how Experience Design can now work; but scores of organizations and hundreds if not thousands of creative and technical professionals have awakened to the immense value realized in quality of experience and actual dollars-and-cents yield of a well-organized, collaboratively-designed experience.

Joe Pine III & James H. Gilmore articulated what was up and launched worldwide conversations and conferences with their first book, “The Experience Economy;” Gregory Beck, founder of The Experience Architecture Forum at Harvard University (<ahem> where we have twice presented), has passionately and continues to contribute his vision and energy to this evolutionary collaboration.

Margaret J. King, Ph.D. and Jamie O’Boyle of The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis  have been instrumental in offering the cultural, psychological and sometimes physiological rationale contributing to refinement and focus of design process in the creation of destination experience.

The outdated, mid-century model of successive, departmental silos as steps to creation of a Destination Experience is Dead (or should be). Finally seen for the inefficient, excessively costly process that it is; one that yields experience that is less than envisioned and more expensive than projected…it is evolving out of existence.

In most parts of the Experience Design world, this outmoded method has been eschewed for something far better.

Hub-and-spoke design, wherein architects design spaces without ongoing dialogue with those charged with creating experience within it, is cumbersome (which is expensive), time consuming (which is expensive), confusing (which is expensive)…and expensive. Handing off a “completed” space design to creatives responsible for filling it will do one or more of the following (expensive) things:

  • limit the possibilities for what can be created within the space due to the absence of specific resource, space, flexibilities,
  • call for the space to be re-designed when a great idea that requires specific support is presented to the Powers that Be,
  • call for the space to be redesigned due to the existence of emerging technologies and techniques of which the architects had been unaware.

…and so on. All expensive options in the face of effective collaboration from the outset and throughout the process.

For examples of the stunningly vast amounts of money that can be wasted and the additional months and years of time expended as direct result of the absence of collaborative information sharing; one need look no further than right here in <redacted>.

Being Fair to the Architects

Further, the absence of collaborative communication from the very start shortchanges the architects, themselves.

Sharing creative vision for the space being designed can profoundly affect the design itself even and and sometimes only through mere nuance: the simple placement of a door, the angle of a wall, and extra meter of space moved before design is complete can vastly improve design, audience appeal, flexibility and potential.

This stuff excites the architects; inspired by the options shared, they want their designs to function as much as they want to maintain the integrity of their designs.

People gotta talk about what they are doing and what they see taking place in these spaces before design is “locked”…as it is rarely if ever actually “locked” until the doors finally open. However, every change taking place after that first “locked” costs money (often, a lot of it).

Even the best architect-designers aren’t always aware of what’s going on in parallel industries or in other locations of their industry or practice. The Experience Designers, being by nature immersed in connection with audience, might possess information that can profoundly affect – even if only in nuance (which can in and of itself be exceptionally powerful) – the resultant design.


A few years ago, on behalf of the TEA, we partnered with Doug Barnes of The Season Pass podcast in a special presentation to Imagineers at Walt Disney Imagineering’s “ID8” conference. Entitled “Beyond the Berm,” we shared a collection of Destination Experiences currently (at the time) installed and running throughout the world beyond the Disney berms.

These men and women were blown away by some of the amazing theme park and expo experiences we shared with them that were bringing in audience of the tens of thousands each week. Most had not heard of Sentosa’s Crane Dance , The Big O Show in Yeotsu, Korea or any of the dozen or so Experiences we shared with them.

This benign ignorance makes sense, as they had had their noses close to their own drawing boards for great swaths of time, if not through entire careers. It’s easy to not know what’s happening outside one’s sphere when one is busy making one’s own magic (or Walt’s).

If you are responsible for creating a Destination, if enthralling an audience such that they are compelled to return again (and again?) to that Experience created under your purview is your goal; then getting everyone to the table at the outset and seeing that relationships are forged for collaborative magic, throughout your organization, is critical.

Rather than restricting pathways and hierarchies – barriers – between departments; encourage webs and networks, informal information sharing, exploration of vision… All your people will be more inspired and excited, and the end result will very likely exceed expectation, be designed (and delivered?) on time…and far less money will be wasted.

As the inarguably successful Tina Fey put it when asked how she achieved her success and has remained a Player for so long and so effectively, “In most cases, being a talented boss means hiring good people and getting out of their way.”

So. There it is.


“IMHO: Creating Compelling Experience” is a free downloadable eBook on the tenets and methodologies we use to…create compelling experience. Find it in the iBooks app on any Apple device or in iTunes at this link.


