Close-Up: TEDGlobal shows art of 'brain-stretching'

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 23 July 2010 12:00AM

Did this year's conference live up to expectations? Campaign asked five delegates which speakers were the most inspirational to them and what implications their messages might have for advertising's future.

Every summer, Oxford becomes the ideas capital of the universe as the annual TEDGlobal conference rolls into town. The event provides a platform for some of the world's greatest minds to share their thoughts on where the world is heading. It's also the only place where you're likely to see a world-renowned popstar share a stage with an ecological entomologist, a facial surgeon, a coldwater swimmer and a community activist.

Campaign asked some of adland's finest what they think the industry can learn from this year's conference.

AJAZ AHMED - CHAIRMAN, AKQA

If Mozart were alive, I suspect he'd be rockin' out, playing loud guitar. And if Da Vinci lived today, I bet he'd be presenting at TED, the ultimate conference of dreamers and schemers.

You must watch these speakers with a critical mind. But as a creative person, you must watch them; they will show you some of the activity taking place at the event horizon of human life. TED is the big picture made relevant. And speakers don't just raise issues, they propose answers; they don't just gripe, they meet the brief.

TED is illuminating. Like a great magazine of ideas, TED sheds light on modern advances in multiple disciplines. For instance, you already know that clever software can understand or transcribe what you're saying. Now, thanks to the entrepreneur Tan Le, you can teach a computer to respond to your thoughts - just like speech recognition, only you keep your lips still.

TED is uncomfortable. Being confronted with all this greatness, and all these good deeds, can make you self-conscious of how you've spent this week, this year, this lifetime so far. Filling-in timesheets is a thing of the past here.

TED is funny. A mock ad break had a commercial for "Vegetables: they just might help", and the food scientist Marcel Dicke suggested that insects would be on Western restaurant menus by the year 2020; after his talk, attendees ate insect food during the coffee break.

TED is poignant. It gets you thinking and feeling. A video interlude about procrastination surmised that putting off tasks is our way of trying to put off death. Jessica Jackley's story about founding the micro-lender Kiva was so moving that the speaker herself broke down in tears.

TED is bizarre. Toni Frohoff, a whale psychologist, was so enamoured of cetaceans and "inter-species communion", it wouldn't have surprised me if the talk ended with a marriage proposal to a dolphin.

TED is idealistic and exultant. It celebrates people at their brightest, kindest and most effective. It shows humanity's good side, and imparts the sense that we're all in this together and we're gonna get out all right. Matt Ridley's now famous talk about "ideas having sex" is a case in point.

TED is inspiring. Like a good night's sleep, watching TED produces an altered, elevated state of consciousness. The next time you're mulling over a tricky brief, try sleeping on it. If that doesn't work, try TEDing on it.

TED is action-oriented. It's said that talkers are no great doers but, here, that's just not true. With TED, you can examine how notions, even the grandest and most fanciful, are actually imagined, pitched and made to happen. And that will always be an idea worth spreading.

MEL EXON - PARTNER, BBH LABS

The theme of this year's TEDGlobal took a defiantly positive stance, drawing on recent data showing declines in infant mortality rates and extreme poverty, flattening population growth and increases in primary education enrolment, together with an "amazing array of new tech, new science, new social and political thinking, new art and new understanding of who we are".

By 9am one day, we were listening to Thomas Dolby play a blues set, having already heard from an organic farmer about his eco-centric versus tech-centric approach and an artist who'd investigated the final destination of a pig (I gave up recording exactly where after I'd listed soap, bread, cellular concrete, train brakes, cheesecakes, bone china, paint, sandpaper, paintbrushes, beer, wine, fruit juice, cigarettes, injectable collagen and bullets).

The afternoon continued with speakers exploring different "unknown brains" - including the neural maps defining our identity; the sentience displayed by the human stomach; and the edge of a leaf showing consumption of oxygen and a mesh of electric signals suggestive of a plant brain.

The day concluded with a further four talks, each of which challenged the state of global education, with a particularly powerful speech from the educational researcher Sugata Mitra sharing what he'd learned about self-organised, group-based education among children, having built computers into the walls of slums.

The themes covered seemed to shed light on the tension between opposing forces:- The ubiquity of corruption (according to Peter Eigen of Transparency International, bribery is still tax deductable in some countries) and the "prisoners' dilemma" facing many organisations versus a moral and economic need for corporate transparency.- The power of micro-lending (specifically, the catalyst for growth a few dollars can provide for an individual in a developing country), particularly when an entrepreneur bypasses institutions and instead connects a "crowd" of lenders to the people who need the investment most.- The paradox of thrift - at the very point we should be saving, our governments need us to spend to kickstart our growth-based economies.- The need for private sector multinationals to drive change in protecting human rights in the global supply chain versus the need to "trust but verify" that involvement.- The human desire for novelty versus the desire for altruism.

We were asked: what's stopping us doing the blindingly obvious things to encourage sustainable production? To write tangible ecological and social goals into every business plan? To put the relationship between present and future at the forefront of our thinking?

As Tim Jackson, the economist and author of Prosperity Without Growth, summed up in his talk, we need to rethink how we perceive prosperity: "Prosperity consists of our ability to flourish as human beings - within the ecological limits of a finite planet."

