Bob Bejan (Ep. 50)
BY Future of StoryTelling — November 11, 2021

Microsoft Corporate VP of Global Events, Production Studios, and Marketing Community Bob Bejan discusses the lessons learned from Microsoft's shift to virtual events during the pandemic, and how those lessons can apply to the broader developing world of virtual and interactive entertainment.



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Additional Links:

Read more of Bob's thoughts on digital transformation

Read about Bob's early experiments in interactive film



Episode Transcript


Charlie Melcher:

Hi, I'm Charlie Melcher, founder and director of the Future of Storytelling. Welcome to the 50th episode of the FoST Podcast. It's hard to believe that we've done 50 of these. I hope you've enjoyed listening to them as much as we've enjoyed making them. And if you did, I hope you'll subscribe, and turn some of your friends onto them as well.

My guest today is Bob Bejan, the Corporate Vice President of Global Events, Production Studios, and Marketing Community at Microsoft. Bob's been exemplifying the ideals of FoST since before FoST existed. His fascinating and multifarious career has seen him building some of the world's first location-based virtual reality centers, way back in the early nineties, producing some of the earliest examples of interactive film, performing in Broadway musicals, such as West Side Story and Grease, founding multiple media and technology companies, and even singing as Michelangelo on two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles albums, which he also composed and wrote the lyrics for. One of those albums went gold, and the other, platinum.

In his current position as a senior executive at Microsoft, Bob brings his endless well of creativity and mastery of storytelling to a company traditionally known for its engineering mindset. Along with overseeing its production studios, Bob runs Microsoft's global events. These massive gatherings, often with attendance numbers in the tens of thousands, are a crucial means by which Microsoft builds connections with its customer and business partners; or at least they were, until the COVID-19 pandemic stopped all of that on a dime. Over the past year and a half, Bob has led Microsoft through a fundamental and unprecedented shift in how it connects with its audience, without a playbook. So join me now for a conversation about how one of the world's largest companies had to pivot—and how that's turned out for them.


Bob Bejan, I am so delighted to have you on the Future of Storytelling Podcast. Welcome.

 

Bob Bejan:

It's great to be here, man. It's years in the making.

 

Charlie Melcher:

So Bob, to get us started, can you tell us a little bit about the expanse of responsibilities that you have at Microsoft?

 

Bob Bejan:

Well, I have a very great job. My responsibility is really kind of all the global events and experiences we kind of create in the world; so, priority announcements, sales meetings, to kind of big shows like Ignite or Envision. So all of that, as well as basically, a full-blown television and movie production studio that we maintain on the campus in Redmond, which is pretty extraordinary. We made four sound stages, several recording studios. It's pretty cool. And then, the marketing community, the kind of the ERGs, or the employee kind of resource groups that live inside a company as large as ours, as well as all the training, and kind of readiness, and professional growth for all of our professional marketers across the planet.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Wow. No wonder you are a busy man. Now, just so that our listeners can understand, when you talk about those kinds of events, those live events that Microsoft puts on, how many people used to participate, show up for those, annually?

 

Bob Bejan:

It's a great question, because we were thrilled. In 2019, basically the last year before time, if you think about it that way. So 2019, we did 117,000 people coming to our events around the world; things like 25,000 people showing up in Orlando, Florida, to participate with us in Microsoft Ignite, 7,000 developers coming to Seattle to be at Microsoft Build, that kind of thing. But during the pandemic... We just closed our fiscal year in June; and during the year, our fiscal year, 2021, we did 1.3 million kind of attendees, registered attendees, to our events.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Wow.

 

Bob Bejan:

And about 35 million viewers to several of our events, in terms of watching the keynote speeches, but not really participating in the show itself. But 1.3 million kind of registered attendees, which is pretty wild, when you think about.

 

Charlie Melcher:

That is incredible. You don't necessarily think about exponential growth like that during a pandemic.

