Thinking about the future in a Greek Butlins; notes from WPP Stream
Back in the day (before: covid, moving to the US & back, becoming a parent and leaving Google) I went to WPP’s Stream a few times, a curated unconference in a remote Greek resort where 250 people designed their own agenda to talk about the future.
I’ve just been again, to their first European event since 2019, and learnt so much that it seemed to justify a post.
Stream’s a beautifully unusual thing. Led by the enormous advertising network WPP, the invited group tend to split between leaders from their own network (from insights teams to creative and advertising execs), their clients & partners (all the Big Tech companies, Twitch, Mars, Spotify and many more) and then a group who tend to work in frontier spaces in terms of technology and culture (artists, early founders, funders and media). The last group are the amuse bouches; there to say what might not otherwise be said, and move everything’s thinking a little off-centre.
Attendees tend to speak and go to a lot of conferences but Stream isn’t a conference. For one thing, the agenda is built and delivered by the attendees; it’s an unconference where you can propose and lead hour-long sessions on, basically, anything you like.
The location helps. The whole thing is hosted at a lovely, but not fancy, resort on the coast of Greece. Rodrigo from Carlsberg (you leave with this jumble of names and employers) and I had a long chat about the history of holiday parks. Complexes built in the 50s-70s prioritised shared spaces; bedrooms are tiny but there are multiple pools, places to eat and places to chat. Add in wifi that is dysfunctional at best and, in the best possible way, there’s no incentive to stay in your room. There are 7am cycle rides led by someone you just met, BBQs on the beach and pleasingly cheesy annual touches like a talent showcase with bands that got together just 24 hours ago.
What does this all mean?
The location and tone mean you can’t come prepared to deliver your keynote then get back in the car; you can only really come with your ears and mind open. I value this so much; it’s such a noisy world, and all of us are more than the company we work for. Increasingly, I want to save my time and attention for spaces like this where we can genuinely learn, debate and discuss.
Noting that the event was Chatham House rules, here were a few other takeaways;
Some of the best conversations happen outside of your bubble
Every industry has a bubble; an accepted playbook or conference circuit. That bubble limits your thinking. We need more curated diverse spaces where we can have genuine exchanges of ideas.
One of the best things about moving back to London from the Bay Area was coming back to a friend group of maths teachers, policy makers, and documentary makers. It’s hard to keep thinking about the future of technology when all your neighbours are VPs at Facebook.
We need to collaborate to tackle the hardest problems
Some of the themes that cropped up repeatedly on the discussion list were unsurprising given the times we live in; sustainability and how we do it well, DEI and how we do it well. What does a responsible brand look like during a regional cost of living crisis? In a small group, people were able to share, brainstorm and build plans — I wish we did more of this in the real world.
Ever since I met Cauldron & their lore, I’ve been turning over “gaming” in my head and what I understand by the term. A few sessions led by Twitch, Activision Blizzard and indie gamers made me realise gaming isn’t just the new social, or the new media. Games are a place where people want to go, and belong, and stay. And each game, or ecosystem, has a set of cultures and practices. I want to learn so much more here.
Top down versus bottom up
Programmatic advertising (I’m still not sure I understand it but according to friends it’s the “automated finding of digital advertising inventory”) was a huge topic. It’s been around for years but I heard a little anxiety; what does the cost of living crisis do to advertising? Are the analytics conclusive? Does advertising work? A fascinating topic given my ongoing belief in community-led bottom up growth.
Another contentious topic that was present in many casual conversations but not in the formal agenda was around workplace health and happiness. I met many people managing large teams struggling to find and keep great staff, worrying about mismatched expectations and intergenerational conflict (a topic I explored before for the FT).
Take the time to build common language
Every Stream has a sliver of unconference sessions around frontier technology and what it means for the companies who attend. In past years, this was AR and VR. This year, it was web3. The two discussions I hosted on the topic were both fantastic group learning sessions; one on the future of tech is collective, one on collaboration creation in web3. But I realised during them how frontier these topics still are, so terms need to be defined and common language built. My version of web3 — deeply focused on collective ownership, shared creativity and decentralisation — is pretty specific, and I want to keep focused on translating this version into something clearer for those newer to this scene.
More corporates who can afford it should spend cash on these kinds of things
While Stream has sponsors, it still must be an absolutely enormous lift for WPP to run Stream. But, like the amazing space for founders I used to run at Google or Stripe Press, it’s the kind of offbeat side project I strongly believe the best companies should run — it articulates a point of view in the way little else can. Build the networks others cannot take the time to do, and you power exponential thinking and doing.
Thanks Stream for yet another great year.