Disrupting Don Draper

By Hugh Mason, co-founder and CEO of Joyful Frog Digital Innovation (JFDI.Asia)

How WPP Engineers Serendipity to Make Sense of a FastChanging
World

It’s not every week that a man who built a $20bn company invites you to a remote weekend retreat with 320 of his closest friends.

The call came with very little explanation. So I suspect that, like me, 80% of the others attending WPP Stream Asia for the first time last weekend signed up with at least two motives. First, with confidence that a Captain of Industry who has melded 400+ creative companies into the biggest customer for Facebook, Twitter and Google worldwide could rustle up a reasonable guest list. And second, curiosity about how Captain Sorrell and his clients plan to swivel their corporate supertankers downwind in a digital direction. In that respect it helped that his co-host was Yossi Vardi, the ‘Godfather of Israel’s hi-tech industry’.

Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP and Smoochy The Frog, Company Mascot of JFDI at the WPP (un)conference, Stream Asia 2016

Even wearing a T-shirt an optimistic two sizes too small, when projected onto a huge screen from the other side of the world, Sir Martin Sorrell has the Executive Presence and old-school English vowels to play Emperor Palpatine, Star Wars Dark Lord of the Sith. Digital had caused a great disturbance in The Force, the man on the big screen told us. His bidding for the next three days was that we should enjoy self-directed discussion, gadgets, a talent show and boat-building.

The fact that our host was not even present was merely one unconventional element in an ‘unconference’ that unfolded perfectly without an agenda, keynotes or plenaries.

WPP runs Stream somewhere in the world every few months. Each time it brings together 320 strangers and each time they manage to make a lot of sense out of the challenges and opportunities facing corporations globally.

But how to make sense of Stream Asia to my wife?

“Umm … it’s … like a conference. Only they drop all the boring speeches, guests of honour and panels of people agreeing with each other. So you’re just left with the coffee breaks. You know — where the interesting conversations actually happen.”

Discussions at WPP Stream Asia 2016

She should understand that I was missing a family barbecue, I explained, because I would be working at a pool-side resort in — ahem — Phuket. The words were hardly out of my mouth before I could see re-runs of the entire seven seasons of Mad Men in her mind’s eye. Perhaps you just had to be there.

Indeed you did.

WPP Stream hovers right on that boundary between chaos and creative brilliance that has made the marketing communications industry a magnet for talent since the days of Don Draper.

The secret sauce is not the subtle blend of herbs and spices available at the buffet, lovely though that was. Stream works because WPP curates people who each have a piece of the puzzle needed to make sense of today’s world. Put them in a box, shake them with beer, throw them in the pool or drop them from a drone and the pieces just click together.

Indeed we were invited to take along pieces of the future — gadgets — as talking points.

So, together with our company mascot Smoochy The Frog, I packed some borrowed BBC micro:bits. One million of these complete computers smaller than a credit card will be distributed free to 12 year olds across the UK this week. With no coding skills, screen or keyboard required, the micro:bit lets you make music, add sensors and automation to cardboard models, or you could put your Mum’s pot plants online. Whatever your inner geek desires.

And that’s the point. In a sci-fi movie, micro:bit would be The Thing from the Internet of Things, designed by geeks specifically to infect the next generation of proto-geeks with curiosity, creativity and an uncontrollable urge to tinker.

Indeed, amongst Stream Asia participants there are a surprising number of closet geeks keen to learn to code or understand programmatic advertising and dynamic media content creation. Of the folk I met about 30% were WPP Groupers, 50% their clients and partners and the rest wildcards like me. The link between us was a shared desire to make sense of a marketing-media-technology landscape built on tectonic plates that seem to shift every month. My particular interest was understanding how we can bring the agility of startup businesses together with the clout of corporations.

As in the wider world, not everyone at Stream Asia was ready for such cross-cultural dalliance. The title of one discussion: What’s our Appetite for Disruption? made me realise that some participants felt they still have a choice when it comes to change.

Most seemed to accept that disruption is a fact of life rather a lifestyle choice: something that every corporation must learn to lean into graciously. More like reading glasses when you get to 40, in other words, than a decision to get ketchup with your fries.

“Mmmm — can I get some disruption with that media strategy please? Just put it on the side?”

Nokia, Kodak and RIM are salutary reminders that this is not a choice that even the most mighty brands get to make. If the gods point disruption in your direction, you’re gonna be drinking it from a firehose, not sipping your own kool aid.

So what to do about disruption?

That’s the $20bn question for a groups like WPP and its clients who did so well in a pre-digital era. So perhaps the most valuable take-out from Stream Asia was the sense that we all now live in a non-linear world where Lady Luck is going to have a bigger hand in what happens next. There are no simple solutions and, as Sir Martin and I both found out when we picked the first Stream Asia t-shirt that came to hand, one size won’t fit all. But if smart people keep talking, honestly, we will figure it out. Preferably by a beach.


@hughmason

Hugh Mason is Co-founder and CEO of Joyful Frog Digital Innovation (JFDI.Asia), a Singapore-based venture studio that shares risk and reward with large companies and individual entrepreneurs to nurture new digital businesses. In the last four years JFDI.Asia has accelerated 70 startups, investing $3m to create a portfolio now independently valued at $60m.