ELSPETH LYNN - EXECUTIVE CREATIVE DIRECTOR, PROFERO

At TEDGlobal 2009, I was a TED virgin, with all the wide-eyed enthusiasm of experiencing it for the first time. Although it was impossible to duplicate that same thrill at TEDGlobal 2010, I nonetheless experienced a vigorous, brain-stretching, awe-inspiring week once again. Here is a smattering of some of the top talks.

Ethan Zuckerman - the ultimate geek. A brilliant mind who rambles about the online space with sharp observations and insight. He has the depth and experience to understand that which we call the social online space. He warns about our "imaginary online cosmopolitanism". He suggests we think we're becoming more sophisticated, but in reality we're probably just checking up on the football results.

Jessica Jackley - a "golly gee shucks" girly-girl with a religious upbringing. Spoke about her struggle with the poor. Felt guilt. Discomfort. Went to Africa. Hears their stories. Starts Kiva, a microlending, non-profit organisation that gave seven people a $100 loan in 2005. Cried on stage. Got a standing ovation. She now does more than $130 million in loans a year. Brave girl. Thirty-two years old.

Julian Assange - Andy Warhol reincarnated as the founder of Wikileaks, an organisation that uses state-of-the-art encryption and anonymisers to reveal confidential documents and videos.

He showed footage of American helicopter soldiers shooting an allegedly unarmed group of men, among whom was a Reuters photographer. Whistleblower. Up for a fight. Epitomises freedom of speech.

David McCandless - ex-ad guy who has marketed data visualisation. Demonstrates that things you learn in advertising can be used for other purposes, such as turning reams of data/information into highly conceptual, beautiful design that reinvents the way we take in and understand information. Made me fall in love with data. Humble genius. Clever career switch.

If you do go to TED next year, I can't promise that everyone will float your boat. But I can promise you that you will be stimulated, humbled and excited. You will meet people you would never normally have met; hear interesting ideas from around the world; you'll consider what altruistic idea you might bring to the world ... and you will feel like an ideas virgin.

MATT ISAACS - FOUNDING PARTNER, ESSENCE

The power of TED is the cross-fertilisation of ideas from one arena to another which drive new insights.

The Columbia University psychologist and business professor Sheena Iyengar talked about the way that consumers respond to choice - and gave evidence from her research proving that culture is a major factor in both the way we choose but also how we fundamentally even consider choice.

When presented with cans of seven soft drinks brands, children in the US regarded them as seven distinct choices while children in Russia described them all as "just one choice" ("soda or no soda").

This reminds us that the value of choice - including brand/product diversity - is directly related to the perception of difference in the eyes of end consumers.

The TED curator, Chris Anderson, spoke passionately about the fundamentals of how online video can change the way we exchange and interact, pointing out that for the first time since the printing press made the spoken word as the primary means of exchange of ideas obsolete, we are at a point where spoken and visual self- expression has the potential to be the most potent driver of cultural exchange.

The repurposing of TV ads for use in online video ads has long been criticised - what is clear is that as the medium explodes, the nature of the mechanisms best used to connect with users is itself evolving. The challenge for brands and agencies alike - "it's life, but not as we know it".

If there was one theme at TEDGlobal above all, it would be collaboration. Whether in the field of sustainability, design, technology or developing new ideas, the challenges we face are greater than ever and the solutions can only be created through individuals connecting and working together. If the internet isn't the greatest invention ever for achieving that, I don't know what is.

Perhaps TED is itself the greatest example of this - an internet super-charged organisation facilitating the exchange of ideas. A forum where individuals from all over the world come together to share ideas and create new beginnings. Innovation has rarely been so exciting.

RORY SUTHERLAND - VICE-CHAIRMAN, OGILVY GROUP UK

Luckily, the Randolph offers valet parking, so I managed to get the car out of sight before the other delegates arrived, hiding the fact that I had come by Jag, and not in some kind of Toyota milk-float. You have to be careful like that at TED.

All the same, despite all the wide-eyed, tree-fellating, self-congratulatory excesses, I do like TED a lot. In fact, I would recommend to anyone skipping Cannes every few years and spending the money on this instead. For, just as "the best books about advertising aren't about advertising", so the best advertising conferences aren't advertising conferences. At a TED event here, you find big ideas in their widest sense.

This breadth is important. For, just as behavioural economics was spawned by the overlap between economics and psychology, so it is everywhere - the most progressive ideas are no longer found within any one specialism but in the overlap between them.

For this reason, I think it is healthy for advertising people occasionally to seek inspiration through wider activities rather than simply staring at other people's ads.

To give just one example, the wonderful presentation of the computer gaming theorist Tom Chatfield concerning the "rewards schedule" of successful interactive games has enormous value to anyone running a service business or designing a loyalty programme. And anyone seeking to understand the causes of obesity should know the ideas of Heribert Watzke.

At some point, the advertising industry decided that it was more important to be fashionable than to be influential, in the process losing its connection to academic thinking in the social sciences. I would suggest it is vital that we now re-establish these links. Five people from adland at TED is not enough.

Yes, it can be a little smug at times. But, unlike Davos, at least the people claiming to be saving the world aren't the very same people who nearly destroyed it. And, unlike Davos, there is no risk that Americans pronounce TED with the stress on the second syllable, making you want to punch them in the face.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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