 

Bob Bejan:

We didn't expect it either. And of course, you kind of go now, looking back at it, you think, "Oh God. Of course, that's so obvious." But this notion of inclusion, about getting people from all over the world, and everybody being able to come, and not being bounded by, "I can't take that much time off of work," or, "I can't afford to come," or something like that.

But the other thing that's interesting about it is, is you're tapping into an audience that was never interested in events in the first place. Right? And that's something that's been very interesting to come to terms with. There are a whole lot of people that just don't like to get on planes and go places and come to crowds, and be on crowded show floors; and not everybody's extroverted, and that kind of thing. And so, the notion of inclusion and scale both, I think, really took us by surprise. And now, we recognize that in the digital world, not only is there a way to kind of connect with people in a pretty human way, but the scale of that connection, and the inclusion in that connection is just unmatched, in the real world.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Take us back to when the pandemic started, and you're running these events all of over the country, all over the world. You've got over a hundred thousand people showing up. You're just like on a treadmill racing to keep up with the schedule, and provide an amazing experience for everyone who shows up. And then, it just shuts down.

 

Bob Bejan:

Well, I think, here's the thing that was really pivotal for us. You could see it coming on the horizon. Right? My last trip was, I think, the last plane ride I took then was like the 15th of February, maybe. But you could see things were coming. It was looming.

That time, I had had my one-on-one with my boss, and I said, "Look. I just think we should throw it all in; cancel everything, and just commit to doing digital for the next year and a half. Let's just say it, and just do it, and then take all this debate about, 'Should we try and do hybrid? Will it stay? What's going to happen?'" And everybody bought in. And that was the biggest gift that anybody could give you, right, from a creative perspective, all the way through production and business. Too, because it allowed us to say, "Okay, stop this bifurcated thinking. Let's just focus on how effective we can be in the digital world, because this is where we are for a while."

The first thing I think we did, we had a leadership team meeting or our side, in my team, and we kind of went, "Look. We've got to stop thinking about, 'How do you replicate what we did in the live world, in the digital world?'" Because as a storyteller at my heart, I come going, "The last thing you want to do, is remind people of the thing that they love, that they don't get to have."

And so, I think that was this big epiphany that we had, that said, "Look. Let's program, and tell stories, and create in the medium we're in, not the medium that we're not in anymore."

 

Charlie Melcher:

Right.

 

Bob Bejan:

And the debate we came up with was, "Hey. The medium we're in, is interactive television now. Finally. Right? Because there's enough bandwidth, the audience is equipped, and relatively well-trained in social media, and that kind of thing. And we're all stuck." So it's like, there isn't anything better. And that created the conditions, I think, for real innovation, and some pretty exciting and great creative work, by an amazing team of course. But it was really, really an exciting time.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Well, so first of all, Future of Storytelling is a live event, right? We had to shut down. We're at the other end of live events; we were at 600 people, a very small one. But we know so many people in this space; we so celebrate and champion the live event space. And so many of our colleagues and friends had to just close their businesses, shut them down, and were not able to make that kind of pivot to the digital. In fact, I really think that you guys are maybe the most successful example I've seen anywhere in the world, of an organization that went from having so much invested in having these live events, and then was able to go fully digital, and make it hugely successful.

So I remember you saying to me, it's even a question if you're ever going to go back. And obviously, you will in some ways. So let's take a minute, and just understand what were some of the innovations, what were some of the discoveries that you had, when you made that pivot to fully digital events, that might be useful for our listeners to learn?

 

Bob Bejan:

The thing is, is what I'm about to say, is going to seem incredibly mundane and obvious at some level; but like all great creative work, the most simple things are the hardest. And so, I preface it all by saying that. And the first one is a reiteration of what I just said, which is this idea of working in the medium you're in. It's always true. All my mentors told it to me throughout my entire career, but you have to keep saying it to yourself, because it's so easy to slip back into kind of doing what you've done, or kind of hoping or longing for the things that you can't have. And so, that's number one, just that reiteration of that.