An Emerging Market for StoryCrafters & Opportunity for Business Leaders


Right under our noses, I believe that a market has been growing and coming of age which may not yet have become aware of itself…

  • Amazon: July 5, 1994 22 years
  • eBay: September 3, 1995 21 years
  • Google: September 4, 1998 18 years
  • Paypal: December 1998 18 years
  • Salesforce: February 1999 17 years
  • LinkedIn: December 14, 2002 14 years
  • Facebook: February 4, 2004 12 years
  • Twitter: March 21, 2006 10 years

and the grandfathers:

  • Microsoft: April 4, 1975 41 years
  • Apple: April 1, 1976 40 years
  • Oracle: June 16, 1977 39 years

For those of us who expend our talents in creating experiences that yield emotional connection to mission, product, institutions of legacy and the revivifying of corporate culture in the context of convention, meeting and corporate theatre; I see an opportunity herein to craft new approaches to finding or creating in-house emotional connection between the employee body and the company.

These are different companies than the DuPonts and the Pfizers, the General Mills, the Procter & Gambles, the Coca-Colas and the Fords… These companies burst from a new gate; immediately setting themselves apart from companies and corporations of the past not only with the iProducts and platforms they represent but with an ethos and ethic based on an inherent iconoclasm and a new business world.

The Pride in and connection with these companies shared by employees and builders was based in the newness of the business oeuvre, itself. Whereas, historically, employee bodies found exhilaration and pride in joining a Legacy; now it became the newness of the culture of these corporations – the breaking away from how it was, before – at the core of the connection. These teams could, should, did and do take great pride in doing and building something not seen before in ways not done before for markets being created, daily.

Heady times of the New Gold Rush.

Though, here’s the Thing. These companies that have been being perceived as “new” are now more than a decade old…some more than two decades. Viewed through the lens of Moore’s Law, these eCorporate Cultures are well into their Legacy Phase.

How to tell that story and keep the connection between employee teams and company vivid, compelling, inspirationally alive?

Compounded with that is the way millennials, millennial-adjacents and millennial-friendly’s (that’s we silver-foxes who have managed to remain in touch with our inner nerd and able to mix freely within this New Order…) consider and hold their connection to the companies that pay them.

I say, “companies that pay them” as this New Order doesn’t look at “working for” a company in the same way as people did, generations ago. There is an ethos of partnership, of independence and choice, of personal value and, frankly, an expected level of individual and even self-respect that is new in the workplace. Not only would today’s under-35 workforce not succeed and likely be miserable in the corporate environments of a few decades ago; they would not be interested in participating in those environments in any way, at all.

So, good on ‘em.

Now that these corporate cultures and environments are not new, anymore, and are rather a set of constants in a universe of constant change; these corporate cultures and the language and experiences used to communicate said cultures must evolve into new forms and messages in order to remain relevant and compelling to these New Minds. These philosophical, introspective, semi-cynical aspirants.

We all must evolve.

Business leaders must embrace the fact that irrespective of corporate philosophy and the current histories of “rah-rah” annual inspiration meetings and conferences aren’t resonating with their employees as they may have, decades ago. (To be fair, some do get this…Oracle comes to mind.)

New Era Business leaders have the opportunity to embrace a Moment of Evolution for their own approaches to employee inspiration. The entire paradigm (omg: did I just use that word?!), the entire approach to employee connection and commitment stands to be reexamined and retooled for a new world of business.

The new Legacies are of ongoing invention, successive innovation, successful evolution. There is no room for complacency or status quo; it’s all about forward movement.

What is the Opportunity? 

I believe this is a Moment for the Business Leaders of today and tomorrow to partner with we Story and Experience Crafters from theatre, themed entertainment and gaming to collaborate on the form and format of the periodic, quarterly, annual meetings and completely deconstruct, examine, build and reinvigorate the formats to appeal to and inspire a new breed of thinkers and doers.

These two populations ought to reach out to one another to collaborate on revivifying the Sales Meeting, the Conference, the Annual Anything Your Company Does. Bring in the Creatives, the Writers, the Creators of Compelling Experience who can build you forums in formats that connect with your most valuable resource and increase their energy, inspiration and value.

Take it out of the executive suites and bring in the explorers. We can all kick some ass, together.


As luck would have it, “IMHO: Creating Compelling Experience” the eBook is still a free download from iTunes for Mac OS and iOS. So, some of the best things in life actually are free!

