News & Views

Five Questions From Stream

by Dan Southern

At WPP's Stream 'unconference', drones, big ideas and Chinadroids mix with cocktails, conversation and a beach prove awesome. Who knew?

WPP, the giant agency network, held the Asian leg of Stream, its intense but exhilarating ‘unconference’ series recently in Langkawi, Malaysia. Without any agenda to adhere to, it’s up to the attendees (those who managed to get a place on the list, Contagious included) to step up and contribute with ideas, challenges and stories. But it’s not all shop talk: PowerPoint karaoke, midnight feasts and a talent show mean that Steamers also need to be on hand to provide entertainment for themselves for the three days too.

It shouldn’t work. But, against all odds, it does. A white board on the beach that’s as bare as the bright, cloudless sky when early-comers arrive soon fills up to become a busy hive of industry searching questions and opinions, which form the basis of open discussions each day.    

To these sessions, held under canopies across a pristine stretch of beach, come clients (such as Intel APAC’s director of strategy and marketing), agency types (regional MDs of OgilvyOne and Y&R are present), entrepreneurs, philanthropists, investors and media owners (such as Google’s regional MD) alongside former FBI agents and astronauts.

Stream is a true melting pot of talent and by virtue of some shrewd organisation, which primes each person for participation, the conversation bubbles away happily for three days. People with wide ranges of experiences candidly share their stories and wisdom – and seek guidance themselves – within a reassuring climate of Chatham House Rules. Here’s a mini micro-selection of the interesting questions posed at Stream Asia by the attendees in the discussions and presentations. 

1. Should we depose Sir Martin Sorrell?

One session cheekily offered this question, pointing to the managerless system holacracy, adopted by the likes of Zappos and Medium. Silicon Valley Kool-Aid suggests these new systems drive innovation and collaboration. But can, or should, a multinational corporation with its existing wage structures and performance reviews, rewire itself in this way? 

Some advocated less focus on organisational structure and more focus developing not a vision, but ‘beliefs’. Creating and instilling a distinctive and common set of beliefs amongst co-workers have the potential to fuel behaviours that spark more instinctive ways of working.That means more focus on identifying talent which can align to the business is necessary. Entrepreneur Streamer Joanna Riley Weidenmiller’s innovative company 1-Page might help CV swamped companies effectively identify those that can.

2. Can’t we do this every day?

No doubt many people come away from Stream asking this question, as they prepare to head back into the office. The beauty of of the event is that it lowers people’s guard, helps them to decompress and talk person-to-person rather than ‘client to agency’, or ‘manager to subordinate’. Faced with heading back to the daily grind, the current group may be forgiven for wistfully casting their minds back to some of the many other discussions that took place on the beach such as;

  • Will Reality TV beat NASA to Mars?
  • Angel Investing in Tech Startups 101
  • Workplace Loyalty in the Time of Millennials
  • Is Big Data like teenage sex? 
  • The $50 ChinaDroid - The Smartphone for the Next 3 Billion
  • Why a baboon with a dartboard could do my job
  • How may digital advertising leverage the AI sciences from robotics?
  • Drones for Humanity & Business, not for War
3. Are we failing the next generation?

Stream draws people across the age spectrum. So a discussion on whether the next generation is being failed proved interesting, as contributors debated outlooks from across the career journey. It’s apparent that a generation of managers is frustrated by the core marketing and digital skills of those coming into the workplace, but also recognises that educational institutions are failing to keep up with media’s fast pace of change. Among the many solutions explored? Corporations playing a more active role in universities, offering them insight and enriching curriculums. 

4. How can we use technology and media to create a scalable solution to reduce water consumption behaviour by billions of people?

At every Stream, The Pitch is an opportunity for participants to flex their creative and strategic might, responding to a brief in teams. It culminates in a tense three minute pitch to a panel of judges which this year included WPP worldwide creative director, John O’Keeffe. This time, the brief addressed the issue of water consumption in China, which has 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its fresh water. 

The smart winning solution used WeChat (a mobile chat application with reportedly 400 million users in China) to target young people for recruitment into a campaign called Water Heroes, where users would be encouraged to share images of each other that were automatically adjusted to appear with cracked, dehydrated skin. By becoming a Water Hero, members would in turn get discounts from key partner brands. A social movement, social objects, image culture, a branded campaign, social currency and consumer value – the judges were impressed with the strategy that had been developed in such a short space of time.

5. Should we adopt a ‘Brownian Motion’ view of brand equity?

Ignite presentations involve a series of talks made up of 15 slides that automatically advance every 15 seconds. Ann Rayner, regional director, TNS Sydney proposed in her 3m 45s session that now, more than ever, we need a new understanding of brand equity because ‘it fluctuates wildly according to context and different experiences’. Brownian Motion describes the random movement of particles in gas or liquids. With mobile becoming integral to marketing, how brands behave and are perceived in the moment is more important than ever and so equity simply can’t be seen as static.

As you read this, 300 cohorts now spread far and wide in offices across South East Asia and beyond, are finally bringing their brains back to room temperature. Metaphorically, of course. No matter what your level of discomfort is in this type of setting, Stream offers a chance to step up and find your own boiling point in an environment that recognises every contribution made. It’s also damn good fun.