The next thing is, is this notion of, especially if you're a live event producer, the notion of corporate communications; from executives speaking in boardrooms, all the way up to standing in arenas in front of 25 or 30,000 people. It's theatrical in its core, right? It's all about theatrical presentation: eye contact, projection, kind of reading the room, and feeling the vibe of the audience, and getting that feedback back, and allowing that feedback loop to kind of create your performance.

But the thing is, in the digital world, it's cinematic, right? And so, this notion of needing to switch from being a Broadway performer to a Hollywood performer, you can't overstate it, how dramatic that is. Because at every level, from the person that's presenting, or dealing with the communication, in terms of really understanding how to temper their performance, and play to the lens of the camera, and get over this feeling of you're not getting any feedback back; which is really a... That's a psychological thing for people who feed off that audience, to get them up to performance level. All the way to know through the way you construct the frame, right? And the distance and time, and the kind of length that you can take with things, right? It's completely compressed in the cinematic form of interactive television; of being a monitor, sitting on someone's desktop, or a TV that's being controlled from the couch. So this idea of having to completely reframe the context, the distance, the time, the tempo pacing, and performance of everything. It's big, man.

And conversely, what was interesting is, is of course, we're diving into the studio side of the business, which was interesting, because in the before time, the events business that was in, the group that I manage, and the studio's business, really were very separate groups of people. And they really felt like they were different cultures. They had very little in common. And so, throwing these people together, and then creating a new process that really takes pieces of both of those worlds, and combines them into kind of this new interactive process, and combines it with a heavy dose of technology and technological management at scale. It's a completely different world, again, even though some things look familiar. And so, getting people to drop that all, all the pretense of what their craft is, and then rebuild a kind of a new kind of collaboration, was very, very hard. And I think it takes real work, but it's worth it. And you really have to accept that that's true.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Are there certain advantages that you had because you're Microsoft? And were there similarly, certain challenge that you had to make that evolution, because you're Microsoft?

 

Bob Bejan:

Certainly, the advantages are huge and many, right? The fact that we had that building, the fact that we have the resource to be able to have the wherewithal to say, "We're going to just cancel all of our live events for the next year and a half, and take the consequences of that." When you think about contracts and real estate spaces, and that kind of thing.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Right. Right. Right.

 

Bob Bejan:

So obviously, that's just... Not many companies get to do something like that, which is extraordinary. But I think the disadvantages are, hey. It is a nation state, in terms of its size; and you have to really build consensus. And the kind of change management we're talking about; you think about the live events business, especially in the corporate world, right? It hasn't really changed in 35 years.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Right.

 

Bob Bejan:

Right? The technology has gotten better, projection is better than it was; you're not using Sony 1040Qs, with a line doubler, the way you were in 1985. But it's the same premise, right? Show floors are a show floor, right? And so, this kind of the change management of it, and the resistance human beings have to change management, and the anger that gets generated as a result of change management. Right? And the diplomacy that you have to kind of output.

 

Charlie Melcher:

I have this expression that I always love to use, which is that, "You should use each medium to do what it does best." How does that resonate for you, in this change that you've gone through?

 

Bob Bejan:

Utterly. If you're true to that, and you really kind of allow yourself to lead with that, there's two components in my mind. One is the medium you choose to express yourself. If you're at the earliest stage of storytelling, when you're creating the story or the narrative architecture that you're trying to convey, you know that you need to make a conscious choice about the medium you want to expose it in. And I think that's a key component of the creative process.

But once you decide that, then yeah, you've got to throw yourself into that medium, and you've got to live in it. And yes, it doesn't mean you can't push the edges of it, but it means that you have to accept at it's core, what that medium is, and what it's capable of doing. Right? It's like what we're doing here in this interactive television world that we're trying to create; it's like these simple, simple things about interactivity, and just getting people to kind of go, "Hey, I'm going to do a completely interactive speech, a choose-your-own-adventure speech. And I'll use key questions to let the audience drive me through the content I want to present." We're still trying to sell that to an executive at Microsoft. Right? Which I think will be completely compelling, but it's totally, Flintstonian, in terms of where we are in the process. But that's breakthrough stuff now. Right? We're trains coming out of tunnels. We're in the early 1900s of the cinema business.