When Asked: Do Tell


People know when they are hearing a Lie.

They know.

They may not know that what they are hearing is a Lie, but they know something’s amiss. At a subliminal, virtually pheromonal level, something just doesn’t seem to fit.

The longer the Lie remains told…the longer the absence of Truth extends and the more woven into the teller’s tale that Lie becomes, the more undermined becomes the credibility of the teller.

Thus, now is a good time to eradicate a fundamental Lie for which I am responsible.

The Real Reason I Left Dubai.

In 2014, when the company under whose auspices I was consulting for Meraas in Dubai parted ways with Meraas, I was offered an excellent, Executive Position at Meraas in order that I might continue with the project. And by “excellent,” I mean pretty darn good.

I declined the job.

In the face of the resultant chagrin, consternation, confusion (and ultimately rancorous burned bridge) of the Powers that Be at Meraas, the reason I gave them – that I’d love to do the job, but remain as a consultant to the company rather than become an employee – just didn’t make sense.

It didn’t make sense; because it wasn’t true.

More money, health insurance, living and travel allowance, all the benefits of working for one of the biggest companies in the UAE were offered me and I declined; saying I wanted the “freedom of consultancy” and the “security” of position and reporting structure inherent in a consulting  contract.

(I know: that sounds like bullshit…because it is bullshit. Yet that is the story I attempted to sell.)

Ultimately, my sense (since confirmed) was that the declination was taken personally and I was dismissed as any sort of viable option; subsequently and repeatedly rejected for subcontracting opportunities for having taken action that was nonsensical and offensive.

I remained in Dubai for another 18 months or so, seeking to build a freelance business with Show and Event agencies; a few of which opened conversations with me in exploration of full-time positions.

Again, my response was that I’d rather remain freelance and only take on projects for which I am especially qualified; therefore circumventing the perceived need to do work I didn’t particularly like in order to justify my part of the overhead.

Again with the bullshit.

The fact is that; in order to work for a company based in the UAE, one must apply for and receive a Resident Visa. Part of that process is a blood test.

It is illegal to be HIV+ in the UAE.

Not only would I not be granted said Visa; I would have immediately been deported due to the status of my blood, once the results were in.

Having HIV is a Very Big Deal in Dubai, and flying under the radar on successive 30-day tourist visas is not only illegal in and of itself; but exerts an insidiously powerful stress on an individual. Knowing that a visit to a doctor could result in deportation – thus fearing everything from car wrecks to kitchen accidents – offers a deep-seated unease and distressing absence of simple security that can be profoundly draining and affect simple day-to-day activities and relationships…and attitudes.


That’s another thing. One cannot share this extremely important and personal fact with one’s closest friends, with people who care for one and for whom one cares, as the knowledge begets responsibility to report said fact. Far too much unfair pressure to put on a friend or on a friendship.

Ergo, one carries all this secretive pressure inside. Alone. Fearing even to email or SMS to anyone anything that could possibly alert Any Conceivable Censors (not that emails are scanned or anything, over there) to the fact of one’s illegality.

Then, there is the problem of obtaining one’s meds. Once my contract with the US-based company for which I was working was gone, so were my quarterly trips to the US; rendering me unable to pick up my quarterly supply of the critical drugs that had kept my status at Undetectable for so many years.

These drugs can’t be mailed or shipped and are technically illegal to bring into the country; they can only be smuggled. (Fortunately, middle-aged white guys don’t find their bags being searched, so often.)

As it unfolded, I had to go without my meds for the final six months I was in Dubai. I could not monitor my blood, of course, and had no idea what the effect of ceasing the protocol might be on my own health.

You want stress? I’ll give you Stress…

So, I came home.

[Note: Fortunately, within six weeks of returning to San Francisco and access to medicine, I am again completely undetectable; a testament to a foundation of years of rigorous attention to the protocol.]

So now, the previously-unasked “…how come everyone who goes to Dubai makes a ton of money except for you” question has an answer.

This is why I came home; for access to full health care and to work from here. Still working everywhere but necessarily selective about where I can work and to where I can travel while so much of the world still operates under archaic if not draconian laws – based in fear and ignorance.

Whither a solution?

This anecdote, though personal to me, is of importance to our entire industry.

I dare say that there are scores if not more expat employees faced with similar dilemma throughout the world.

This is an issue that I believe the officers of our industry – operating as Global Business Citizens – are beholden to employees to address.

