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Agencies Agency Leadership Immersive Environment

To the Lighthouse: why this indie agency spent £1m on an immersive showroom

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By Sam Anderson | Network Editor

August 15, 2023 | 8 min read

Pixel Artworks is emerging as a leading immersive agency. Following recent work with landmark brands like London’s Outernet and the launch of its own immersive space, we sat down with founder Tom Burch.

The Lighthouse, the immersive home of London immersive agency Pixel Artworks

Immersive studio Pixel Artworks on the future of immersive marketing and their own seven-figure recent play / Credit: Pixel Artworks

There’s a wide range of marketing work out there under the broad title of ‘immersive’ – so much so that it’s hard to trace the edges of the immersive space or assess its size. One recent piece of research put the global ‘immersive technology’ market (covering mixed reality, augmented reality and virtual reality) at $27bn. Another, back in 2020, valued the ‘immersive entertainment’ market (including VR games and holographic-spectacle shows like Abba Voyage) at $62bn. If you start to include the dizzying predictions made under the ‘metaverse’ umbrella, valuations quickly soar into the trillions.

Wherever you put its boundaries, immersive marketing is big and getting bigger – and the experts in the various disciplines that make immersive work come to life are gaining ground. One of those disciplines is the creation of 3D, connected and interactive video work and projections that grab headlines in splashy out-of-home plays and increasingly popular immersive destinations.

London-based immersive studio Pixel Artworks is the creative and production force behind a good deal of that headline-grabbing work. To celebrate the England women’s football team’s win at Euro 2022, it worked with Nike to project the Lionesses on to iconic British locations like Tower Bridge, Battersea Power Station, and the white cliffs of Dover. It projected creepy spectral images across Europe to announce the launch of Stranger Things 4. It turned the London Eye into the Paramount logo and turned London City Hall into a ticking-bomb-style clock for TV show Trigger Point. It has even worked with other agencies on their immersive offerings, including VMLY&R’s home of connected brands.

Next up, it’ll launch its latest collaboration with London’s hottest immersive out-of-home venue Outernet next month: a mixed-reality interactive game open to the public using web-based augmented reality called The Butterfly Trail.

The Butterfly Trail immersive experience at London's Outernet

Things, then, are going well for Pixel Artworks, which has doubled in size over the last 12 months. It’s capped that off with a recent move to a new headquarters that puts its money where its mouth is, the seven-figure investment showing off its immersive bona-fides, including a range of original creations.

‘Most people would have said you’re mad to take this on’

Tom Burch is Pixel Artworks’ managing director; he founded the agency solo back in 2005 as Projection Artworks. At the time, he was a recent law graduate with no training in marketing. Inspired by a projection of the union flag on to Buckingham Palace at Queen Elizabeth II’s golden jubilee in 2002, he bought a projector, paid a friend £300 for some temporary branding (which lasted over a decade) and started advertising on Google AdWords in the then-uncrowded market for promotional projections.

The company’s inauspicious first project for a local shop at the end of Burch’s road soon gave way to a big break: a commission from the Evening Standard newspaper to project images for its London Stands United campaign in response to the July 7 bombings for a series of front-page covers (a good start, but one that paid about the same amount as he paid for the projectors to do the work).

After a dalliance with the idea of becoming the nation’s first major projection media owner by setting up projectors in car parks (“having a good idea is different from being able to deliver on a good idea”), the agency moved towards 3D mapping, working largely with media agencies and owners, such as broadcaster Sky on its coverage of the 2010 UK general election and, later, a 150-meter-wide, 68-projector projection of a rose on the roof of the Millennium Dome for the Rugby World Cup, way back in 2016.

The immersive convergence

It is perhaps no accident that all of those disparate fields – augmented reality, 3D projection, the ‘metaverse’ – are lumped into the same ‘immersive’ category. For Burch, we’re at the start of a convergence in these fields: “What’s happening is that projections got brighter, and people were starting to use projections to wrap around curved shapes. LED screens became lower resolution and started to bend and shape. TV screens are turning into OLED, which can curve. We’re seeing all these display technologies converging.”

Success in this market, Burch says, hinges on keeping abreast of that convergence and the outer limits of current and near-future tech through experimentation, regardless of which tech you’ve focused on in the past. “We’ve never been scared of taking on the bigger and more demanding projects – most people would have said ‘you’re mad to take this on.’”

This leads to the Lighthouse, the agency’s new office-cum-showroom, into which the agency has injected over £1m of its own cash. The space is part pitch theater, part larger-than-life creds deck and part statement of intent. Showcasing the work of the agency’s creative technologists, including an R&D stream and self-funded ‘originals’ as well as brand work, Burch says: “It’s a beacon for what we do as a company… and it’s something that other people don’t have. It’s about doing something different and creating something a bit unexpected.” It also sends a message: that this relatively small indie backs itself to the tune of seven figures.

Burch does indeed back himself. As the agency’s owner, he’s not beholden to any shareholders and says that he’s willing to invest heavily to make Pixel Artworks a truly global player. The agency already has a growing presence in the Middle East (a region with deep pockets for immersive work) and is looking next toward the USA. Burch says he’s also ready for the next immersive evolution. “I’m excited about the genuine fusion of AR technology with immersive experience – and I mean genuine fusion, not ’A + B = experience’. As that AR-digital world unfolds on top of the physical world, that’s the biggest opportunity for genuine magic.”

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