And so, I think those simple kind of figuring that out. And there're not a lot of creative teams that I've met that really even understand the concept of branching narrative well. And I'm not saying that in a pejorative way, or trying to be critical; it's just, we're all kind of apprentices, at best. And I think that's the other thing that I think a lot of creative teams try and do. They try and go... They overstep, and try and kind of create an overly complicated narrative, because they're like, "Oh my God. We're in technology. We got to make a VR, AR; let's do it in the metaverse, and that kind of thing." And it's like, "Mm. Yeah. But maybe let's figure out how to tell interactive stories a little better, and use the tools that our audience uses, right? Which is still just chat, messaging, posting."

 

Charlie Melcher:

The question of scale comes to my mind, hearing you speak. So one, I'd like to hear about how you think about participation at scale. But on the other side, you mentioned this idea of our expectation of intimacy that comes from live events, and that perhaps being lost; or is there a way in which you're addressing that, too?

 

Bob Bejan:

The scale stuff, what's interesting is, in the largest sense, when you think about our keynotes, let's say, if you break it down, keynotes, kind of what I'd call sessions, and then kind of what we think of as the connection zone, which is really the whole idea of networking and human connection in the digital world. I'm no trying to replicate the hotel bar, but just our version. So, the most scale obviously, is that those keynotes, the two hour block we do at the beginning of any day that we start, and kind of, this is the big stuff that we want everybody to hear, and all of that. We think of the interaction there, is really about kind of chat, polling. And then, just the audience's awareness of itself, right? You can search the database, are my friends in the auditorium, are they listening, and can I make contact? And all that's true. But relatively simple and straightforward, the most kind of broadcast-oriented, even though we bring that interactivity, it's very prominent in the performance of the keynotes and that kind of thing.

Then as you move to the next kind of level, it gets more interactive, in two ways. One, is that we connect everything with this idea of interstitial programming, or this kind of ongoing relationship of human hosts that we increasingly think of as part of the interface of kind of the venue, the digital venue, and the software that's running to support that venue. In an event experience in the digital world, the humans are as important as the way you've designed the software. And these interstitial programmings is the way you keep the connection going, even as people are navigating through the venue itself.

And so, that interstitial programming amps up the interactivity by starting to bring the audience in. So we do a lot of work with like, "Hey, post a picture of where you're watching the show. Show us where you are." Or that kind of thing. And we're editing in real time, and then throwing it into the volume, so that the host can interact with it, and kind of showcase it, which creates this virtual cycle. Right? Because you get excited. "Oh, my picture's on this thing. Now I'm posting it on my social media." So we've done a lot of analysis about kind of the ripple effects of that. And it's very, very effective.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Talk a little bit more with me about the economics; because I don't know that you can give exact numbers, but just huge amounts of money spent to put on that event, for those events, for a hundred thousand people. Right?

 

Bob Bejan:

Yeah. When you think about the food and beverage, and the venue rentals, and all of the... All this carpet. And so as we move through the pandemic, and made that choice to kind of decommission live, and just focus on digital; we cut our budgets by over 50%. Now that's not to say... Yeah. It's staggering. Right? And, especially in light of the scale we've been talking about, and the efficacy, right? Because the efficacy is just way beyond what we've gotten out of live.

But the thing that's crazy about it is, you got to think, "Okay. Production value is going to continue to increase. Talent will come into it. We'll start spending more money, there's no question about that." But even still, the value of those invested dollars, because we're constantly making assets that still exist. Right? That can be leveraged again and again.

