The battle of big thinking

With speakers allowed just 15 minutes' 'airtime' to impress the audience and win votes, the APG's Malcolm White reveals why The X Factor helped to turn the conference format on its head.

What happens when the biggest brains in marketing and communications go head to head?

Last week at the Natural History Museum, the Account Planning Group and Campaign invited the leading lights of marketing, media, research, planning, new media, communications and branding to fight it out in front of a standing-room-only audience of more than 200 planners, media people and marketers. Who would be named the biggest thinker in their field? Who would take on all-comers and be left standing atop a Golgotha of limbs and brains as the APG 2006 biggest thinker of them all?

So what happened? Bloody slaughter? Maybe. Definitely tears and tantrums. Certainly bruised and wounded pride. Actually, the surprise of the event was the sparks. Not of anger, but of inspiration: the event was a fantastic mix of provocation, new ideas, neat and nickable observations served up in a great mixture of presentations and performance by all the speakers.

This being the 21st century, you don't have to take my word for it. The blogosphere is humming with what the speakers and the audience thought of the event. Here's just a selection: "By far the best conference I have attended or participated in"; "Really enjoyed it. Classy. Learned lots" and "Relished the complete and utter humiliation of taking part".

Feel free to join in at: www.theapg.typepad.com/battleofbigthinking.

The reason for all this blog-electricity is that we created a different type of event. Maybe it's just a personal thing, but I'd had my fill of the traditional conference circuit. As a member of too many conference audiences than I care to remember, I was fed up with the interminable sales pitches, with the narrow themes (How to market financial services to four-and-a-half- year-olds, anyone?) and with sitting on my hands, avoiding eye-contact when that inevitable call came for questions from the floor.

As a conference speaker in the past, the monologue, not dialogue, with the audience seemed like a pretty unsatisfactory way to carry on. So I set out to create an event that changed all this. I suppose the Battle Of Big Thinking was technically a "conference", but that's like saying The X Factor is just a Saturday evening light entertainment programme. Just as that sort of show has changed the Saturday evening TV landscape forever, I really hope the Battle Of Big Thinking may well have changed the landscape of business-type conferences for good.

Talk of shows such as The X Factor is especially relevant to the Battle Of Big Thinking, because the winners were decided by an audience vote. Instead of the interminable 45-minute slots speakers usually get at conferences, I thought it would be interesting to give the speakers just 15 minutes to put their case - more like an audition than a presentation.

Instead of a narrow theme, we cast the net wider and the bar higher by asking speakers simply to "wow the audience" with their big thinking: what they thought was different, exciting, important and perhaps new in their fields. And instead of inviting six speakers, we recruited 21 speakers to have a crack.

Each was put into individual mini heats that reflected their fame and talent. Noticeably, most of these famous, talented and successful speakers approached their audition for Big Thinking greatness with some trepidation, just like it was ... well ... an audition. First up was Simon Thompson of Motorola and Honda fame, versus Greg Nugent of Eurostar in the Big Marketing Thinking skirmish. Thompson reminded us, with the aid of video that left not a dry eye in the house, that however much we like to pack our marketing presentations with data demonstrating exponential change in almost every walk of life, nothing has really changed. This is because we are human and because we are driven by our emotions.

Jonathan Durden of PHD (up against Ivan Pollard of Naked and Marie Oldham of Media Planning Group in the Big Media Thinking heat) changed the tone of the event by talking passionately about how the media industry hasn't got a clue about what big media thinking is - especially worrying in an era when "consumers are sat-naving their own way to what they want to see". Perhaps, to younger media planners, Durden's status as one of the fathers of creative media planning makes him a media dinosaur. But for him, it's the industry that's the dinosaur, trying to evolve longer arms like Tyrannosaurus Rex when, in fact, it should be trying to work out the media equivalent of how to knit thermal underwear as a media ice age looms.

The breadth of approaches in the Big Research Thinking heat was to be expected, given the broad church of approaches and disciplines represented by Gordon Pincott of Millward Brown, Roy Langmaid of Promise, Justin Gibbons of Work and Chris Forrest of The Nursery. Langmaid demonstrated his thesis that qualitative research doesn't have to rely on peering at consumers through one-way mirrors, by researching the audience, and asking: "What would be your concern if you were up here doing what I'm doing now?" (Answer: "Worrying about making a fool of myself in front of my peers, because it's much worse making a fool of yourself in front of your peers than it is in front of your clients.") Langmaid's big thought? Researchers don't have big ideas, but they mustn't forget that they do need to make unreasonable requests of the people they are investigating.

Gibbons presented qualitative research not just as a way of researching integrated communications, but as a way of achieving integration. That is, if research changes, because at the moment it isn't helping: researchers are running to the till data and planners are scurrying to the focus groups and, never the twain shall meet. At the moment, at least.

