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GDX Studios’ ‘Experiential’ Growth

MEDIA: Major Brands Enlist SD Co. for Comic-Con, Premier Events

For comic book, sci-fi and fantasy geeks, there’s nothing quite like the experience of San Diego’s Comic-Con International. For commercial brands and studios looking for a way to reach those fans, San Diego-based GDX Studios has provided experiential media and brand engagement marketing for more than a decade.

GDX Studios was founded in 2020 by CEO Aaron Gaier and is a breakout of his former company Grandesign, which he sold to UK-based Talon in 2019. At the time, Grandesign was considered San Diego’s largest media agency with $47 million in revenue. As part of the deal, Grandesign was split up with Talon acquiring the company’s traditional media assets like billboards and bus shelter ads and Gaier keeping its experiential marketing business.

COVID Restart

The sale of Grandesign’s traditional media assets ended up being a lifeline for GDX when the COVID pandemic shut down the kinds of events experiential marketing firms utilize to engage the public for the companies that hire them.

Aaron Gaier
Founder & CEO
GDX Studios

“When COVID hit, I was very fortunate,” Gaier said. “I was in a good position. But the overall thing that worked out really well for me is my mindset, and not because I’m putting on rose-colored glasses. I believe the pandemic was the best thing that ever happened for us. It drove us to zero and we had to restart, at the worst time to ever start a company.”

At that point, Gaier said GDX had “zero clients” and had to build itself up from the trenches.

GDX wasn’t alone. The pandemic posed major challenges to all experiential media companies who had to find creative ways to work social distancing into a very non-social distancing line of work.

According to PQ Media, global consumer experiential marketing, including radio staples such as event sponsorships and live event marketing, grew 8.2% in 2021 to $67.63 billion – but that followed a staggering drop of 25.7% in 2020 due to the pandemic.

PQ said that the media segment had been growing consistently for two decades before the worldwide COVID-19 health crisis, and in 2021 reported that global experiential marketing was on pace to grow at an accelerated 11.1% to $75.16 billion in 2022. The report predicts that the consumer experiential marketing sector will reach the pre-pandemic peak spending levels of 2019 ($84.06 billion) until around the end of 2024 ($89.95 billion).

Gaeir said a positive mindset and progressive planning by his staff at GDX allowed the company to make it through the pandemic and thrive moving forward.

“The pandemic was good that it forced us to really work hard on the analytics and metrics that are tied to this out-of-home media form that is super difficult to track beyond impressions,” he said, adding that this year GDX’s budget is $10 million, and the company expects that amount to double next year.

Comic-Con and Beyond

Although GDX is best known locally for its Comic-Con experiences working with media brands like Adult Swim, TBS, Internet Movie Database, Apple TV+ and Netflix, the company also has hubs in Los Angeles and New York and has brought its experiential marketing expertise to more than fandom conventions.

In March, the company worked with NBC Sports to build a replica of TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course famed 17th  hole island green at The Battery Atlanta for fans to compete in interactive golf-themed challenges.

Seth Bardacke
President
GDX Studios

GDX partnered with NBC in Los Angeles in February 2022, bringing 40 tons of ice to make it snow in Santa Monica where “The Today Show” host Al Roker did a morning weather report. The company has also created immersive sets in Hollywood, organized and put on a mobile tour pop up for Zappos, run a mobile tour for HBO and promoted films for The Disney Channel, among myriad other experiences.

The rising popularity of using experiential marketing for any and all brands tracks with changes in consumer behavior. According to Statista, 93% of consumers say brand experiences are more influential than television, social or digital advertisements, and according to EventTrack, 98% of consumers are more inclined to purchase a product from a brand producing and experiential activation.

“We’ve witnessed a significant shift in the industry,” GDX Studios President Seth Bardacke said. “It’s not just about hosting events or reaching a large audience. It’s about using events and activations to amplify all other forms of media. People can distinguish between something scripted and something real, and that’s where the importance of authentic experiences comes in.”

Comic-Con 2023

For this year’s Comic-Con, held July 20-23 at the San Diego Convention Center, GDX will create those authentic experiences for men’s soap brand Dr Squatch at a booth within the Lucas Films Pavilion on the Expo floor; will promote health supplements retailer GNC with an activation in the Petco Interactive Zone; and put on the Adult Swim Festival on the Fifth Avenue Landing marina lawn behind the Convention Center.

Expectations for this year’s event have been tempered by major comic and movie franchises like Marvel and DC announcing they are not participating. An ongoing strike of the Writers Guild of America and possible strike by the Screen Actors Guild also has the possibility of shading the star power at this year’s Comic-Con.

Although the pullouts and strike are “indeed affecting the convention,” Bardacke said studios will likely replace the cancelled panels that preview upcoming content and “will instead lean into the on and offsite experiences to engage with their fans,” which may eventually create more opportunity for GDX.

“Authentic engagement and interactions are replacing the traditional model of scripted content, creating interactive experiences rather than a passive ones,” he said.

Gaier predicts that the movie studios will eventually be back “even stronger” at Comic-Con, and that despite of the “hard hit” this year GDX is “more bullish than ever on the long-term  play of San Diego Comic-Con.”

GDX Studios (formerly Grandesign)

FOUNDED: 2009 (GDX 2020)
FOUNDER AND CEO: Aaron Gaier
PRESIDENT: Seth Bardacke
HEADQUARTERS: San Diego
BUSINESS: Experiential media/marketing
BUDGET: $10 Million
EMPLOYEES: 20
WEBSITE: gdxstudios.com
CONTACT: agaeir@gdxstudios.com
SOCIAL IMPACT: 20% of the company’s earnings go back to employees; 70% of employees are women.
NOTABLE: GDX clints include major media brands such as NBC, TBS, Adult Swim, Disney, Netflix and Apple TV.

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