And so, that's the other benefit; as we've done a lot of analysis in our own group of going, "Okay. That kind of sunk investment that you would've put into Orlando, in scenery, and all the stuff that you basically leave in the alley when you leave a city, versus the media that we're making, the content that we're making, and the way we can either slice, dice, localize it." We're doing live translation for the keynote sections, so you really get the nuance of the speech, plus subtitled and live translations for all of our sessions. It's pretty extraordinary now, the ability to kind of make this digital asset, and make it highly usable in all of our offices around the world. And so, that's the other piece of it, where it's not just you spend it once, and then next year you've got to spend it again, for the same kind of stuff that you leave as trash.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Let me ask you to extrapolate from your experience. And I know you have a background in entertainment. How do these learnings, do you think, apply to other people's live events, and to the world of entertainment, outside of your corporate experience?

 

Bob Bejan:

No. Look. I think what's interesting is, obviously, it's a small community; everybody does the same stuff. So all the people that work on our shows, work on all the rock shows, and all the Broadway shows, so we're talking about it together all the time. And I think it's all interwoven, right? We did this launch of Windows 11 and Surface two weeks ago; and it's good television, right? So, the notion of corporate communication is becoming more and more entertainment-like, to be digestible by the workforce or their customer set, or their partner set. And entertainment increasingly driven by underlying corporate interests, which... TV looks more and more like a corporate communications vehicle every decade. And I'm not saying that to be denigrating or anything, but it's just true.

So, the blend of these things, and the applicability of the vocabulary, and the kind of the tools, and the tricks of the trade for this interactive television flavor that we're making finally, I think, is going to be shared and exploited by entertainment equally, as corporations. And so, it's really easy to see how this could apply to a live music experience, and the ability to turn people's phones into a kind of key participant. There's just so many ways to leverage the distributed technology and the collective knowledge of the audience, to create interesting experiences.

 

Charlie Melcher:

And what technologies are you seeing that might push this, transform it, be really important?

 

Bob Bejan:

What I see now, is the ongoing distribution and the ability to deliver seamlessness against all these technologies, in a way that really is easy to use. This idea of an audience's sophistication kind of aligning with technological distribution bandwidth, and the fact that everyone is whole holding one of these. Not everyone, but enough, a critical mass.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Right. A phone.

 

Bob Bejan:

The creative platform that I think is the platform for the next 10 years of creativity, really. People want to have this argument about VR and AR, and it's coming, of course.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Right, right.

 

Bob Bejan:

But it's just such a much more complicated, interactive environment in which to story tell, right? And you really can't translate linear storytelling into that world, and have it be effective. You've really got to become a master at, I think, interactive branching narrative, in a very complicated and highly sophisticated way. And I don't know about you, I just haven't seen it yet.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Is there a learning from something that didn't work, that you can share? Sometimes, the testing of the extremes is where you get the best insights.

 

Bob Bejan:

I say it all the time, because it's funny. We get to tell our story a lot to corporate, a lot of our clients, because they're just interested, and like, "Tell us the story." And I kind of say it, and it's absolutely true. What we are now is the sum total of every huge mistake we've made over the last 18 months. We have made terrible mistakes; the 38 Minutes of Death.

So our global sales meeting, we had done like three of these virtual shows. Build had gone off, and had been incredibly successful, and all this stuff. And we had done Inspire, our partner meeting; and that had gone pretty well. And Build starts; it's the opening keynote. The show is about to begin, and the thing goes completely black; just dead air. But, the lesson of that was, we realized all these holes that we had in communication.

Because historically, the people that run the backbone of the network at the event, to keep the kind of internet access up and running, who suddenly were in the middle of the broadcast center, kind of responsible for the streaming of the show. We had no communication connectivity between the show production or the control room, that was kind of putting together the video elements, or the bandwidth folks. And it was a disaster; but it was the advent of this thing that we now call Mission Control, which now all the department heads sit in for every show, total connectivity. But we had to fly that plane into the mountain before we really understood that that change had to happen. That's what forced that change.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Well, I appreciate you sharing that, because I literally had the thought that you had just had success and iterating on success, but it's glad to hear that there were a few missteps. You're a storyteller at heart. You always have been. And here you are, challenged with helping to tell a story from a global company, or many stories from a global company, that's a technology company. It's got a very strong engineering tradition and culture. I'm wondering about the challenges as a storyteller, to get to the most powerful kind of human, emotional, empathetic storytelling. How is that going for you, in terms of moving the ship forward?

