David Zolkwer has an extraordinary track record as a Project Director, Executive Producer and Artistic/Creative Director working in the international public events arena. He has been responsible for building, leading and managing many world-class teams of creators, designers, performers, technicians and producers across the world for over 20 years. In the process, he has delivered some of the most innovative, acclaimed and respected ceremonies of recent times.
As Executive Vice President & Director of Public Events for Jack Morton Worldwide, David also has extensive management and leadership experience at the highest level; helping to run a thriving, world-class, international organisation.
Name, job title
My name is David Zolkwer and I am an Executive Vice President and the Director of Public Events at Jack Morton. Right now I’m also the Project Director and Creative Lead for the Ceremonies of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.
What’s your most vivid memory?
When I was six I nearly drowned in the sea near Venice. My grandfather jumped in to save me, but he couldn’t swim either. As he pushed me up out of the water to helping hands, he sank beneath me and had to be rescued himself. Even then I remember thinking, ‘this is all for love.’
If you could change something about yourself, what would it be?
I’d be more resilient; a thicker skin would be helpful.
If you could have any other profession, what would it be?
I think I’d be a drama teacher, I still really enjoy working with students, the open minds, the passion, the conviction — they can be slightly scary, they keep me in my toes.
Where’s your favourite place?
I have been to some incredible and inspiring places in my time, but I’d have to say that my favourite place is always wherever I’m near the people I love, especially my children.
What do you fear most?
Being attacked by an anaconda – they’re awful!.
What do you cherish the most?
Peace of mind.
What would you like people to learn from you?
I wouldn’t presume to suggest anything!
You’ve worked on the ceremonies for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, provided consultancy for Beijing 2006, delivered The FIFA 2010 World Cup, South Africa Opening Ceremony and the memorable Commonwealth Games in Manchester, Melbourne and Glasgow. What is the standout moment for you in all of those highly creative events?
The opening ceremony of the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games was definitely a career highlight for me. It was a very personal ceremony. I think it was the first time I felt like I was getting close to combining or reconciling my goal to create ‘entertainment’ with messaging that mattered. For example, in the opening sequence we incorporated a gay kiss that became known as ‘the new Glasgow Kiss’. The image was picked up by Amnesty and sent around the world.
Then there was the Unicef sequence. It raised nearly £6million for children in danger across the Commonwealth. It was the first time a ceremony of this kind had been so explicit and literal in terms of realising the usual aspirations of making the world a better place. We were aiming for less symbolism and more action. We asked ourselves, ‘can we do something, that as a direct result of the ceremony, in a small way, can make the world a better place – not just wish it was a better place?' And it did indeed become a better place for all those children of the Commonwealth who benefitted from the money raised, and the people who donated it.
What is your perspective on the role of those global set pieces?
By and large it’s often been about creating a unique snapshot of a people and their place, engaging communities and creating a meaningful legacy. That’s all still good stuff of course –
essential. But I think there’s (even) more value to be mined out of these events. In an increasingly conflicted world, I think there’s a real opportunity to place more of the value of the ceremony in celebrating what we have in common, instead of what sets us apart. To look outwards and forwards rather than inwards and backwards; to explore universal stories, dreams and aspirations. These globally broadcasted events represent a convening of a wildly diverse global community. And so the question is, what can we say or do in these real-time moments that no other medium or genre would allow? And if we can answer that question then I think that’s when we find the potential value for the future.
I guess my role is to find those connections, build great teams, establish the collaborations and to gently lead.
What is your role in those events?
On a good day, I feel like my job is to find stories that resonates for both a local host city, and a local audience, but that also connects with the international broadcast audience. Then the task is to create an environment in which that story can be realised beautifully and authentically, with charm, wit and spectacle. So I guess my role is to find those connections, build great teams, establish the collaborations and to gently lead.
Where does your creative inspiration come from?
The initial inspiration has to come from a story. I think the ceremony genre has been guilty in the past of masking lack of story with shock and awe; with literal smoke and mirrors. We’ve all seen $200 million films that have crashed and burned because, despite the technology and innovation and sheer awesomeness of production design, there’s nothing and no-one to actually care about. So the story and script have to be the starting point. And for me, the stories derive from people, places and the experiences and perspectives they have to offer.
Delivering one of those global set pieces isn’t just about the idea, it’s also about making it happen. What is the key to an event’s success with many thousands of people responsible for delivery?
First of all, there needs to be a unifying creative vision and a focus. Regardless of their specific role or department, anyone on my team is ultimately tasked with bringing form to the creative vision. So, everyone needs to feel invested in the vision and have a clear understanding of how their contribution matters.
It’s also about creating a team culture that ensures a joyful journey. I know that sounds a bit warm and fuzzy, but I do believe a joyful journey pays off in the end result.
Another factor to keep in mind (for me at least) is that behind every great project there’s a great client relationship. If I look back on the really amazing moments of my career, it’s because there was a client that was part of that journey, who shared the vision, who put wind in the sails.
And finally, the word with which everyone concludes every debrief, it’s all about communication — in all directions.
In an increasingly conflicted world, I think there’s a real opportunity to place more of the value of the ceremony in celebrating what we have in common, instead of what sets us apart.
I loved the charitable and participation idea at the Glasgow Commonwealth Opening Ceremony that raised money for Unicef. Where do you see the participation element going in the future? How far do you see that going?
There’s two parts of this participation idea. One is the charity side which is something close to my heart and of which i’m really proud. (It wasn’t just my work of course, it was a tremendous team effort). I have to acknowledge that not everyone liked it, there were a good number of people who thought it wasn’t the business of the ceremony to go there. I disagree, but I also like that fact that it divided audiences to some extent, that’s not an unhealthy thing. As I said before, for me it’s increasingly important that these kind of events aspire to be more than they currently generally are. The Unicef component for me represented an opportunity to do and say something that mattered.
The other side of participation is finding ways in which both the live and broadcast audience can contribute to a show. We’re used to crowdsourcing content to perform, but I think there are ways in the future for a broadcast audience to affect a show in real time as it’s unfolding.
What are the challenges of working with the host and local broadcasters and delivering what is essentially a TV spectacular?
With this genre we’ve become used to having an audience at home, watching a stadium audience watching a live event. For me it’s awful. These are broadcast experiences, but they’re still being presented like broadcasts of live experiences. We need to be looking and performing down the lens — , saying ‘Hello, you’re out there and I’m talking to you right now’.
You've been at Spectrum/Caribiner/JackMorton for the last 25 years, did you never feel the need to wander/change your perspective on the world?
My time with all three agencies represents very different experiences. I’ve worked on nearly 20 ceremonies all over the world. Combined with my corporate projects, I’ve worked in over 60 countries. In that time I’ve effectively lived overseas for the best part of a decade, including; 2 years in Athens, 8 months in Beijing, over a year in Melbourne and 2 years in Glasgow. And now here I am in the Gold Coast for another two years. So I haven’t been sitting at the same desk in the same place for all of this time.
What’s left for David Zolkwer?
The 2018 Commonwealth Games is my primary focus now. i just want to contribute, to somehow help evolve the genre to give it greater credibility, meaning and relevance in a world that seems to be falling apart at times.