Recently, I was offered a dream job. A massive spectrum of responsibility for a set of IP’s that I heartily embrace – work that speaks to my barely post-adolescent fanboy id as well as my type-A Creative Producer / Project Manager self.

I wanted this job; but…it represented 18 months in Malaysia.

While the rules in that part of the world aren’t as severe as those of the UAE in this respect; the fact is that the laws on the books provide for rejection of HIV+ individuals for residential visas. To be sure; these laws are selectively applied – with White and Western Privilege holding great sway. But, the laws remain in place.

It is apparently quite easy for Western Professionals to remain under the radar in Malaysia, as long as doctors are selected carefully; but it is still against the law. With such laws on the books, any change in local or international political relationships could alter the level of enforcement.

Again; absence of security begets absence of freakin’ security.

So there’s that: and the legal / logistical obstacles and hurdles inherent in actually, dependably obtaining meds in Malaysia.

I was completely open with the Director for whom I’d be working, who was offering me this job; candid about my experience in Dubai and the concern I had for security of job, residence and medication. He was aggressively supportive and bent over backward to make this work.

The problem being that ultimately, despite all conceivable workarounds, it is technically illegal.

And babe, “technically illegal” remains illegal. I simply do not want to “go there.”

Further, were I to have taken the job, I would have had to:

  • Carry an additional (to the company policy in Malaysia) insurance policy in the US in order to cover and obtain my meds in the US. My protocol are not even yet available in Malaysia. This could cost me as much as an additional $600 or $700 a month.
  • Get myself to the US at least every three months, if not every 2 – depending on what my insurance would support – in order to get the meds. This is not something for which my employer would (or should have to) pay.
  • OR
  • Have a friend pick up my meds, get those meds to someone who works for my employer and is traveling to Malaysia to carry and smuggle through customs. Illegal.

See where we’re going, here?

The hiring company, the LGBTQ organizations in Malaysia and HIV communities in that country all were encouraging to me in that there are ways to “make it work.” None of them are entirely legal.

This, IMHO, is a conversation to be had at Corporate / Government levels. This is not a problem for individual employees, prospective employees and the informal local networks of hiring officers, managers and co-workers to manage via some sort of Underground Railroad.

It’s a big deal. There’s no telling how many employees or prospective employees throughout Asia, Arabia and beyond are working with, through or under this anxiety-producing dilemma…or are simply not taking the jobs due to the risk.

Money talks. 

As business is growing exponentially in these parts of the world, we call upon our business leaders to not only be aware of this but to address it in negotiating contracts with foreign governments; right there on the list with taxes, sanctions, land and water rights, and all the other little legislative favors that are effected at city, state, regional and national levels.

There is plenty of research, plenty of data and there are plenty of doctors available to accompany your accountants and lawyers and executives to these meetings. Take some along with ya. Get this cleared up.

So. That’s why I came home. Certainly willing and still seeking to continue to work all over the world; just not willing to flout local laws in order to do it.


[As it happens, “IMHO : Creating Compelling Experience” is still a free download from the Apple bookstore and iTunes. Free. Read it. ]


Ethics, Ethos…and the Business of Global Citizenship


There was a time when one could do business in pretty much any part of the world and just… “do business.”

Paying virtually no attention to the politics or culture of the contextual nation or region, a company could build a Thing, offer a Service, Consult and Advise, all with little to no attention being given to what might be going on outside the walls (or berm) of whatever Project was being undertaken.

Business was Business.

It ain’t just business, anymore.

Business, anymore, is Geopolitical, and rapidly becomes Personal to anyone who may take issue with where virtually any Company chooses to do Business.

The world is smaller than ever and growing even smaller: while the power of the web seems to continue to be vastly under-appreciated by a significant majority of Executives-over-50; who may embrace the power of marketing and advertising via social media while not seeming to fully grasp the two-way dynamic that is now at play and growing ever stronger.

As powerful as social media can be in promoting a project; that same dynamic can just as quickly and effectively blow fatal holes in it.

No amount of enthusiastic, positive advance publicity from a Marketing Department can prevent the entire world from knowing the actual realities of a project or installation once the doors open and the smartphone brigade sees and experiences the truth. If the experience is fantastic; the world will know that. If, on the other hand, what is presented is sub-par, incomplete or oversold…the world is going to know that, too, in a matter of hours.

If it isn’t well-realized, fully articulated, complete; they simply will not come.


It is critical that we be educated; aware of every context into which we delve. For anymore, our customers, audiences, target demographics and even ambivalent bystanders can rapidly and exponentially mobilize either in support of or rally against an issue or operation that catches attention.

