Art Director Mark Nicholson goes from fan to creator with XBOX

Art Director Mark Nicholson

Being an art director was, in a way, Mark Nicholson’s destiny. He always had an artistic side; as a child, he would see his grandmother’s art and feel inspired to create. As he grew and his passion for art developed, he realized the potential it could have when combined with advertising, balancing creativity with career, creating business out of originality.

Working with campaigns all over the world, Nicholson has been living his dream. He worked in Japan to create the award-winning Break Up Service commercial for Adidas, travelled to Seattle to accept his award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for his work on their campaign, and rebranded the United Kingdom’s instantly recognizable runners for 118 118. No matter what he is working on, he is successful.

I’ve worked all over the world with Mark, from London to Shanghai and he consistently brings a calm, considered and professional approach to every project,” said Yu Kung, who has worked alongside Nicholson on many projects.

Nicholson constantly impresses those he works with, turning them into fans, but it was when working on the Nike + Kinect Training interactive video game with Microsoft’s XBOX when Nicholson himself got to be the fan. He has always loved video games, and getting to create a revolutionary new kind of game was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the art director.

“Working on a video game gave me an amazing insight into how narratives have the chance to be so much more immersive. Naturally. I’d experienced them in games I’ve played at home, but this was a training game, it was completely different; we weren’t just asking them to press some buttons for a reward, they were going to have to sweat to play, it was a big ask,” said Nicholson.

Nike + Kinect Training is a motion censored console game that lets you experience personal training, at home. Using real time feedback and elite level coaching, Nike + Kinect Training delivers a personalized program that evolves as you do. The game was successfully launched in March 2013 in Europe and the US markets. It won over 10 industry awards and was even nominated for a BAFTA Game Award.

“I liked working with technology, learning what it could do, how different ecosystems can connect, learn and relay information that’s useful to the consumer. I learned a lot from the different members of our initial team as each brought a different discipline, from Nike brand representatives and their brand culture in design and training, to the guys from AKQA that thought of new innovative ways to create interfaces that didn’t need a controller. Meeting Alan Shearers old Newcastle United personal trainer was a high point too as I’m a NUFC supporter,” Nicholson described.

Nicholson was the Senior Creative on the project, which was a collaboration of four large creative agencies; Microsoft, Nike, Sumo, and AKQA. AKQA, where Nicholson worked, was hired by the Nike innovations department to develop a concept for a new kind of personal training game that uses XBOX technology. Along with his team, Nicholson then had to create a presentation to secure funding from the top management level at Nike.

“Nike was half of AKQA, it was a client that pushed the boundaries of digital space so when I heard that this project may be on the table I put my hand up instantly. The chance to collaborate with XBOX and Nike to create a world first at AKQA? This I couldn’t miss. I knew this was an opportunity to be part of a project that wasn’t traditionally part of my skillset in advertising. Also, the chance to work on a console project fit perfectly with my love of gaming,” said Nicholson.

During the development stage, he was responsible for creating ideas for the look of the game, the user journey, innovations within the game, choosing which athletes to feature, messaging, branding and any rewards mechanisms. He would create Keynote presentations of all ideas and present to client for feedback. Once aligned, he was responsible for creating a high-level presentation case study film for the Nike funding. He wrote the script, collaborated with the director, oversaw any design and graphics. The film successfully secured funding for Phase two of the project.

“Working with all these companies was chaotic, as everything was moving forward simultaneously and there was almost daily feedback from Nike and constant adjustments to be made, combined with the fact XBOX only spoke to Nike important feedback would often be delayed. Timings were tight, fear of Adidas creating something similar would often be heard in the corridors, so this put pressure on the team to deliver, and fast. XBOX and Nike were two of the world’s largest companies so they naturally wanted to be represented fairly, both in exposure and brand identity. We kept the AKQA team small and concise, working closely together towards a ‘sell-in’ presentation to the Nike bosses, then this would secure the green light for the project. The opportunities available were huge, cutting edge motion tracking technology from XBOX combined with access to the world’s best trainers and athletes from Nike gave the project a reality and opportunity to break a market that was exceptionally average. So yeah, it was exciting to be involved,” said Nicholson.

Nicholson’s responsibility then moved into creating a campaign of Nike commercial films to feature at key motivational stages in the experience. He was responsible for the script writing and production of over ten films shot overseas. During postproduction, he oversaw the editing, grading and sound until the final output. His responsibilities then naturally led to the marketing element of the project, working on the naming and TVC until he left AKQA and it was passed onto the next creative team to complete.

“This was a personal trainer that could be with you 24/7 for the rest of your life on any device you want. As we progressed we learned more and more about the capabilities of Kinect and its restrictions, this helped guide us to a simpler, more authentic experience that was true to Nike core beliefs. We then created a ‘sizzle film’ showing our vision of the game and presented to the Nike chiefs. They loved it,” said Nicholson.

The entire project, Nicholson says, was extremely memorable. He worked with a larger team than ever before, and was able to create something entirely unique. Playing the game, however, was a less fun experience.

“I have and it confirmed what I already knew,” he joked. “I could be fitter.”