 

Bob Bejan:

We're getting there. We're getting there. And I think it's... Look. If you look across, if you take the SLT, our Senior Leadership Team, as the lineup of the most forward-facing speakers for the company, I would say we've got some real winners. Some people have really become fantastic communicators in this medium. But everybody has moved forward a pretty considerable amount.

And I'll tell you, at least in my opinion, what I think is why. It's this combination of, you've got to sit and watch it. Right? And there's this thing about when you're on stage, when you're in that big room, it's so expansive. You can take the time. People give it to you. It's such a different experience. This is the other thing that releases when you start doing television, right? Because then it's like, "Well, what makes up good television? Oh, short segments, lots of change of scenery. All this stuff, which feeds into this idea of, 'Oh, well then you've got to bring the human component in.'" And this is what has been really rewarding about going, "Okay. How do you effectively use that six minutes to move the story forward, and the way you use it? Human voices, real places, on location, bringing authenticity into the presentation.

And yeah, in many cases, that means minimizing executive presentation, and letting real people carry the stories; or even kind of all of a sudden, what's on the table in a way that never would've played in kind of the live world is, we're back to kind of this idea of scripted television.

 

Charlie Melcher:

So here's the $64,000 question; actually, probably add a couple of zeros. So as a company that has created some of the most important tools for corporate communication, right, for telling company stories, do you think any of these insights will end up being worked into new tools?

 

Bob Bejan:

Absolutely. Maybe one of the most interest things at Microsoft, at least in my latest tenure, the last five years I've been around the company, is this incredible digital transformation that's taking place all over the world, kind of across every industry and all of us. In every case, our digital transformation, whether it's HR or legal systems, or the way we manage media or media buying; any of these things. Each of them became stories that were a great interest to many of our customers. And because they were, they became kind of the blueprints for either variations, flavors of, or additional features in products we have.

Great example, the most recent one is Microsoft Viva, which is this employee lifestyle version of office and Teams, working together with a bunch of tools to kind of help keep employees happy and well. That is really a direct descendant of all the digital transformation we did in our HR department, and the tools that we developed internally, now packaged up as a product.

And so, I do think that it's not unreasonable to think of us as kind of taking the blueprint of what we've done over the last 18 months, and continue to do moving forward. And it's already had a significant influence on the features that are in Teams, for example.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Right. I was thinking that, too. Yeah.

 

Bob Bejan:

And I think we'll continue to have a pretty significant influence.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Well, Bob, I am so excited for the impact that you are going to continue to have at Microsoft, and by extension, to the entire world of corporate communications. I would've never said this before, but I can't wait to see the shows that you create, and subscribe, and become a regular watcher, and just see the kind of positive influence that will have in ultimately, so many people being better at telling powerful and meaningful stories. And ultimately, that's what I think we at FoST, are all about. And I think that's what you're about, which is better stories, for a better future.

 

Bob Bejan:

Absolutely. What an absolute pleasure talking to you, Charlie. This has been great.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Thank you Bob. The feeling is mutual.

 

Charlie Melcher:

My deep thanks to Bob Bejan for joining me on the podcast today. You can learn more about Bob's work, and find a full transcript of our conversation by visiting the link in this episode's description. Thank you for listening to the FoST Podcast. I hope you enjoyed it. And if you did, we'd really appreciate it if you'd take a moment to give us a nice review.

FoST also produces a monthly newsletter, that if you're a storyteller of any kind, is really worth reading. It's free, so check it out by visiting our website at fost.org. under the content tab, where you'll also find a wealth of other great resources.

The FoST Podcast is produced by Melcher Media, in collaboration with our talented production partner, Charts & Leisure. We'll be taking the week of November 21st off to celebrate Thanksgiving, so we'll see you again in three weeks for our next deep dive into the world of storytelling. Until then, please be safe, stay strong, and story on.