WPP Stream — what’s all the fuss about?
I confess that I hadn’t heard of WPP’s Stream before getting an invite.
I guess it’s kind of like one of those “under the radar,” cool-in-town spots that you have to be introduced to.
The bill sounded intriguing; an “(un)conference for (un)conventional thinkers”. That could’ve been marketing wanker buzz-word speak — but it turns out that it was anything but.
So, what’s it all about? Well, firstly, the “un” conference bit is about right — it’s as far a cry from a regular conference as you can imagine. In fact, I’d liken it more to a festival. I can say that deciding between the daily discussion forums was more reminiscent of the agonising choice between Glastonbury stages. And the evening’s entertainment and light-night finishes were certainly more akin to the same good time highs than any conference I’d ever been to before.
Now in its twelfth year, WPP’s Stream Europe is held in October in Marathon, Greece. 80% of attendees are (Stream) virgins… although there’s a strong “old-timer” contingent of seasoned pro party faithful. As we walked through passport control, we newbies are like doe-eyed Bambis, with whispers to be heard “that the bedrooms aren’t the fanciest” and “WiFi is disabled to discourage people from spending time in their room”. This does turn out to be true. And so much for the better.
As we board the coach, I’m starting to feel that school trip-style excitement, butterflies in my stomach accompanying a mixture of trepidation and eagerness. Because essentially, you’re with a bunch of strangers. If you’re lucky, you might know a couple of people through your professional network, dahling. But this scenario has the potential to be an introvert’s worst nightmare and even make the extroverts blush — three days non-stop with 360 people you’ve never met before. It’s basically a weekend of networking (bleurgh).
Except it couldn’t be farther away from that. Yes, there might be an awkward moment when you’re not talking to anyone in the lunch queue or something that smelt a tiny little bit like a pitch from someone. But overall, I found those moments to be extremely few and far between. WPP invites a wide range of people from across the media, marketing and communication spectrum, bringing together a plethora of movers-and-shakers from each corner of the industry; entrepreneurs, activists, agency heads and us client-side folk. Everyone has something to say — I can’t recall a single tedious conversation during the weekend. And, boy, you soon get to know people… by the end of it, you are best buds (of course!). Although I can vouch for the friendships — this weekend a group of us partied together and it was great fun.
It also differs from other conferences because all of the happenings involve the attendees themselves — it’s not “death by PowerPoint”. There are the discussion groups where anyone is encouraged to run a session on whatever inspires them — and attendees choose to go to the ones they want to. These ranged from “how to create social change in an hour” to “what would happen if the world was a little less straight?”. The intimate workshops saw us philosophising, sharing wisdom and divulging some deeply personal stories. It’s lucky “Chatham House rules” applied.
On the first night were the Ignite talks, at which I was fortunate enough to have been given a slot to introduce myself. Here, in Pecha Kucha style, speakers have 15 slides that automatically forward every 15 seconds, creating compelling and dynamic narratives about fascinating topics from the speakers’ lives. The slides keep rolling, no matter what… even if one were to practically fall off the stage ;)
And then there is the Saturday night talent show where we laughed until we cried. Each evening, as the sun went down, we were illuminated by “Luminaries” talks that warmed the cockles. We got the skinny on the summer’s biggest phenomenon, “Love Island” from its makers, saw Wallace & Gromit’s take on puppetry and gazed in wonder as a real life “Iron Man” suit flew over the swimming pool. Not to mention an “up close and personal” Q&A with WPP’s new CEO, Mark Read.
And in case we hadn’t feasted enough on all this enlightening fodder, we finished the weekend lining our stomachs with a midnight feast of treats cooked by fellow Streamers before getting our party on until the wee hours.
So, as you can probably tell, I’m a fan. What made it so special? Sure, it was nice to be in the autumn sunshine masticating on love, life and the universe. But it is the fascinating people with intriguing stories whom you are in the sunshine with that make it magic.
And it’s how Stream manages to get everyone to leave their egos at the door, be open, embrace their best selves and not take themselves too seriously that is its ultimate win. Because, somehow, despite being a well-oiled and professionally run event, it manages to feel like the least corporate, most off-guard environment, which allows its attendees to truly let go and connect with each other and the world around them.
All I can say is that whatever the magic formula, Stream’s got it just about perfect. I couldn’t have hoped for a more wonder-filled few days. And now I’ve just got to cross my fingers that my emerging “old-timer” invite’s in the post for next year.