by Jonathan Cloonan

“Leave your ego at the door, don’t be an energy vampire, challenge every idea…oh, and give axe-throwing a go!”

This opening sentence jumped off the welcome note that had been left on my bed, setting the stage for an experience widely touted as one unlike any other event in ad land.

You see, WPP Stream is not a standard marketing conference. In fact, it’s framed as exactly the opposite — an “(un)conference”. A three-day invite-only outdoor immersion in Ojai, California for 100 handpicked C-Suite level marketers, 100 WPP execs and 100 ‘friends of the family’ including tech start-ups, NGOs, media companies and celebrities. (Disclosure: As a former WPP Fellow, I now run the relationship between WPP and Fullscreen including the preferred GroupM influencer marketing joint venture called PLAYA, so I managed to swing an elusive invitation!).

There is no pre-determined timetable, no overarching itinerary, and no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Streamers (a.k.a guests) are encouraged to set the agenda — almost from start to finish — by jotting down thought-provoking discussion topics on a massive whiteboard and hoping that others find the subject compelling enough to join their session.

Within a few hours, this year’s board was filled with subjects ranging from “Is it Humane to make Humans do the Work of Machines?” to “If Corporations Are People, Should They Get to Vote Too?” and “The Ethics of Convenience”.

The ethos of Stream is to promote “off the record” discourse which allows Streamers to be unfiltered, raw and honest with each other. While respecting The Chatham House Rule, I can share (without giving too much away!) that this year a client described exactly how her new agency won her business, a creative agency conducted a public brainstorm around his client’s — who was present and seemed up for it — biggest business challenge and there was a very vigorous debate about which side of the table offers the most satisfying career path: publisher, platform, consultancy firm, client or agency.

In between the discussion groups, there are ‘Luminary’ sessions dotted throughout each day. These take the form of ‘fire-side chats’ in which industry heavyweights are interviewed by WPP’s newly minted CEO, Mark Read.

Past Luminaries have included Sheryl Sandberg, Jack Dorsey and Anderson Cooper. This year, the roll call of thought leaders was equally exceptional. Snap founder Evan Spiegel doubled down that his company is the world’s first social camera enterprise not, in fact, a social media company. Adobe’s CMO, Ann Lewnes, shared that tech is the first step in Adobe’s journey towards perfect personalization. Lewnes was steadfast in her prediction that, while robots won’t take over the majority of marketing functions in the short term, companies that aren’t up for massive transformative change won’t survive the next ten years: “this is an all-in game.”

Instagram’s COO, Marne Levine, who now runs Facebook’s Global Partnerships, used her time on stage to cover a wide breadth of topical issues, including the role of #AI and Machine Learning in detecting hate speech and fake accounts to espousing the virtues of data privacy and user security on social media.

Beyond the Discussion Groups and Luminary sessions that framed the event, there was a popular health and wellness track with yoga, biking and meditation. Other highlights deemed a hit included the tiki style open bar (stocked with Fullscreen-PLAYA-Punch cocktails) for informal meetings and a personal favorite activity of mine called ‘Midnight Cooking Madness Competition.’ The contest brought together dozens of wannabe chefs from across Stream, gifted each with a basket of ingredients and challenged the foodies to unleash their inner Gordon Ramsey. Ultimately, the dishes were served to the all Streamers who voted on their fav (Long live Democracy… and long live Danielle from Mindshare’s epic Gumbo!)

In the hope of being invited back, I promised the Queen of Stream, Ella Kieran, that I’d share three themes that popped for me this year:

Firstly, a common thread in conversations was the rise of ‘Direct To Consumer’ brands and their impact on more established, traditional advertisers. During the Stream Ignite series, in which attendees can volunteer for four minutes on stage to talk about an idea, an interest or a passion, Terence Kawaja of Luma Partners brought an awed audience through the very real threat that D2C challengers pose to big incumbents and, what he referred to as, their likely catastrophic impact on traditional marketers whose “tactics are old.”

Secondly, ad blocking was at the forefront of every marketer’s mind as we move into 2019. I overheard an esteemed agency CEO refer to it as “the largest social movement in human history. No other ad focused rebellion even comes close in scale.” Admittedly, that does sound a bit dramatic, but with ad blocking approaching 32% penetration across the US, maybe he wasn’t so wrong…

Finally, the importance of sophisticated, thoughtful and measurable influencer marketing in today’s media plans was a common refrain. This was widely agreed upon as a glaring opportunity for the brands in attendance to help maneuver around Ad Blocking. If executed correctly, using well known social media voices to lend their authenticity to brands is a winning tactic. While not everyone is convinced, the majority of Streamers are going ‘all in’ on using influencers as a stable acquisition channel in a volatile ad environment. One CMO even shared that he had to cut back on his influencer marketing budget for Q4 as the drive-to-purchase attributed to the influencers’ content was causing his newly launched tech product to sell too quickly….

All in all, with its balanced mix of both meaningful conversations and fun activities, Stream USA 2018 lived up to it’s billing as an unconventional, unstructured, unscripted and unpredictable meeting of people, minds, and ideas.

Here’s to next year!

Jonathan Cloonan is Fullscreen’s VP, WPP PLAYA lead and Forbes 30 Under 30 Marketer.