Letter from PopTech: A 3-Day Vacation From Advertising
Advertising is often though of as a mirror to what is happening in the larger culture. If you agree, next October buy a travel-size mirror and bring it to the well-coiffed coastal town of Camden, Maine. Because every year as the leaves turn bright orange and blush red, you can find a thousand people inside this New England town’s 1894 Opera House who want to change the world in this decade. At PopTech!, a network of thinkers and doers, people come together to share and reflect how they are indeed doing so.
A relief from industry conferences. This is not a typical industry event like the ANA, DMA or Advertising Week at which people who already know each other talk about narrow issues, cheerlead themselves and network to sell each other stuff. PopTech is the gathering of like-minded folks who come from all over and most poignantly, from different fields. Any job hunting would have to be for the careers you fantasized about in college (or grammar school) but didn’t pursue. I wanted to be a cartographer.
On Thursday, I had a lobster roll lunch with the head of a library and an interior design professor, and on Friday with the CFO of a zoo and a researcher at MIT. During breaks, I had coffee with a best-selling author and an architect. But it’s the people that curator Andrew Zolli and PopTech bring together on stage who really inspire. Social entrepreneurs and neuroscientists. Authors. Researchers and musicians. Top folks by any measure doing things with technology that show real social impact. And the overlap of what each of them do and how PopTech tries to connect the people and ideas is what’s unique.
This year’s theme: “Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures, and Improbably Breakthroughs.” Over 3+ days, a series of speakers and conversations try to answer a series of framing questions, including: “What happens when we don’t let failure happen”; “What has to die so the right thing to live?”; “How do we hasten its demise? Ugh, failure. Creatives hate failure. We desperately need our campaigns be not just a success that sells stuff, but a huge one that turns heads. For some, anything less than winning a Cannes Lions is a failure. Ridiculous, I know, but we’re the people who often put concepts into focus groups not at all because we crave customer collaboration (which we should) but because we fear the work lacks nuance or our clients don’t trust our judgment. Like these innovators, we should exhibit courage to take bigger risks, see what we can unlock through failure, experimentation and accident.
The least interesting people in the room. The caliber of discussion at PopTech! made me at several moments want to turn around my name tag. I think I’m used to advertising being a sexy topic at any cocktail party. People want to talk to you about what they saw on TV last night or an online video they shared with a friend. Here, however, people wanted to talk about how the brain pays attention to certain things and not others; the danger of being wrong; radio storytelling; the psychology of pain; how to recycle sewage; anticipatory medical devices; and of course, The Gulf. Bigger stuff than brands.
Closet marketer. I listened to each session first as a human being, of course; I care about how behavior spreads from one person to another and not just simply how to encourage it on Facebook. But I also couldn’t help but interpret some of what I heard for marketing and the experiences we try to create. You can access many of the speeches at both the site and blog. They post more all the time so follow them also on twitter. Good magazine posted highlights of the first day. These continue to be timely issues in the culture.
For example, Lisa Gansky, author of The Mesh, is a proponent and observer of the move of trading stuff for experiences and access. It’s part of the appeal of choosing a subscription to ZipCar instead of your own (we’re doing just this starting in January). It’s when we recognize that selling a brand isn’t just the bottle, but a belief system, an app, video content, an event. The actual product sometimes follows. I was about to buy a hard copy at the PopTech bookstore when a recycling expert came on stage and I ordered the digital version instead.
Live with less. Graham Hill, founder of Treehugger.org, talked about how housing size in the US has gone up 2.5X but family size as gone down. To also prove the point that we can comfortably and happily do with less, he announced we can follow the renovation of a tiny 420 square foot apartment in New York City that will be ultra efficient and replicable. There will be $70,000 in prizes for people who share ideas. Find out about it at Life Edited.
Graphic designer Orlaugh O’Brien wanted to study how people feel so she crowdsourced the provocative question using a mix of modern and traditional tools, calling the project, “Emotionally Vague.” Through mapping results of illustration and words, she found distinct patterns among gender but also a lot of uniformity about how we feel in our body about things like love, anger, fear, sadness and joy. Since she put it up, dance instructors, artists, writers and psychologists have all asked her about it. It’s quite beautiful and shows how big something just one person can create on their own.
Yasser Ansari told us we all had a “Nature Deficit Order”— we don’t see the natural world around us. It’s why he created Project Noah to help develop citizen scientists who can report via their phone what they see, learn more and contribute to the data pool. He wasn’t alone, biobus.org showed how this bus traveling through The Bronx involved kids in experiments and introduces them to real scientists. Through a microscopic close-up, we literally saw paint dry. The crowd loved it.
It’s not just individual apps but platforms. Ushahidi developed a reporting platform via GPS and mapping. Created to report human rights violations in Kenya, it’s now used in more than 30 countries in different ways — including connecting rescuers with victims in the days after the Haiti earthquake. With Frontline SMS, they set up 4363 (Haiti didn’t have a 911-type service) and volunteers around the world who spoke the language translated, tagged and geo-messaged 80,000 SMS messages. The first most common word in SMS was “Help.” The second? “Please.”
Passion bleeds through. What touched me was how personal the presenters were to both their topics and their projects. You could see their love and late nights not only in their results but in their face and through their voices. It’s not hard to see the leap to brands — the most passionate brands (from an owner and customer view) will win.
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