A whole new world: Connie Harrison and Carl Guyenette have created the series of mind-melding experiences ( Daniel Hambury )
A giant blue orb guides my path along a winding route between giant, huggable mushrooms and encourages me to step through a rippling portal and into the sky. Thankfully, it’s not a weird acid trip but the product of a virtual reality headset. “Be brave,” shouts Andrew McGuinness as he watches me tentatively shuffle around what turns out to be an almost empty room with giant padded structures (the mushrooms).
This is Somnai, the first immersive theatre production from McGuinness, an advertising man-turned-entrepreneur who can boast two election wins as part of Tony Blair’s marketing team.
Across two floors in a (deliberately) dingy block in Clerkenwell, his team at dotdotdot have created a unique, befuddling experience. Groups of six people are invited to don dressing gowns and spend an hour moving from room to room, guided by actors (the “Somnai”), as their senses are moulded by darkened rooms, different heating, the headsets and unique tech. It’s sort of like Glastonbury for Arthur Dent.
The show’s details are largely a secret but there’s a “bedtime” with a giant teddy bear, a bar with “augmented reality cocktails” and one rather medical bit that’s really, really dark. Staff have even had training from counsellors to handle guests. McGuinness likens the experience to children’s TV character Mr Benn, entering a series of worlds. Dreadlocked creative technologist Carl Guyenette adds: “Technology is an extension of the mind and we’re using it to create sensory worlds that bring people outside of themselves.” After 11 weeks, 14,000 tickets had been sold.
As experiences go, it’s not exactly a night at the flicks (not least with the £35-£55 price tag). But McGuinness, 48, reckons Londoners are after something different. “If we can leave people looking back on their year and this is one of the things that stands out, then our job is done.”
With the Instagram generation keen for bizarre, boast-able pastimes, the explosion of activity nights out is becoming ever more mainstream (see Crystal Maze, Bounce, Flight Club, Swingers et al) and immersive shows such as Punchdrunk’s, those at The Vaults and Secret Cinema are hot tickets. McGuinness cites research that suggests 72% of millennials would rather spend money on experiences than possessions.
Hosting pyjamaed giant rabbits holding baby doll heads might seem a leftfield move for an ad veteran, but McGuinness, who runs the business with creative director Connie Harrison and finance chief Jon Scott, insists he’s doing what he’s done for much of his career — helping present creative work to clients, investors and consumers. He dreamed up the idea after studying at Harvard and a seminal trip to the Kafkaesque You Me Bum Bum Train show that ended in him crowd-surfing with the cast.
McGuinness was born in Southport, grew up in Hertfordshire and, after studying in Salford, joined advertising behemoth J Walter Thompson as “the runt of the litter” in the last days of the Mad Men era. After that, he learned the business at M&C Saatchi in Australia, then, back in London with TBWA, handled clients such as News International and the Labour Party, running research groups for the Blair government. “It’s very nerve-racking, you’re in the Cabinet room, you’ve got your pieces of polyboard, showing him poster concepts.” That campaign was led by an image of then Tory leader William Hague with a Margaret Thatcher wig under the slogan “Be afraid, be very afraid”.
He was made managing director — aged 32 with two young kids — and worked on big brands such as Playstation and Apple. His own agency — Beattie, McGuinness, Bungay — followed, amassing Tui, Virgin Money and Kraft among others before selling to South Korea’s Cheil. PR guru Matthew Freud later enlisted his skills as part of an investment into 7 Dials, the PR firm he co-founded.
For dotdotdot, McGuinness has snared a clutch of big name investors including Koovs founder Lord (Waheed) Alli, the founders of advertising agency Adam & Eve DDB and Purplebricks (McGuinness made an early investment in the listed property phenomenon).
He believes the model will be straightforward to replicate in other cities, as the assets are largely in its technology. For the cities where the Somnai next invade, you’re in for an experience.