More than ever, today’s marketers are dependent on finding insight and inspiration from the world beyond their businesses to drive innovation and discover new meaning for their customers. While there’s no shortage of conferences and events that promise to deliver the perfect balance of each, deciding which warrant attention can be a daunting task.
There will never be a substitute for tent-pole events like CES, Mobile World Congress, Cannes and SXSW. But a new class of events has emerged to capture our attention, ones that are highly curated, community based, built around experience and often purpose driven. I’ve found these experiences to be unbelievably valuable in my own work leading innovation strategy at MediaLink.
One of my mandates is to seek out the best of these events—a tall order given the sophisticated and elaborate landscape of invite-only summits and membershipbased communities—and make sense of the topics discussed and distill those findings to our clients.
Over the past decade, I’ve attended a lot of these events and in the course of those journeys, I’ve asked myself (and been asked by others) how I separate the valuable from the ordinary. Here’s the filter through which I vet emerging events, which I lovingly refer to as “The Illuminati.” I always ask, does it:
1. Attract a balanced audience of inventors and innovators? It’s important to
distinguish between the two. Inventors are the scientists, technologists and artists
deep in the experimentation or creative process, while innovators are those using
the inventions and providing commercial value.
2. Prioritize human connection? It needs to represent more than simply putting
people in a room. I look for events that focus on facilitating idea-generating dialogue,
collaboration and memorable experiences that result in long-lasting relationships. I
also look for events that cultivate a community that lives beyond the event itself.
3. Provide access to uncommon personalities and schools of thought?
Personally, I don’t want to keep seeing the same programming experience at the
major tent poles. Instead, I want to put myself in unconventional environments
where otherwise uncharted conversations are facilitated. In fact, one of the tactics
I employ when attending is to specifically seek out the off-the-beaten-path and
4. Include purpose-driven elements? The early days of SXSW were dedicated to
how attendees could harness the internet to serve the greater good; similarly, I look
for events where the gathering is about leveraging our skill sets and networks to
solve larger socioeconomic issues. Allowing attendees to connect on larger, more
personal issues will enable deeper, longer-lasting relationships.
5. Successfully extend the physical connection through digital? More
than offering a template app to showcase programming, an event should have
an underpinning of strong thought leadership and technology to help attendees
connect fluidly pre-, during and post-experience.
Here’s a sampling of the new events and experiences that have
drawn my eye and attention:
Future of Storytelling
New York; Oct. 4-5, 2017
The Hook: Curated but accessible
Why I Attend: Charlie Melcher, founder of Future of Storytelling (FoST), has a cult-like following and believes the art of storytelling is a cause in and of itself with the power to impact everything from marketing to world problems.
It's highly curated but accessible: In addition to FoST’s two-day summit, which includes 500-plus storytellers across technology, art and marketing disciplines, it also hosts FoST Fest, which is open to the public and puts on display a visual representation of discussions from the summit.
FoST opts for intimate roundtables and workshops instead of keynote speakers. For instance, you can learn how to create a Sesame Street segment from a Sesame Street master puppeteer, or learn how to integrate illustration into your daily life with, say, Maira Kalman.
FoST has some of the best production values I’ve seen, ranging from the videos that guide attendee session selections to the materials provided during and after the summit. Following the conference last year, a hard-bound book recapping my personal experience (including my picture on the cover) was mailed to my office.
FoST will remain on my yearly agenda for as long as Charlie will have me. If you plan to attend, get ready to roll your sleeves up and meet some of the most interesting, progressive and quirky storytellers on the planet.
Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.; May 30-June 1, 2017
The Hook: The Davos of the tech world
Why I Attend: There’s no shortage of conferences hosted by media companies, but when it comes to the super geek/tech influencer set, Recode’s Code is the place to be. Where else can you hear Elon Musk discuss the possibility that we are all in the Matrix, or Jeff Bezos share his plans to outsource manufacturing facilities to the moon? The programming at Code is as high caliber as the quality of its attendees.
Due to its size, both speakers and attendees are highly accessible with small gatherings that pop up in hotel suites, after the programming concludes.
The Verdict: Code is a costly endeavor but worthy of an investment. The incredibly insightful programming enables attendees to connect with the tech and VC elite.
Montreal, Canada; May 24-26, 2017
The Hook: The creative Canuck
Why I Attend: C2 has been on my radar for a few years because its philosophy of bringing business and creative leaders together in an experiential environment satisfies my most important criteria for evaluating events: bringing inventors and innovators together and allowing their worlds to collide organically.
Experimental brainstorming: Much of the work I do with marketers involves introducing new technologies and schools of thought and assigning them with commercial value. This type of brainstorming has enormous impact on that work.
Master classes: Following each talk, participants are invited to master classes with the purpose of applying the learnings. Education and brain nourishment should be an important component to any event.
Orchestrated collisions: C2 organizes curated one-on-ones that pair business leaders with creatives, entrepreneurs—helpful to many who need guided serendipity.
The Verdict: From all I’ve heard, C2 is a playground for the creative and innovation set with incredible hands-on learning experiences. It will definitely be a part of my agenda this year.
