The Stream Series 2012: What Can We Learn From An Un-Conference?

Without order, planning, predictability, central control, accountancy, instructions to underlings, obedience, discipline -- without these things nothing fruitful can happen, because everything disintegrates. And yet -- without the magnanimity of disorder, the happy abandon, the entrepreneurship venturing into the unknown and incalculable, without the risk and the gamble, the creative imagination rushing in where angels fear to tread -- without this, life is a mockery and a disgrace. ~ E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

Welcome to the Stream Series. A blog series that seeks to capture some of the best thinking from the WPP Stream unconference. Over the last four days we've hear thoughts from David Shing of AOL, Investor and astronaut Esther Dyson and Suresh Balaji of HSBC. Today in the closing piece we hear thoughts from Mark Read (CEO, WPP Digital) on trying to make a conference people actually want to go to.


Last week I was invited to a conference in Paris. I received a glossy brochure inviting me to meet 'industry luminaries' who will encourage me to 'explore the future with a fresh perspective'. (I've changed the city and the language just a bit to disguise them). As I opened the brochure with its printed handwritten cover note, the first picture was of the conference room itself; a 'modern' conference suite with racked seating for eighty, a podium at the top and no natural light. Remember now that the city was Paris, a beautiful city in anyone's book. But for the poor souls who came there to learn and network, there was that windowless room. There were some reassuring pictures of back-slapping executives and a couple of shots of professional women dashing across a French boulevard, but that was it. I am yet to accept.

When we launched Stream six years ago we sought to create a conference people actually wanted to go to. We wanted to reach out to the rising stars in WPP's companies who were passionate about technology and curious about the changes it was making in marketing. There were some guiding lights. Tim O'Reilly had been running Foo Camp successfully in the States and Yossi Vardi was making waves with his tech unconference, Kinnernet, in Israel. Yossi thought it might be possible for a company like WPP to join this movement.

There were, however, a couple of things that we at WPP thought the event needed to have. Practicalities first. It would have to be in a pleasant climate, somewhere you could be outside without being rained on (sorry London). The hotel couldn't be too fancy. Nice rooms and decent wi-fi encourage people to hide away doing emails. There'd have to be enough time in the agenda to actually talk to people. And most importantly it must not be just one big room with racked seating.

Next we had to invite the right people. We couldn't just invite our own people (however large WPP is). Ideally we'd have our clients and people we may want to hire. Partners, frenemies, start-ups, venture capitalists, academics and NGOs would all need to contribute. Or to put it another way, we would invite those who are currently running our companies and those who might change them. We would need senior executives but also CEOs of the future. No middle managers here please but leaders and product people.

Assuming all this is now in place, what would we then do? The ideal would be that our clients and partners would set the agenda. What better to talk about than what preoccupies them? If we did manage to entice the right people, it's likely they are busy. The event would need to require minimal prep and lots of chances to improvise on site. There would need to be time for both in depth conversations and more light-hearted pursuits. It should be intellectually stimulating, but not exhausting. Everyone would be equal.

We are lucky to have a CEO who is happy to share the same accommodation and join in just like everyone else. As for the entertainment, no more dinner table magicians. These are all creative people. Why not put on a talent show and let the participants provide the entertainment?

In 2006 we thought we'd ask for our partners' and clients' trust and host an 'enjoyable conference'. In Yossi Vardi's language, an 'un-conference.' And so Stream was born. It was chaotic at first. Our venue of choice, a former Club Med resort perched on the mainland coast of Greece, is scenic -- but basic.

There was an amusing moment when two music industry executives turned up, saw the venue and promptly got back in their Mercedes to the airport. The acceptable size of a towel remains an in joke. But the upside is a joy.

For the last six summers, we have been joined by our clients and partners -- the likes of Adobe, AOL, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Yahoo! in welcoming nearly 400 of the most interesting people working in the media and technology industries for three days of conversation, debate and (some) partying.

True to the Foo Camp and Kinnernet model, there is no schedule. Instead we put up two big white-boards and let people post the topics on their minds, not just on our minds. You can see some of the ideas they suggested here.

While Stream is invitation only, nearly everyone is new (this year 80% of the people had never been before) which means that every year we start from scratch and try to persuade 350 first-timers that they might like it too. Each year it gets harder to narrow down the lists of people who want to come. So far so good. Six years on, we arrange Streams around the world at places including Thailand, Indonesia, Greece, France and the UK. Next year, we hope, in the US.

Highlights for me this year included seeing the new Windows 8 Demo and a 6 foot remote-control drone which flew at 200 mph above us for three days filming a live feed of the resort and our surroundings. There was a dancing robot that had us all on our feet. There were discussions on data, privacy, content, banner ads, influence, developing market smartphones, e-commerce, Gov 2.0, artificial intelligence, IP, behavioral economics and crisis management (hosted by a global bank) to name a few. But there was also impromptu singing, 3D printing, filmmaking, star-gazing, archery and dancing.

The results may be somewhat undefined for a major corporation (what conference really delivers measurable results?) but they exist. In the last six years, we have made investments in start-ups we have met and won new work from clients. Participants have also written at least three books from ideas that came out of Stream and we know of at least three start-ups whose founders credit Stream for bringing them together or giving them the ideas. We hope we have changed the culture inside our organization in some small way. What started as a way of bringing the rising digital stars of WPP forward and giving them a platform to shine has turned into a fantastic way for us to build stronger relationships with our clients and partners; the most effective marketing is to demonstrate what you can do.

I am increasingly struck by Stream as a metaphor for the successful company in the digital economy and the lessons that we can learn from running it. WPP is currently ranked by paid content as the 7th largest digital media company in the world alongside Apple and Facebook. If we are to continue to succeed, then we need to remain open to new talent and particularly to younger talent. We have to provide an environment where they can shine and when they can develop their ideas. Success requires acceptance of new ideas, of not being stuck to agendas and of being prepared to be curious about new technology. And for senior executives, it requires being prepared to listen to people in their early 20s and accept they may have something to teach you, not forgetting that it is this group of 20 year olds who are disrupting many of our traditional industries.

I don't think any of us slept much. But we did a lot of talking and most importantly a lot of thinking. If you think this sounds like the conference you'd like to come to, let us know.