Every so often I have an experience that is so interesting, so powerful, or so delightful, that I feel compelled to put aside whatever topic I had been working on to write about it. Recently, I took part in a workshop that had all three of these attributes, and then some.

I'm calling 49 Boxes a workshop because that was how it was originally presented to me; although it wasn't remotely like any other workshop I had ever attended. 

It all began with a blunder. When I signed up to attend the Future of Storytelling Conference, I skimmed the on-boarding email the organizers had sent me in advance. In doing so, I missed seeing that we could pick which workshops we wanted to attend, and so my schedule was generated randomly.

I should be careless more often.

Unlike most conference workshops, which fall somewhere between lecture and discussion group, 49 Boxes was a sort of combination game, team building exercise, and historical adventure. In less than an hour, hosts Michael Borys and Alex Lieu (who are also behind many of the immersive media and marketing projects created by 42 Entertainment) turned a room full of powerful media executives and producers into a gaggle of wide-eyed children as they worked together to unlock a mystery rooted in nearly century old magic, mechanical derring-do, and escapist fantasy.

I had the opportunity to meet Michael Borys after the event and to interview him about his process, ideas, and inspirations.

What is the through-line that ties all your work together--from your agency work to your most recent 49 Boxes project?

It really comes down to an endless cycle of passion, obsession, and addiction.

We're passionate about creating experiences and telling stories that entertain both ourselves and audiences at large.  There's nothing more rewarding to us than watching people pour over and get lost in the worlds we design.

We're obsessed in that, as soon as a new experience plays out, we're already thinking about how to top what we've just done, It's coded into our DNA.  Every creative member of our team is programmed this way, and it's no surprise that we've gravitated toward one another. Storytelling is an obsession for us and there's nothing like seeing that pay off when audiences come along for the journey.

The 49 Boxes experience is different because there is no client.  There is no marketing message to push and no product to sell. It is pure art, but it still retains the qualities of every high budget work-for-hire job we've ever done. We are addicted to creating interactive experiences. In many ways, 49 Boxes is for us.

You've described 49 Boxes as a "very expensive side project." Why is it so important to have side projects, even when we're busy with everything else going on in our lives?

Expensive is subjective. Compared to marketing projects we've done for the biggest blockbuster films in Hollywood and triple A video games, 49 Boxes is a drop in the bucket. Where the expense comes in, is the time and craftsmanship that we put into it. If we logged that in terms of hourly rates it would be staggering.

That said, we're artists first and marketers second.  We are passionate about creating artistic landmarks that will be talked about forever. When you do that day in and day out as an agency for other people's projects, it's important to find time to just sit down and create just for creation's sake. Pushing ourselves this way not only satiates that drive, but it also benefits our clients.

Sometimes it's important to just do what you want without compromise. No one to tell you 'no.' No death by committee. No decisions driven by fear or wrong guesses about ROI. With side projects we can experiment and learn, make mistakes and push boundaries. All of that ultimately goes into the work we do for others.

What's intriguing about 49 Boxes is that it has meaning to those who experience it long after they've left the theater. Even though our marketing campaigns win awards and are talked about long after they run, they are usually just means to an end. Once the movie, or game, or product is out, it's over and done. 49 Boxes is an experience that will evolve and play out for years to come.

What's next for marketing, art, and the intersection of the two?

Our view on marketing activations is that it's not just about creating something new or sexy--it's about creating something meaningful. Taking chances is important, but what really resonates with an audience is when we give them skin in the game. When their participation in the experience matters, they are given agency and are sometimes even transformed. Those kind of results can build brand advocates for life. Chasing cool will take you down a lot of wrong turns, but building work that inspires will always be in fashion.

The buzzword today is definitely 'experience' but we're a bit perplexed by it. Not that it's what people are looking for, but the idea that it's somehow a new epiphany. People have always been looking for fun and cool things to do. They've always been attracted to stories, being immersed in worlds, and interacting. It's a fundamental part of our being. 49 Boxes is unique in that it's a multi-layered analog experience that gets people to put down their digital devices for a couple of hours and collaborate with real people in the same room together. It's not selling anything but mystery and fun.

Our dream is that marketing can be more of a gift rather than something to sidestep. We're tired of companies trying to jam products and slogans down our throats. Not every advertisement wants to be an immersive experience, and the term brand story is starting to plummet into a meaningless catch phrase. But, there's no question that people do want and expect more from brands these days, and one of those things is definitely creativity.

On the art front, it's only natural that it evolves from something that you look at, to something that you touch, and feel, and play with. On a pragmatic level, it's obvious that technology is playing a huge role in providing the tools and channels to make a lot of things possible that just weren't before, but we think it's much deeper than that.

Our passion really is the blending of the physical and the digital--Technology that inspires real-life actions and vice versa. Obviously augmented reality is a huge focus for us right now because it's exactly that. We're pushing hard to transform that world from being bad 3D pop-up ads and mediocre games, to real opportunities for immersion in worlds and stories. The surface has barely even been scratched.

What can someone without a big budget do to bring more attention to their work?

Maximizing your vision and getting exposure is still just a lot of hard work. Money can always help to get you out there, but even the biggest budget projects don't always get the results you may expect. It's not the sexiest answer, but what we've had the most success with is still networking and passion.

When it comes to networking, your budget obviously dictates how many people you can get in front of so it's vital that you use those dollars and time as effectively as possible. There just isn't the time to chase down every lead, so knowing what you want to accomplish with those opportunities when they present themselves is key. Do they have networks that you can leverage? Can they help stock your product, or sell tickets, or generate positive word of mouth?

This relationship building should really start during development. Once you have enough to show, start building a circle of experts that you trust. Not just on the business side of things, but creatively. We've already established that we don't see design by committee as a way to get stuff done, but input is invaluable. Listening to people's feedback is important, but really watching what they do and how they experience your project is essential.

The right circle will not only help highlight things that you can improve or jettison, but they will introduce you to new resources, be it new people, or technologies, or funding opportunities, etc. By giving them a voice, they become personally invested, and that investment will pay off multifold.

The last thing we'll say on this subject is to be good people. When someone comes up to you after going through your experience, or using your product, or listening to you speak, be nice. They obviously found value in what you are selling and they are making an effort to let you know. These are your advocates and early adopters. Not only are they eager and ready to spread the word, but you never know who they might be. Being attentive and respectful might even land you an article in Inc.

What has surprised you most as you've shared 49 Boxes with the world?

One of the biggest things that we've seen come out of 49 Boxes is that the collaboration aspect has been exponentially more successful and well received than we anticipated. After every performance the thing we hear most is how amazing it was for people to interact and solve problems with strangers. It's part of the design for sure, but we've seen people network with each other, exchange contact info, even end up going to dinner after.
We've started to get performance requests for various corporate functions and team building sessions, which in retrospect makes a lot of sense. This might be of great value to Inc. readers. It's not cheesy worksheets, or mudruns, or 'catch me when I fall back' exercises. It's immersive storytelling infused with real collaboration throughout. We'd love to be able to offer this as a side business to help generate funds as we continue to build 49 Boxes into a commercial success.

Visit 49Boxes.com for tickets to their upcoming shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles.