Drinking the Kool-Aid at WPP’s Stream (un)conference

by Sonali Fenner, Digital Business Director & Colloquial EMEA Lead, J Walter Thompson London

WPP’s Stream is unlike any conference I’ve ever been to.
Appropriate then, that it is billed as an “unconference”. No schedule, no agenda, and certainly no PowerPoint.

What it does have is an invite-only attendee list of circa 300 WPP agency, Client & media partners sourced from around the globe, 2 huge Big Boards which act as a live — albeit distinctly analogue — scheduling system, a loose structure which encourages discussion & experimentation, a plethora of tech toys. And a free bar.

Stream’s innately fluid & multi-track structure means it’s not the kind of event you can easily walk away from with a Buzz-feed worthy list of key learnings. So instead, here is my personal take on the experience.

Stream begun in 2006 as a way to bring individuals together to think about our digital future and what that means for communications, creativity and business. Hosted each year by Sir Martin Sorrell & Yossi Vardi, Israeli investor extraordinaire, “investigate and celebrate disorder” is the directive for the 4 days in Marathon, Greece.

At WPP Stream participants own the agenda

This year’s event kicked off with drinks on the lawn overlooking the beach — including a special break-away for those of us who made up the 33% females in attendance. As we stepped into the circle to introduce ourselves, the depth and breadth of participants became evident. A Detective Chief Inspector from the Met Police, the GVP of Avon, heads of digital & innovation at Qatar Airways & J&J, brand guardians from Twitter, Tinder & Instagram, CEOs of several startups, and agency members from all around WPP joined in the welcome toast.

But Stream is definitely not about hierarchy or titles. “Leave your egos at the door” GroupM’s Rob Norman advised at the high energy welcome show later that evening. And whilst there were certainly media and industry “celebrities” in attendance — step forward Rory Sutherland — the event felt strangely democratic, with badges simply displaying names & companies. No titles in sight. In fact, two of the standout stars of the show for me were both young & female. Ogilvy’s Gemma Milne got to Stream on a Wildcard, but threw herself into the event with gusto — seemingly getting involved in everything. And power-point karaoke–winning Twitterer Helen Lawrence managed to keep the pitch judges (including Sir Martin) in line, despite only having 5 minutes notice of her role as compare.

Stream gives you the opportunity to re-discover the importance of play. “Copy the Bonobos”, was the advice from one of the most interesting Discussions of the event. Primatologist Isabel Behncke urged us to recognise that play physically reduces the effect of stress on the brain and promotes learning and social structure.

We’ve been talking about the significance of play for years at JWT, and the unstructured structure of Stream gives attendees plenty of opportunities to imagine & create. From the high octane talent-show that is the Extravaganza to the over-the-top food fest of Midnight Cooking Madness & the quick fire formats of PowerPoint karaoke and Ignite sessions, play was everywhere at Stream. And conversations were sparked all that much quicker with the backdrop of early morning yoga or beach-bonfire building rather than the traditional conference break-out room.

Stream is really all about the Discussions. Despite everything else going on at Stream, Discussions are the bedrock of the event. Faced with the 2 empty whiteboards on Day #1, attendees were encouraged to fill the blank timeslots with topics of their choosing. There were no limits or guidance on Discussion areas. If you thought you could get enough people together to start a conversation, you were free to have a go, hosting a session amidst huge orange beanbags, on the lawn, at the bar or even on the beach.

One of the Big Boards at WPP Stream.

For my part, I joined Discussions on evolutionary economics (Mr Sutherland at his best), on the future of education, unconscious bias, the neuroscience of perception, measuring the IoT, VR / real world interactions, the importance of sound and the use of drones (with demo!).

What I found especially delightful about Stream is that its format allows attendees the freedom not just to talk about the ins and outs of their daily challenges or areas of specialisation. But also to explore personal passions. Indeed, the conversations I took part in were rarely those in which the host monologued on their expertise. Instead, animated, engaged, non-technology bounded conversations which were free to burst out of the confines of their original premise were very much the order of the day.

Stream is the best working example of “horizontality” I’ve witnessed. With no worrying distractions in the form of hierarchy, ownership and P&Ls and unofficial Chatham House rules in play, individuals from “rival” agencies, media outlets and brands got together to discuss, debate, prototype & propose solutions to some hefty real world challenges. This was evidenced not only in the quality of conversation at the Discussions, but brought into sharp focus during the Pitch, where diverse groups of people got together to answer the thorny question posed by Ravi Gurumurthy from the International Rescue Committee — “How can media and technology help refugees get access to the money, networks, and services that they need to thrive?”.

Stream generates the kind of excited energy it is hard to find in a conference room.

The aftermath of the Extravaganza at WPP Stream.

Everybody here has drunk the KoolAid. I will admit to some early sceptisicim heading to an event that is quite so universally lauded. But a combination of the location, the invitation-only format, the eclectic participants and the sheer dynamism of the organisers made it incredibly easy to get swept away in what was an extraordinarily heady wave of positivity.

Which leads me to — Stream is a product of its people. Not just the tireless Ella Kieran & the army of volunteers at the heart of the event. But everyone who volunteers as a Director. Who hosts a Discussion. Who basically turns up and gets involved for four days under the Grecian sun. With the topic areas available for discussion so influenced by personal preference & 80% of each year’s attendee list first time Streamers, I would imagine that no two years are the same. There is a tradition at the end of Stream which illustrates the event’s ambition for its attendees perfectly. A roll call of sorts begins, covering the events of the previous three days. Amidst enthusiastic clapping and cheering, you are encouraged to stand when something you’ve been involved in directing or participating in is called out. Suffice to say that at the end, there is no one left sitting.

I pitched. I discussed. I sous-cheffed & experimented with food. I played a giant game of pass the parcel with Yossi & a strange game of croquet with some woodland creatures. I helped build a giant towering inferno of a bonfire on the beach & demonstrated our Listerine “Feel Every Smile” smile detector app to the many people who asked about it. But despite all this, I feel I only really scratched the surface of what Stream has to offer. This most unconventional of conferences is indeed a corrupting influence. It is in turn challenging, refreshing, thought provoking, unpretentious, creative, collaborative & above all, an innately joyful experience.

WPP Stream Global 2015

@SonaliT

Sonali Fenner, Digital Business Director & Colloquial EMEA Lead, J Walter Thompson London.