Close-Up: What can the ad industry learn from TED?

People from all industries who want to hear new things, view TEDGlobal 2009 as almost a form of giving something back. Here, the currency is ideas not money. Campaign heard how it could change advertising.

From Tuesday to Friday last week, hundreds of people from all types of industries flocked to Oxford for the 2009 TEDGlobal conference to hear talks on a plethora of issues from a truly eclectic group of speakers. These included Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, an inventor, a rapper, an aquatic ape theorist (whatever that is) and a Capuchin friar, among others.

Campaign press-ganged some interesting ad people to give their views on what the industry can learn from the conference.

- Richard Huntington director of strategy, Saatchi & Saatchi

TED can teach adland that nothing is impossible if someone can sculpt the Statue of Liberty or the cast of Star Wars inside the eye of a needle.

That we need to stop sending our people on presentation courses and start teaching them to perform.

That we should never take no as an answer but always treat it as a question.

That the world will be a better place once wireless electricity is commercially available.

That the most creative people in the world are our scientists.

That with so few agencies bothering to show up, it can be lonely being an adman at TED.

That we should all retire five years later but take a year-long sabbatical every seven years.

That even the academic community has dumped PowerPoint.

That our belief in using financial incentives to motivate people crushes their creativity by encouraging them to narrow their focus too much.

That if you could reduce the world to the size of a sugar cube, you would create a black hole.

That if an idea as profoundly stupid as Wikipedia can be a runaway success, then we should never accept impracticality as a barrier to believing in great ideas.

That our generalism is, in turns, both the most fascinating and frustrating thing about working in advertising.

That it may well be that the internet, far from a tool for activism and freedom, is your average dictator's best friend and the ultimate opiate of the masses.

That any agency or client that frowns on people using social media at work is clearly not walking the walk in any meaningful sense.

That conferences and festivals full of speakers from the ad industry are about training and not real learning, fine as far as it goes but I'd rather be learning.

That real innovation is not about creating new stuff but creating new sets of rules for people to live and work by.

That our recent obsession with design must embrace real design thinking not just aesthetic window dressing.

That now that the geeks have inherited the Earth, they are after the supermodels.

That being interesting rather than right is the cultural currency of our time, whether we are talking about people or brands.

And that Rory Sutherland's blistering performance means at long last we have an IPA president we can all be proud of and who is a credit to our business.

- Alex Franklin content and partnerships planner, Wieden & Kennedy

Watching the TED conference engenders child-like naivety and wonder. It (re)instils a desire to do the best you possibly can, to achieve for the sake of creating a better world. It shows you can affect change in a myriad of ways: through the creation of technological innovations such as wireless electricity, by harnessing the power of the global community to fight political injustice or even through music that inspires hope such as the work of Emmanuel Jal (hip hop artist).

For those of us in creative industries, TED imparts invaluable global developments to help shape our work both strategically and creatively. Trends emerge over the course of the conference that will filter rapidly to mass-market consumers in our highly connected world. They'll affect our clients' business, how their products and services evolve and ultimately how consumers respond to advertising.

Creatively, TED reminds us to look up, beyond our oft self-centric world, and refer to other disciplines for learning and inspiration. Who would've thought you could visualise the sound a snowflake makes as it falls through the air and that the shape is actually representative of its form? Or that you can visualize geo-based web "noise" via beautiful art forms?

To quote Michael Young, the founder of the Open University: "You should always take no as a question, not an answer." Bear this in mind as you set out to make the best work of your life, every day.

- Andy Hobsbawm European chairman, Agency.com; co-founder of Green Thing (Dothegreenthing.com)

The big problem for the ad industry is that it wrote the manifesto for the 20th century's ideology of triumphant consumerism and excessive individualism. Advertising defined what it was that those who had a new found capacity to consume should buy, and how to spend their money in a way that suited themselves and no one else.

If I had to pick out one thing that advertising should take from TED Global 2009, it would be how urgently we need to reboot our society and financial systems to address the great challenges of our times: our environment and economy, our health services and education systems, social inequality and a lack of community, and an ageing population with dwindling supplies of water and oil.

A consistent theme throughout the conference was how our values and cultural behaviours are changing to reflect a growing preoccupation with these new social and economic imperatives.

We need a new set of intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations, which recognise that people want to contribute to something greater than themselves and do stuff that matters.

Sure, not everyone is turning away wholesale from old-fashioned consumerism, but the middle class that became the engine of the 20th century consumer movement is changing what it cares about. Perhaps in part because it is better educated. In 1938-39 there were around 50,000 full-time university students in the whole of Great Britain, now there are 2.5 million and this rate of increase applies pretty much globally.

The rise in middle-class education doesn't eliminate the old ideology of looking out for number one first but it does help to counter it because those who have gone through schooling (and increasingly have access to new, digital media channels through which all kinds of information flows) acquire habits, beliefs and ideas which don't come to them purely though advertising or other traditional media.