The culture of the world is evolving; more and more people have become aware and embrace the interconnectedness of all global cultures. National and international borders begin to become socially irrelevant as our eyes and ears are everywhere. Issues that businesses and corporations used to be able to ignore – seen only in back pages of newspapers in brief notes accompanied by grainy photographs of tiny bands of activists going up against a Goliath; these can and do become international causes célèbre in a matter of days…or even hours.


As the world becomes smaller, too, and more inured to the presence of Westerners; less and less leeway is granted to the myopia of the WEC (Western Executive Consultant). Irrespective of the decades of knowledge such a person might carry when parachuting into another culture to advise or manage a project; awareness of the nuances of the culture into which one is parachuting is imperative to that person’s effectiveness.

A massive body of subjective experience can be as much an obstacle to success as it might otherwise be of value…simply due to a concomitant failure to study, listen, observe and ask long before exercising authority or issuing edicts and orders. We all must become trusted members of the teams we join or lead before we can be effective. The way it’s done in Orlando/NYC/Paris/London may well simply not work in Dubai/Shanghai/Mombasa/Delhi.

Frustration with this is irrelevant. This is fact. Embrace it or fail…publicly. Countless accomplished professionals are handicapped or simply fail from not having taken the time (and by that, we mean something measured in weeks and even months in situ) to learn the lay of the proverbial land; falling victim to aforementioned subjective experience.


Almost every place in the world that has allure for business development and tourism also has its dark secrets. Factors that association therewith can undermine the support a company might otherwise assume; suddenly finding itself the target of negative press simply for doing business in a country that at some level violates global, public trust.

SeaWorld learned a profound lesson in the mishandling of the “Blackfish” / Shamu debacle. Ultimately, it would seem that the global iVoice was heard; sparking an evolution in the mission and programs of this iconic destination and company. It’s certainly ironic that a company that was founded in no small part on the basis of conservation and protection came, decades later, under fire for some of these same, related things.

The world has evolved. In this case, so has SeaWorld.

SeaWorld, however, is not an anomaly. Rather, it is a harbinger of what is coming. Candidly, IMHO, Zoos are of the next institutions in line for global scrutiny. Anecdotally, we’re aware of growing numbers of people who don’t go to zoos anymore, because, “…they depress me.”

Many zoos and rescue organizations are ahead of this curve and are undertaking evolutionary courses; many more are not. We might offer that it is not out of the question for international movements to grow, calling for the return to native habitat for any animal larger than a meerkat.

Just sayin’.

These are things to which it might be worth paying attention. Publicly. The world is watching us all, seeking transparency; whether we think that is appropriate or not, this iWatchdogging is a fact, a phenomenon that stands only to grow in power and acuity of scrutiny.

Best be aware and prepared.


On Preparation.

Businesses now must be aware of myriad cultural practices and legalities that may not otherwise be on the radar. This may or may not affect the business decisions a company might be facing; it can, though, have positive impact on policies and procedures and prepare marketing and public relations departments for dealing with such things as they eventually fall under public scrutiny.

It is not up to any of us to dictate to others how and where to do business. These are situations to be evaluated and decisions to be made, case by case, business by business. The point is that it behooves each and every one who does business abroad to simply be aware of the context; then make one’s own decisions.

There was a time when Business could be willfully ignorant of social and cultural contexts. That time is now past.

Of powerfully encouraging note is what just took place in our own country.

After North Carolina passed one of the most hateful pieces of legislation in history, removing protection against discrimination – indeed, codifying such discrimination – from LGBT people in their state; several high-profile companies took profound and swift business action.

Disney, Paramount, The Weinstein Company, PayPal, Fox, Miramax, Lionsgate…and by the time this is printed, probably many more will have pulled their projects and products from North Carolina.

Even “Wicked” can no longer be staged in that state. Nope; not even on a University Campus.

Business have taken political action in support of What’s Right.

Too, this is for us an issue entirely within our nation’s borders; thus these are stands that have been taken “in-house.” International is, while another issue, not entirely unrelated.

Best, then, not to be blindsided. A blind eye will not serve one.

Global warming; Sustainability; Women’s Rights; Minority Rights; Worker’s Rights; LGBT Rights; Basic Human Rights; Animal Rights; Capital Punishments; Beheadings; Inhumane Punishments; Stonings; Crucifixions; Throwing people off buildings; forced female circumcision… Some of these subjects are extremely difficult to accept as even happening; but they are happening.