New York; various dates
The Hook: The soothsayer
Why I Attend: When I first entered the industry and began advising brands on “innovation,” there weren’t many resources focused on the emerging and obscure. PSFK.com was one of the sites I relied on to find examples of companies experimenting and pushing boundaries. Having since met and spoken with PSFK founder Piers Fawkes on multiple occasions and attended his events the past few years, I’ve been impressed with the community he’s built as well as PSFK’s eye for trends and the companies driving them. The events bring that community together and put the companies driving change into context for brands.
The speakers are innovative and address real underlying problems in the world, while the organizers are relatively flexible on vetting the attendee list. Junior-level rising stars have the ability to attend and because of the stickiness, they keep on coming back for more. As a result, communities form over time. I am still close with a number of people I met through PSFK at the beginning of my career, and still today we use this forum as a meeting place.
The Verdict: PSFK events are relatively affordable. I always uncover insights and examples I can use in discussions with clients that demonstrate how often abstract trends are manifested in the world of brand marketing. PSFK has a great eye for spotting things as they’re about to break, and I appreciate how rooted all the speakers are in the trend reports they publish.
Bahamas cruise, Los Angeles; various dates
The Hook: An experience with a purpose
Why I Attend: Summit’s manifesto says it all: “Summit builds community and places that catalyze entrepreneurship, creative achievement, and global change to create a more joyful world.” Whether on Eden, Summit’s private mountain in Utah, or aboard a cruise ship (Summit at Sea), the community—vetted and infused with purpose—is always at the center. Participants are exposed to a rare group of speakers: political activists, technology mavens, artists, even celebrities. Where else can you have breakfast with Dolores Huerta, drinks with Fab 5 Freddy and attend a meditation session with Quentin Tarantino all in the same day?
Summit hosts its annual summits, weekends at the mountain, dinner parties and group travel experiences throughout the year, but it also has an incredibly strong community that organizes on its own, outside of the confines of these events. So much, in fact, that members of the community will create events at other industry events.
The immersive and participatory experiences enable participants to forge strong long-term relationships. I am consistently exposed to new ideas due to sense of self discovery and openness that the community embraces.
Pure serendipity: Whether by design or happenstance, Summit’s diverse community lends itself to meeting new people and it is encouraged. On the boat, for instance, there is no cell service or access to internet, which forces people to seek out new groups and resort to non-tethered forms of finding one another—which can be incredibly refreshing.
The Verdict: This is probably the most unique event on the circuit (and most difficult to pitch to your finance team), but it’s an incredible source of personal inspiration. Go with an open mind and willingness to put yourself in situations that challenge your knowledge base.
Iceland and elsewhere; various dates
The Hook: The bespoke journey
Why I attend: While I did not attend Flow Journeys’ inaugural event in Iceland this September, there’s a slate of experiences scheduled in 2017 in Brazil (Feb. 24-28), Cuba and Japan. The initial concept of Flow was first introduced by scientist and TED speaker Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose work is focused on happiness, creativity and human fulfillment. Flow Journeys are inspired by this theory and focus on the 50 handpicked participants in attendance, curated by co-founders Liz Bacelar and David Rowan. The three-day journeys include access to thought leaders and exposure to experiences specific to the location.
A blend of personal and professional passions: If I’m travelling for work, why shouldn’t it be to exotic locations like Brazil, Cuba or Iceland with 49 other talented individuals looking to foster open thought and collaboration? And given the founders' backgrounds, the attendees come from all walks of life but tend to be well-established in the luxury, tech and fashion categories.
The Verdict: Feedback on the first Flow was universally positive, and the intimate gathering made for authentic connections and open dialogue. There are two types of journeys: intense and casual. The latter experience invites a spouse to join, making it an easier sell.
Nashville, Atlanta, Portland; various dates
The Hook: The underdog for the underserved
Why I Attend: Breakout is one of the smaller, more intimate communities I’ve discovered in the past few years. What originally drew me was a focus on often overlooked markets, zeroing in on action over hype. While much of the industry is talking about the resurgence of markets like Detroit and Baltimore, Breakout deeply connects with these communities and focuses on the impact their efforts will make. In addition to organizing breakfasts and roundtables in New York and Los Angeles that feel almost like therapy sessions, Breakout hosts three-day trips to the above cities as well as Atlanta and Portland that include encounters with emerging talent in the arts, technology and cause spaces. They deliver on their vision to “break” individuals "out" of their typical routine.
Breakout strives to offer access and insight around thought leadership from underserved and emerging markets with the purposeful intent of giving that talent a voice. Gatherings around the table or in pop-up spaces create a real sense of community where people can share and solve problems collectively. The sense of culture these sessions create is something that marketers can learn from, adopt and bring back into the corporate environment.
The Verdict: Communities like Breakout are crucial to anyone tasked with refining and helping brands to launch ideas and concepts that are rough around the edges. Community participation requires you to go in prepared to give more to the conversation than you take; otherwise, you’re probably not there for the right reasons.
This story first appeared in the January 2, 2017 issue of Adweek magazine.
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