Then, after lunch (yes, we were still only halfway through the day at this point - how's that for great value?), Jim Carroll of Bartle Bogle Hegarty took on Russell Davies of the Open Intelligence Agency in the Big Planning Thinking bout. Carroll's big planning thinking was that too many brands these days have forgotten that they still have to seduce if they are to compete and win. They can't just leave it up to more confident and powerful consumers to make the first move. Seduction can't happen at the same pace it used to; it needs to be speeded up, connected and quick. John Owen of Dare, Andrew Walmsley of i-level and Mark Cridge of glue London contested the Big New Media session. Walmsley revealed the scale and prevalence of consumers adopting virtual personalities online; consumers these days are sometimes neither who they say they are nor who you think they are. That has to be a challenge for the marketing and communications industries.

In the next session - Big Thinking from Communications Agencies - both Nick Hastings of Krow and Chris Clarke of Nitro tackled the subject of communications agencies needing to change if they are to prosper in the modern world. Both had slightly different answers: Hastings' focused on the process agencies typically follow, suggesting an alternative which umbilically linked execution to a client's business outcome and which he called "working backwards". Clarke's conclusion was that the key to our future is found in our past. Specifically, in the example of greats such as Leo Burnett and Bill Bernbach, who were true creative business partners to their clients.

In the final event, Helen Edwards and Derek Day of Passionbrand, Moray Mac-Lennan of M&C Saatchi, and Andy Milligan of Interbrand debated who was the biggest brand thinker. MacLennan's entertaining introduction to how the brain works (complete with a lifelike brain placed on the table in front of him) concluded with comparing M&C's new one-word equity approach to brand development, and its culmination in a one-word summary, to "having a good clear-out in a cupboard at home".

Each of these individual heats produced a winner (see box). Then, all the winners went head to head again when the audience voted on who should be crowned the APG 2006 Biggest Thinker of them all.

For his combination of style, substance and just a touch of sycophancy (playing a 60-second homage to great planners, many of whom were in the room armed with a voting console), Russell Davies was a worthy Winner of the Winners. His observation that the stuff planners can do has never been more valuable to a broad range of creative industries, and not just advertising, struck a chord with the audience. For planning to capitalise on these new opportunities, its practitioners have to behave less like the boffin stereotype, and more like the "ronin", the masterless samurai-for-hire in feudal Japan. Clint Eastwood's man with no name is a ronin with a fantastic Ennio Morricone soundtrack (what Davies may or may not have realised is that the term is used in modern Japan to describe those who fail to get into university). But his big point was that we should stop being self-deprecating about planning, and that planners need to appreciate that they, not creative directors, are the future of communications. As Freddie Mercury sang in the video that Davies played out with: "We are the champions."

All of the speakers found the broad subject of big thinking inspiring and the 15 minutes of fame liberating, rather than paralysing. I really believe all conferences should work this way. I even wonder whether all of us might benefit from making 15 minutes the new standard for all presentations. However, what really struck me most about the Battle Of Big Thinking was how engaged the audience was in the event. It, therefore, seems appropriate to leave the last words to a member of the audience who blogged his views soon after the event:

"Outstanding conference. I loved the voting. Not for the act of finding a winner, but because it transferred the power from the speakers to the delegates. As far as I know, this is the first conference that has achieved this. And I am guessing, but I reckon it got the speakers to raise their games with real variety in the styles of presentation."

As far as I'm concerned, that's job done.

- Malcolm White is the chairman of the APG and a co-founder of Krow.


APG 2006 Biggest thinker of them all and big planning thinker: Russell Davies, the Open Intelligence Agency

Planners are the champions in the new communications world order. Sing it loud and proud: we are the champions!

- Big Marketing thinker: Greg Nugent, Eurostar

Marketing can save the world if we start thinking about food miles rather than just air miles, if we attack unecessary packaging and think of airline travel as the "new smoking".

- Big Media thinker: Ivan Pollard, Naked

Transmedia planning (or propagation planning) is the future. It is not the media themselves, but how the message floats around and travels that is important.

- Big Research thinker: Chris Forrest, The Nursery

All the big ideas have been had. "Marketing science" in the form of those terrible brand onions is so reductive that it's destructive. Be cool. Be energetic. Be inventive.

- Big New Media thinker: Mark Cridge, glue London

Marketing got us into this mess of over-production and over-consumption. Maybe digital can get us out of it.

- Big thinker from communications agencies: Trevor Beattie, Beattie McGuinness Bungay

Big Thinking, big schminking. Big ideas are intimidating: for clients and for the people who are charged with coming up with them. Worry about the little things because if every little helps, then every big hinders.

- Big Brand thinkers: Derek Day and Helen Edwards, Passionbrand

Stop trying to find better answers to the same old questions. Why not ask a better, different set of questions?