There are signs that social change can help advertising to move from primarily consumerist to new motivations. The mood and situation are different. TED itself, of course, is partly an exercise in very successful marketing. It's extremely good at finding inspirational ways to package and deliver intellectual discussion in forms that will project, get noticed, and have an effect. And like advertising, which created new units of cultural transmission such as the 30-second TV spot, TED has even invented its own mimetic media format, the 18-minute talk, which it distributes online to 300,000 people a day.

- George Nimeh joint managing director, iris Digital

TED is a window on the world that we don't see through often enough and offers a wake-up call for the brain. Here are seven things that the ad industry can take away from it. Creativity comes from everywhere: The diversity of the TEDGlobal speakers is striking. Inventors, theorists, scientists, economists, musicians, and, yes, even an adman. Ask yourself who could join your team who would help discover unique solutions.

The importance of seeing the forest for the trees: One of my all-time favourite TEDsters is Stefan Sagmeister (a graphic designer). His 2004 "happiness" TED talk is legendary. He's a remarkable observer of life's rich pageant, and his talks are emblematic of both his creative prowess and his ability to see the big picture. Adland needs more big-picture thinking. We need more Sagmeisters.

The value of an active following: TED is more of a club than a conference. With different membership levels, members are passionate advocates whose involvement is encouraged. Check out the TED curator Chris Anderson's Twitter feed @TEDchris to see what I mean.

Doing digital right: From a shit-hot website, to subscription-based webcasts, to social media, TED understands that apart from being there, the best way to get people involved is through digital. There's a premium on user experience and design, along with an understanding that drip-fed unique content and functionality (what I like to call a "lots of little" strategy) is often better than trying to do everything at once.

Not everything that is of value can be seen: Echoing his inaugural address as the IPA president, Rory Sutherland described intangible value as the most sustainable form of value you can create. And of course, brands are intangible. They are ideas, and Rory emphasised that we're in the business of "creating ideas that turn human understanding into value".

The power of amazement and wonder: Watching Lydia Karvina play the theremin (a musical instrument that is played without touching it) showed that it is literally possible to make incredible things happen out of thin air. It was magical. We need to push for more briefs that ask for magic.

Do something: At the heart of inspiration is action, and TED is about people who do things. (Look up Emmanuel Jal.) Let's say less and do more: Stop telling people you have the best widget. Instead, create new ways for people to find out for themselves.

- Elspeth Lynn executive creative director, Profero

Apart from the big question I had which was "what can I do to make the world a better place?", my next question was "why are there not more ad people here?" After all, this is an ideas conference.

The common thread from the speakers was that they spoke about ideas and how they might benefit our society.

Many of them were future thinkers, concerned about the planet and how we'll live on this planet five, 15 and 50 years from now.

There was definitely an altruistic nature with this bunch. So much so that I came out of TED not only with my brain jammed with new information and ideas but the desire to do something for the greater good. And for all of us in advertising, a profession about ideas, let's put our brains to better use by coming up with ideas that sell products and help people, our culture, and the planet.

Some of us already do that but we could certainly do it more often. And we could do it in many more ways.

What I do know is that TEDGlobal fed my brain and opened my heart to what the world could be, not what it is. And that is beneficial no matter what you do for a living.

- Rory Sutherland vice-chairman, Ogilvy Group UK

If you are a bit curmudgeonly like me, it would be quite easy to dislike TED. The rare combination of immense intelligence, high net- worth and earnestly good intentions found among its participants might prove too rich a mixture for those of us who tend to be sceptical about claims to be acting for the public good. As Adam Smith observed: "Virtue is more to be feared than vice, since it is not subject to the regulations of conscience."

But in the end I loved it. Why? Well, let's give the participants their due. Hedge fund managers or bankers who have already made £17 million go to expensive conferences, too, but they go to find out how to make another £17 million. Here the people want to put something back. And this is a very Libertarian form of do-gooding, which works simply by planting ideas and seeing what grows - it is generous with its suggestions, not with its prescriptions.

Most of all I loved it because, even though it took place in Oxford, it was a four-day holiday in California without the ten-hour flights. Wherever the people came from - and they were from all over the world - there was a West Coast approach to their thinking which I love: optimistic, egalitarian, open, generous, counter-intuitive, friendly.

I realised what an unhappy accident it is that the worldwide ad industry finds itself headquartered in New York not San Jose: that it seems to have taken its influences more from the garment industry than the software industry.

All the same, it was good to meet a few adland folk there. The splendid Michael Rebelo and Richard Huntington from Saatchis. And the delightful David Halter from Loud in Sydney who had won his trip as an agency prize.

If agencies are to reinvent themselves as problem-solving entities rather than as the makers of very short films, we need a larger turnout next year.

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