Reboot Camp — A Stream Odyssey, 2018

by Bart Michels, CEO, Kantar Consulting

Boom.

Within 1 hour of arriving, and about 30mins into the official welcome of Stream 2018 it was evident this was something other-worldly. I’d seen our impossibly, brilliantly energetic host of Stream inadvertently let off a large confetti cannon she was holding, and not skip a beat. Another singer-turned-host had dropped the C-bomb and very clearly got away with it. And the incredibly engaging and smart A-grade lawyer-turned-entrepreneur sitting next to me had just informed me that although we both went to the same university, I had graduated before she was born. As a not-so-old, not-so-young 49 year old this felt destabilising in a very good way. It was clear this was now a social powder keg. A place chock-full of sparkling precocious talent, uncommon thinking and deep business and life experience. A pretty powerful and intellectually combustible combination. This was not going to be a usual corporate gathering.

It was billed as an ‘unconference.’ I’d heard of Stream when it was first born. As a ‘senior leader’ in brand consulting in Kantar — currently part of WPP — it was exciting and different. I’d nominated many a young, free thinker from my team to go and represent us, and themselves, and bring to the event, (and bring back to the team), ideas and a fresh look at the world.

People who went, couldn’t describe what it was like. They came back elated, exhausted, mentally refreshed and slightly physically ruined.

I invited a few clients, and described to them what we would be doing, who would be there, who would be speaking. I played up the brilliant brains and free format, and played down the accommodation. Stream has now clearly got a brand of its own — clients and agencies alike have heard of it and respect it from afar. Each with a mix of suspicion and barely concealed jealousy. It’s a golden ticket in many ways — not all will get in and many may not thrive.

One of my clients, clearly future CEO potential and in a major corporate organisation, asked her line manager if she could go from my invitation. She described the agenda, the set-up, the melting pot of 350+ entrepreneurs, agency leaders, thought leaders, creative artists and clients. An inspired boss, he let her go and take part in what he described as ‘Crayola Davos.’ Actually that was really very good, and funny. A job in the copywriting department awaits…

High Octane, Low Ego.

We were bussed in from Athens airport. Let’s not beat about the bush — Stream is set in a very straightforward mass catered holiday resort in a place called Marathon. In 490 B.C., the Athenian army defeated the invading Persian army in Marathon, located roughly 26 miles north of Athens. According to legend, the Athenians then ordered the messenger Pheidippides to run ahead to Athens and announce the victory to the city.
 
 Pheidippides raced back to Athens in the summer heat. Upon reaching the Athenian agora, he exclaimed “Nike!” (“Victory!”) or “Rejoice! We Conquer” and then collapsed dead from exhaustion. This was to be an intellectual and social Marathon, and I hoped I would not drop dead at the end.

Freestyle, Feisty & Free flow

On arrival, two days were carved into about 50 potential discussion sessions — proposed by the attendees and hosted by one of those present. Topics were freely suggested, given time slots — and so in front of my very eyes a two day conference agenda was born. What’s great about this is that topics are born of passion and expertise. They are by definition ‘on trend and current.’ They are also eclectic. From ‘how will we save the planet from the plastic crisis?’, to workshops on how to build your own app, through to a debate on whether AI will kill EQ and creativity, right through to the burning question that asked ‘what will we do when we realise that everyone in the world is a little bit gay?’ And of course everything in between. Each day topped and tailed with Health and Wellness activity, and a huge ‘family dinner’ and punctuated with luminary presentations including Mark Read, the new WPP CEO, the makers of Love Island, a prodigy tech-puppeteer, and the ex-Greek Prime Minister.

Big and Rich.

So what was MY Stream experience like? I tried to do a little bit of literally everything…I took part in the brilliant Aids testing campaign pitch ideas for Kenya for the Elton John Aids Foundation (my team was robbed in final pitches), and split my many discussion sessions to mix left and right brain and more management and tech / industry business content and topics. We learnt about 3D body scanning and the impact on fashion retail, debated the impact of AI on EQ, and AI on Creativity and the creative industry as a whole. We talked about mental health and the responsibility of us as leaders to keep an eye on it and nurturing it in the workplace and a truly explosive discussion on gender equality and our responsibility in making it more visible and genuinely better for future generations, from now.

So what did I actually learn?

1. A brilliantly framed question is often the difference between an interesting discussion and a mobilising idea or insight.

- Some of the topics were fun, some were really interesting. Few were really well framed to start to solve real issues in a meaningful way. ‘Will AI kill creativity?’ may not be as interesting as how do we use AI to power creativity and build the new agency model of the future?

2. Truly diverse minds create better discussions and clearer insights.

- When a group had truly different opinions and inputs the discussion was richer and ideas more surprising. And within this, conversations with some Jeopardy — by which I mean a vested and experienced side in all sides of the discussion — had better outcomes, IF, and this is a big IF the discussion could be held constructively and in a forward looking way. Some debates got too emotional and others admired the problem.

3. Even in a truly digital world, analogue humanity has an enduring potency..

- The app was great, but nothing beat the live debate and building of thoughts and ideas in real time with real people.

4. Hanging out and working intensively together builds relationships faster than anything.

- Our pitch team bonded in minutes. And took roles and had a lot of fun and fresh ideas. We will stay in touch.

5. When egos and hierarchies are put aside, magic can happen.

- Some of the best thinking and discussion came from mixing openly experience with borderless ill formed, new ideas, entrepreneurialism and corporate rigour.

6. Corporates and Entrepreneurs really need each other but really don’t trust each other.

- My session that I ran with Rachel Eyre, Head of Future Brands for Sainsburys was very enlightening. A bit like a marriage guidance counselling for innovation growth, it was clear that so much can happen, if both listen, trust and are totally transparent with each other. Amen.

Above all, stimulating time and space out of the madness is such a precious and important commodity. It feels like a real luxury, but it is now a necessity. We have no room in our mental diaries for intelligent serendipity. For ideas, for mental health, for sustainable energy, for relationship building, for problem solving.

But Stream is not a Spa. It’s a reboot. And just like we need a reboot personally and professionally, what felt interesting about Stream in this inflection point for WPP with a new CEO, maybe Stream could reboot too — inspired by its new leader, the co-founder of Stream itself.

Stream is such a powerful brand, experience and idea and was way ahead of its time at launch. I wonder if Stream is not just an unconference event or moment in time, it should be more of a genuine movement. It could be much more of how we think, live and work as marketers, creative thinkers and business leaders and change agents day to day in this new world. How can we make the Stream philosophy how we do business so more people can experience it? Hopefully if we do this, we won’t ask the question of what the future agency model is anymore, because we’d be living it already.

It’s an inspiring thought, and a very good time to think about it. I met some truly provocative, interesting and inspiring people and reset my own perspective. And had great fun in the process.

Long live Stream, long live the Reboot. Let’s make it Main Stream.