“Overheard at Stream…”

Each year, for the past three years, in the sunny valley of Ojai, 40-miles north of Los Angeles, global marketing leader WPP invites 300 thought-leaders, activists, and cultural taste-makers to a gathering where everyone is an influencer. It’s not about one’s title — everyone is VIP from the agency CEOs to the brand CMOs to the VCs to the professors in the room. Except the room isn’t a room, it’s an extravagantly organized series of outdoor discussions, activities, and lightning talks in tents with the backdrop of the sun, moon, and stars. The “stream” becomes a metaphor for the melding of ideas into impact, knowledge into action, and activities into relationships. No attendee is more important than the other, and each a necessary puzzle piece in delivering a glimpse into the future.

Like the immersive theatre experience of Sleep No More, no two attendees have the same experience, which encourages constant sharing between guests of their highlights. The formula for a memorable and impact-driven experience: three equal parts of entertainment, participation, and education. We had deep, casual conversations about a spectrum of naturally flowing topics from race relations in America to business lessons from race car driving. We watched inspiring lightning talks from how Microsoft makes humans better off to the physics of fly-fishing. And we participated in over 50 audience-led discussions on the fanaticism of Fortnite to fake followers to fake news.

What’s overheard at Stream creates ripples of inspiration and collaboration among attendees, manifest through future creative work, new products, and the creation of new business models and services. Rolling into its 12th year, the international Stream community now includes over 500 people, all connected by a passion for media and creativity.

Here’s what they’re discussing at Stream USA and why it should matter to the marketing, technology, and media industries:

1- “Technology is most powerful when it becomes invisible…; you must fight the fear of failing when innovating just because it’s quantifiable… innovate to stay relevant.”

Alphabet, parent of Google, is a business with an integrated strategy to make each of its parts come together to improve the lives of humans, starting with how information is organized, accessed, and put into use. Aside from GoogleX, the famed division responsible for moonshots, Google operates the Advanced Technology and Products (ATAP) unit as an R&D lab for 2–3 year investments. Stream attendees received an electrifying glimpse into the future of how data and hardware is coming together in the fifth wave of computing.

Partnering with Levis, Dan Kaufman, head of ATAP, weaved between trends and case studies to demonstrate how hardware needs to become “smart” and how wearables will evolve from watches to actual digital apparel. His fast-paced talk kicked off Stream, and opened the door to what would be a whirlwind of conversations over three days that led me to one question… “with such abstract and future-focused ideas, how the heck does someone learn to pitch a Googler to make an idea sticky internally?”

As a lecturer at Columbia University of graduate students and executives studying communication, I was fascinated by the simplicity of rhetorical strategy used in two approaches mastered by Dan and his team: (1) nail the opening and (2) work the process.

(1) While attending a cook-off involved 50 streamers that worked as teams to develop a food festival experience, Dan revealed a few lessons between bites. His gut-based intuition for pitching started long before Google when he worked at Dreamworks, and started with creating a hook through the first sentence for a strong opening. He offered two techniques, both planted within the pop culture zeitgeist of using a familiar frame that invites visualization: 
“Imagine a world where…” (i.e., Hollywood movie trailer approach) OR
“Don’t you hate it when…” (i.e., Jerry Seinfeld approach)

(2) As the night continued, an additional set of lessons flowed. Placing several “bets” at a time, he has developed a calibrated process that vets ideas to turn them into tangible innovative products and services. While he uses a five-step process, to save some of the magic, here are three steps: 
1. Problem — find the root cause, not a symptom
2. Unique value — what can you alone deliver (e.g., data, delivery, depth)
3. Chasm test — can it cross the tech chasm from early adopter to mainstream through pragmatism, access, and economies of scale

2- “Be like Willy Wonka, make something everyone wants.”

First appearing in Cannes alongside David Sable, former NFL pro-athlete and SuperBowl champion Martellus Bennett got the audience #woke. Tired of a lack of minority superheroes for his four-year-old daughter to aspire to be that looked like her, he created the Imagination Agency and began writing children’s books. Joining a list of athletes from Kobe Bryant to Lebron James, he’s on a mission to use his fame, charisma, family values, and story-telling chops to ensure, as he puts it, to solve the common problem among brand leaders that “knowledge evaporates on the way up to the top floor… to stay relevant you need to be as close to the streets as possible.” And he’s that connection.

Photo Credit: © Kai D. Wright. 2018.

In a fireside chat that captured the community of attendees, and generated thoughtful discussion over the next two days, his words echoed: brands have to show their hand, people want to know what they’re doing for the community and how the community is a part of the narrative. Consumers want to know brands share their same beliefs. How? Be grassroots. Tell a story people can relate to. Know the reason why you’re telling a story. Have someone from a consumer community tell the story as a creator. So, when the conversation shifted to Nike’s support of Colin Kaepernick, he issued a simple yet powerful challenge: what’s next? A question that many brands playing in the speed-way of culture must ask themselves as they reveal their hand to causes and issues plaguing their consumer communities or supply chain. It was a stark reminder that more leaders must ask and act on the question, “how do brands make consumers in their tribe better off?”

3- Design thinking for new markets

The mixed programming slate of entertaining talks with participatory discussions is what makes Stream stand-out as a gathering point for ideas and action around hot topics and new markets. Exploring how emerging industries are built, I joined a discussion about the first G7 country to legalize marijuana, Canada, led by Leafly’s head of content John Duncan. A former Vice executive that ran their health & wellness vertical, John led a group of 30 leaders through the detangling of a complex system of legislation, capital, and entrepreneurship around the cannabis industry that unpacked insights into adjacent industries, decriminalization of past offenders to allow work re-entry, marketing pathways, and economic value of government sponsorship. It was a masterclass discussion and application of design thinking… a perfect harmony of the principles in the book Medici Effect of experts from different walks of life breaking down intended and unintended effects of a new market, all with the lingering question of what roles brands will play and who will gain the first-mover advantage.

Like Sleep No More, Stream is an experience that if fortunate to attend more than once, is never the same. And that’s the point of an unconference. An unpredictably great experience based on the participation of the people in the room, tent, table, or stage. It’s as valuable as the lessons and inspiration one takes away, and how the connections between creators in media and leaders of talent align their expertise to make consumers better off in the world.

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Photo Credit: © Peter Fasano. 2018.
Kai is a strategic advisor to C-suite executives, startup founders, and talent. He focuses on how to make things sticky, shareable, and culturally-infectious. His work concentrates on the intersection of communication, culture, and tech/digital. He has been recognized as a leader by Forbes, Adweek, C-Suite Quarterly, and the Advertising Research Foundation. In addition to serving as a strategy advisor, he is a lecturer at Columbia University. As a scholar-practitioner, his academic focus is influence, rhetoric, and persuasion.

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