For instance:

  • Saudi Arabia continues to behead and even crucify adolescents, non-violent protesters who are rounded up, tortured and killed by the government without a word to their families. It is not unheard-of for the families to learn the fate of their children after the bodies have been dumped into a mass grave.
  • Women adulterers can be and are sentenced to death by stoning in Abu Dhabi, while the men are subject to lashing. Khaleej Times
  • After the contracts had been signed and work was well underway for the infrastructure and site of the Olympic Games in Sochi, President Putin’s government-sanctioned thugs began kidnapping LGBT kids, torturing them on video and posting those videos online.
  • The UAE has a policy of deporting HIV-positive expatriates. This can put any number of employees at risk; likely sending them into that closet in order to keep their job and maintain the confidentiality of that personal information.
  • China asks arriving passengers to attest to HIV status before the flight even lands. What might this portend for your HIV-positive CFO if s/he has answered that question candidly?
  • Honor Killings: Women in India who decline a proposal of marriage can risk death or disfigurement through acid attack.
  • …and then, there’s Guantanamo.

Ignorance is not an acceptable excuse. Be aware. Be aware of the audience you have. Protect your teams and their welfare.

Being aware is our responsibility.

Business is Personal.



“IMHO: Creating Compelling Experience” is a free downloadable eBook on the tenets and methodologies we use to…create compelling experience. Find it in the iBooks app on any Apple device or in iTunes at this link.

Boycott Knot



Boycott the Oscars.

Don’t go.

Tell your friends not to go.

Tell everyone to ignore the show.

Have an “AntiOscar” Party and black out the broadcast.

That’ll show ‘em.

That’ll fix their wagons, dammit.

Lower the Ratings!

Cost them Money!

Hurt ‘em. HURT ‘em. HURT ‘EM!


Perhaps, you could do something with powerful, positive impact.

There is a Higher Road.

You could use the broadcast to make an indelible, irrevocable point.

You would go.

You would wear White.

You would support your friends and colleagues who are nominated. Show them support, wish them well, applaud and acknowledge their accomplishments and contribute to the specialness of their night as they would applaud you were your name called.

In doing so, you would co-opt the Oscar Broadcast and have your point seen by millions watching the broadcast from around the world.

You would carry white flowers, wear a white tux, a fabulous white gown, drag around a fierce, white boa.

And every image of the Oscar broadcast would be a Sea of White.

Every shot of the audience, every on-camera interview, every Presenter, every One To Whom The Oscar Goes would be wearing white.

The White Oscars.

“Mommy; why is everyone wearing white…?”


Boycotting the Oscars is not the answer.

Now. Especially now; is the time to show up.

While your absence might be felt, your seat would be filled.

Your presence, however, will be seen and felt and documented and last for as long as digital memory exists.

I offer that this is an opportunity to support the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in ramping up the evolution that has been far too long in coming.

Rather than damage and destroy, perhaps have a powerful and positive, immediate impact.



Two parallels from our recent history come immediately to mind:

  • The 1980 Summer Olympic Boycott
  • The introduction of the AIDS ribbon

The US boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow made a very big point. It also punished an entire Olympic Generation of athletes who had focused their entire lives on that one moment.

America’s absence was certainly felt. No gold medal winner could truly know that s/he was the best in the world, because we weren’t there to compete. The laying down of arms to compete as comrades on the level field of play that is the foundation of the Olympics was absent. The wins were not complete; and for most of the worldwide athletes in 1980, that was their only shot.

The full glory and experience of victory was taken from them.

When the red AIDS ribbon first showed up on the lapel of Jeremy Irons at the 1991 Tony Awards, it launched a far bigger conversation. By Oscar time in ’92, the number of presenters and recipients on television was substantially greater and it made a huge difference in national and international awareness of the problem…frankly, it made the problem acceptable to discuss in contexts and forums that had been silent, before.

This quiet and undeniable activism on that carpet and stage by those who were stepping up, those who were concerned about what our government was not doing, those who were losing friends, partners, family to the plague…

…rendered that act Immortal.




Or home on your sofa?


Or truly making a powerful, compelling, irrevocable and indelible statement, en masse, that moves this institution along?

Support your friends and colleagues, support the Academy in the necessary evolution.

Look fabulous, be powerful, step up.

That’s the way to go.




“IMHO: Creating Compelling Experience” is a free downloadable eBook on the tenets and methodologies we use to…create compelling experience. Find it in the iBooks app on any Apple device or in iTunes at this link.