Rethinking Marketing in the Digital Age: Lessons from WPP’s annual Stream (un)conference

by Hugh McGilligan, Partner, MB Vermeer

It’s part hackathon, part Burning Man (it can’t be a coincidence that the event ends with an enormous beach-side inferno). Drones abound, PowerPoint is banned, egos frowned upon, and Chatham House rules apply — WPP’s Stream truly is an “un” conference.

WPP Stream Global 2015, Greece

The annual event took place last week in Marathon, Greece, and for two-and-a-half days, WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell and Investor Yossi Vardi, “the grandfather of Israeli innovation,” co-hosted a diverse array of brand leaders, WPP agency leads, and industry captains from technology and digital firms, along with academics, artists, social entrepreneurs, VCs and media-types from around the world.

The 350 invitees to the (un)conference participate in a wide variety of activities, most notably discussions. Topics are crowd-sourced from attendees, who then conduct informal sessions on subjects that, this year, ranged from the future of the 30-second advertising spot, to whether media could stop war, to the singularity that will evolve from Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality and what it means for humanity. While the subject of the conference is definitely not marketing, when one of the hosts is the most powerful man in the business, conversation naturally skews towards the topic. While many of the discussions are about digital technology, they focus on how it can be better used to connect with, influence, and improve the lives of people — whether consumers, Syrian refugees, or citizen-communities.

Stream Discussion “Big Boards”

Stream discussions brought into sharp focus the massive disruption digital technology is inflicting on both marketing and business, blurring the edges of traditional categories and rewriting the rules of engagement. Nimble start-ups use this disruption to grow exponentially, while established firms struggle to reinvent themselves to the new realities. As technology becomes strategy, most organizations are left asking how to best make use of these new tools and the implications of their adoption on their businesses and the structure of their teams.

For marketers, it is apparent that while digital technology has fundamentally altered what we do to drive awareness, interest and loyalty, for most brands how the marketing function is organized and behaves hasn’t shifted for decades. The potential impact of digital and technology is enormous, yet most organizations still conceive them as just another media channel.

So, what can marketers learn from this nexus of the great and the good from brands, marketers, technologists and intelligentsia?

1) Brands must be nimble: Successful brands adopt structures and processes that reflect the new realities of doing business. Gone are the days of hierarchical organigrams and command-and-control policies. Winning brands promote a more fluid organization, focused on delivering a consistent total customer experience around their brand positioning. It was clear at Stream that successful established brands mirror what’s happening in smaller, more nimble tech start-ups. Networked structures prosper; they bring together teams and external partners across functions, break down silos and create teams of specialists to build brand experiences. Global centers of excellence are disbanded to create local communities of expertise, immersed in the business, and spread across the globe. Winning brands have adopted processes that recognize where and how the actual work happens. Over-achieving brands ensure the correct decisions are made by, first, creating strategic clarity and simple guardrails of a clearly-articulated positioning and then pushing decision-making rights to the lowest appropriate levels.

2) The war for talent is real and about to get much worse: Not only does a nimble, distributed management model make for better brand experiences, it also attracts and retains the best talent. Top talent — of all ages and at all levels — will no longer accept roles that where they simply execute what they’re told. And, the “networking” at Stream makes it super clear that the war for talent is very real. What’s more, it’s global, and the world is flat. Brands must recognize that their futures rely on attracting the freshest talent from diverse backgrounds, and that the most attractive candidates are also being wooed by start-ups, tech and finance. The next generation of CMOs is just as likely to have STEM degrees as Arts qualifications. Brands must create an environment in which young, ambitious polymaths can thrive. Those that are successful create a culture of innovation, risk-taking and curiosity and must demonstrate a commitment to these values from the very top.

3) Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good: The proliferation of new tools and solutions is overwhelming, but all drive faster and faster decision making. Marketers need to adopt the “constant beta” mantra of Stream’s tech participants. Brands need to stop waiting for “perfect”, jump on board now, experiment, and iterate as they go — capturing and codifying what works, and investing training to share best practice.

To quote a Stream participant, “The pace of change will never be as slow as it is today.” Marketers need to adapt quickly to these new realities. Re-engineering an organization’s operating model is a terrifying prospect, but without these changes across structure, people, processes and tools, established brands will be left behind. The good news is that there has never been a better time to act.

Discussions at WPP Stream Global 2015, Greece

Hugh McGilligan is a Partner and Regional Head of the Organization Practice at Millward Brown Vermeer, New York. MBVermeer is a WPP-owned strategic brand consultancy. A division of Millward Brown, it is the only global marketing consultancy dedicated to unleashing purpose-led growth through consumer-insight led strategy.

Hugh advises leading brands on marketing strategy and the creation of best-in-class structures, which enable global brand teams to build and grow extraordinarily successful businesses.