WPP Stream: Nuclear Fusion & Playtime for Grownups

by Tom Richardson, VP, Strategic Partnerships at Acquia Inc.

People used to go to conferences — at least ostensibly — to learn from their peers, and absorb information that would help them in their everyday jobs. There were exceptions to the rule, but the basic formula was oriented around education: “These people know more than you do about something you need to know more about, so we’ve brought you here to sit and listen”. Networking mattered, but it happened around the edges.

Then, 10 years ago, everything started to change. Social media, streaming video, and faceted search reached a point of maturity that started to dramatically accelerate the democratization of information. TED took off, universities started streaming lectures, and Lynda.com hit the mainstream.

At this point, something interesting happened.

Rather than conceding ground to the inevitable rise of the internet, the global conference industry exploded — and is expected to grow by a projected 44% between 2010 and 2020. How did this happen?

Like all successful industries, it adapted to its surroundings. Event entrepreneurs and Convention Bureaus — who had historically relied on large gatherings of orthodontists or timeshare salespeople — started to experiment with new formats. The new breed of events that emerged was multi-disciplinary, unstructured, and engineered for the unexpected. It also made use of technology.

All of which brings me around to WPP Stream.

First, some context. WPP Stream is an annual ‘un-conference’, laid on by WPP, the world’s largest marketing communications group, to bring together a select group of 350 customers, partners, & employees.

Like nuclear fusion, Stream relies on accelerating nuclei (people), facilitating collisions (interesting discussions), and creating a new nucleus (relationship). The event is disorderly by design. The basic rooms — at the resort in Marathon where Stream is hosted — do a wonderful job of keeping people out of them. Free drinks, aspiring comedians (mostly WPP executives) and glitter cannons keep people entertained.

Discussion Boards at WPP Stream

A whiteboard in the main meeting area is split into 12 sessions and 8 venues. People can propose a discussion, or see what they’d like to attend, and move freely between them. Evenings are for Ignite Talks (15 slides, 15 seconds each, on a topic you’re passionate about), the Extravaganza (variety show for grown-ups), Midnight Cooking Madness (exactly what it sounds like), and Powerpoint Karaoke. There’s an X-Box. Beanbags everywhere. And yoga on the beach.

If you’re looking at this thinking that Stream sounds like an excuse for a raucous party on expenses, you’re (mostly) right. But stick with me, dear reader. It’s also the future. Here’s why:

1. Collisions create energy

Everything about Stream is designed to bring people together. When Stream debuted in 2007, the organizers decided to focus on a fast-moving schedule that would bring every participant into contact with each other in the shortest possible time. Learning, they figured, would happen as a consequence of this, rather than being the stimulus. You bounce around like a pinball — never spending more than an hour in one place with the same group — and meetings can pop up anywhere (even in the pool).

2. None of us are having enough fun

The reason that Stream continues to attract client CMOs, agency CEOs, and Investors from all over the world is that it’s a lot of fun. There I said it — the F word. Some might say that for the thousands of dollars participants spend to fly to Greece on the company dime, it shouldn’t be about having fun. I say: FUN THAT. It’s a privilege to be able to have fun at work — one not afforded to all — but it’s not a bad thing as long as this is privilege is recognized. Abandoning the protocols of the office relaxes people, and opens them up to new ideas and new ways of thinking.

WPP Stream 2015, Greece

3. People buy personalities

One of the best things about going to Stream is that people are revealed. Their quirks, their passions, their hidden depths, and their sense of humor. Particularly in the marketing world — where differentiation is a constant challenge — people are the product. And in this kind of environment, you get to know them. There’s something about starlit conversations around a beach bonfire that can’t be replicated in a hotel bar or conference room.

So here’s my appeal, which I hope the global workforce won’t mind me making on their behalf. If you’re involved in organizing a conference or convention, make collisions happen. Smash people together, mix them up and move them, and encourage introverts and extroverts to learn from each other in unexpected ways.

And don’t do it because it’s fun. Do it because it’s good for business.

Tom Richardson, VP, Strategic Partnerships at Acquia Inc.


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