Alumni Profile: Digital Strategist and Artist Conor Holler
By Carol Neshevich ● May 16, 2018 12:30
How does one go from being a comedian and performance artist to digital services manager at one of the world’s largest global consulting firms? For Conor Holler, it made perfect sense.
As a young comedian in Vancouver a decade ago, Holler and his colleagues began merging digital media into their performances. Before he knew it, he was creating groundbreaking web series, including With Friends Like These (2007) and Mental Beast (2009). His interest in digital production led Holler to the Canadian Film Centre Media Lab’s (CFC Media Lab) TELUS Interactive Art and Entertainment Program (IAEP) in 2010, which led to several successful digital projects and eventually, the Master’s Program in Strategic Foresight and Innovation at the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCADU). When PwC was looking for a creative yet business-minded digital strategist in 2015, Holler fit the bill.
We recently caught up with Holler to learn more about his unconventional career path, his perfectly timed experience at CFC Media Lab, and why he has the name “Brad Decker” tattooed on his bicep.
Your career has taken some interesting turns, from your early days as a comedian to your current role in the corporate world. Can you describe your career path?
I started in my 20s as a comedian: live comedy, sketch comedy, and “performance art” sorts of things. Because we all grew up with computers, [the people I performed with and I] ended up using more and more technology in our stage shows. That was the first introduction of tech in the creative world, in the early to mid-2000s. A lot of technology was becoming widely available then— we had access to Final Cut, cameras — so we could legitimately do an entire DIY operation. We started making web series that we’d screen at our live shows in Vancouver and playing with multiformat storytelling. Our shows had both video and audio components, and social media wove its way in. This all sparked my interest in exploring how interactivity could play a role in the fun and funny stories we tell?
That’s what opened the door to my time at the CFC. I had just finished a show set at a radio station that had a video and radio component and a live album. I thought, “Wow, I want to do more projects like that.” I came to Toronto in 2010 and I did the CFC’s IAEP, which exposed me to a more business-oriented way of thinking through the startup community and innovation space. I had no exposure to that way of thinking prior to the CFC.
After, I developed an original idea called Deebo, essentially a gamification application for managing diabetes. At the same time, I was working with Xenophile Media as an associate producer on a project called Time Tremors, an early augmented reality (AR) geo-locational game that tied into a TV series at CBC. I spent several years on that, as well as other transmedia or interactive entertainment projects.
The latest chapter has been the transition from digital media projects to management consulting and digital strategy. I went back to OCADU, which helped me reframe my skills into a more marketable perspective for business consulting. Now I’m at PwC as a manager in their digital service group. I do digital strategy for large organizations, including public sector clients, for whom we help make interactions more enjoyable and painless.
How do you see creativity and the corporate world fitting together?
That’s a good question. They do fit and there’s certainly an appetite in the corporate world for more creative thinking. They are still figuring out how to weave in the creative, outside of “Can you come and spice up this brainstorm?” or “Sprinkle your magic dust on this messaging.” I like the challenge. If years ago, somebody had asked me, “Would you ever be working at a place like PwC?” I would have said, “What are you talking about? They wouldn’t even have me.” But here I am, three years later and enjoying it.
What are some of your fondest memories of your career?
I have a lot of fond memories of my 20s, when there was nothing at stake and I went on stage every week and could try these crazy things. Once, we moved our show to a venue in Vancouver called the Biltmore, which was far bigger than any we’d been in before. For our opening night, we thought, “Okay, we’ve got to do something really cool, since this will be a big event with a great big audience.” We held this raffle where all the audience members put their names into a big bowl. At the end of the show, we drew a name out of the hat and the winner was this guy named Brad Decker, whom we invited onstage. He came up and was nervous; he seemed like a straight-laced kind of guy. We asked him if he had any tattoos and he did not. He started to sweat, thinking we were going to make him get a tattoo. Then we pulled aside a curtain and revealed the other half of the stage, with a tattoo artist. I held Brad’s hand while Air Supply played in the background and I got his name, Brad Decker, tattooed on my bicep!
Describe your time at the CFC. What did you take away from it?
It was perfectly timed. I was 27 years old and had just figured out my artistic voice. It was performance, language and communication with video and interactivity. Being at the CFC was perfect, since that’s exactly what they do. This revolving door of experts in all these interactive story-driven disciplines like art, theatre, film and gaming was great. It introduced me to design thinking, which is foundational to work I do now, so I was really grateful for that.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I’m working to establish a strategic foresight competency within the digital services group at PwC. That’s very exciting, because it’s about looking into the future and storytelling about what the future could look like, based on data coming from people with expertise in different industries. PwC has deep expertise in retail, public sector, financial services, construction. So I can say, “You bring the data, you’re the experts in your fields,” and then I can help them weave that into a cohesive story about what our future could look like, and then create strategies, products or services. What really gets me going is thinking about a future like that, and designing in that space.
I still am in the creative world, and produced a show last summer at Bad Dog Theatre, which I plan to remount. It brings experts from different disciplines. Last year, we had a neuroscience researcher, workplace culture expert, and built environment expert, and through a moderated conversation, they describe what the future could look like in 2030, 2040 and 2050. Then I have improvisers create these future-world scenarios. You get to see these weird science fiction shows that have this seed of rational thinking from the expert.
How do you define success?
It’s important to be happy. That’s central for me. This doesn’t mean working yourself to death. There’s an element of balance needed, which admittedly, I’m not always great at, but I strive for it. I want to be doing new things and break new ground in a feasible way, so it’s providing value to the audience and investors. And I want to have fun while I’m doing it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.