The essential Zeitgeist: 8 highlights from Google's flagship event

The two-day gig that is the Zeitgeist conference, held last week in Hertfordshire, tends to set the agenda in digital marketing for the next 12 months - or even 30 years, given that one of the questions put to Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt was 'What will the world look like in 2040?'

Zeitgeist: 'Great minds of our time'
Zeitgeist: 'Great minds of our time'

Needless to say, even Google doesn't have the answer to that query. There were however, several points worth noting at Zeitgeist 2011.

In the age of the web, the government wants to be Alpha government

In his opening keynote address, UK Chancellor George Osborne gave an insight into the future of government's digital communications. 'All our public-service reforms will be digital by default, and ministers will have to justify why anything can't be digital by default and has to be done through conventional channels,' said Osborne. He pointed to Alpha.gov.uk, a bold experiment in delivering digital services that is definitely worth checking out.

Retail should revolve around ecommerce

Angela Ahrendts, chief executive of fashion house Burberry, said that digital has revolutionised the brand's approach. 'We said to the IT guys that they've been doing a good job at the back of the bus, but I need someone to help drive the bus ...we (now) have a million people a week go on to our website from all over the world. So if that's the front door of the house and more people are doing that than are visiting anything physical, shouldn't we make sure everything is geared around that?' Bus and house analogies aside, Ahrendts makes a salient point.

We have seen only the start of digital's impact

'We have not seen half or even 10% of the change that will happen,' said Publicis Groupe chief executive and chairman Maurice Levy, referring to the digital revolution. 'There are a lot of people that read the papers and not the web. We have a lot of people that are dramatically changing the way they are learning, shopping - even getting married. These people are changing the world and we are very far from seeing what will happen and the impact of everything.'

Brands can relieve poverty

Dame Barbara Stocking, chief executive of aid and development charity Oxfam GB, held Unilever up as a beacon to other brands. 'Unilever is buying up vegetables out of supply chains for its Knorr stock cubes,' she said. 'Now, we've got a five-year arrangement with them in Azerbaijan ...That's fantastic for the poor farmers because they have a guaranteed contract and that's what they're looking for.' The result is the alleviating of poverty and something that Unilever can be proud of.

Musicians can teach brands lessons in advocacy

Speaking about Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's Gorillaz project, Dan Duncombe, vice-president of digital at EMI, said some artists are pioneering online marketing. 'We know that outside of the artist being our best advertising, fans are our biggest advocates and we use that fan advocacy to extend the idea of that artist and their creativity. So through social-media mechanics, we turn two fans into four and four into eight, giving incentives, content, points - and points mean prizes and bigger opportunities,' he said.

Digital is not all good

'One of the unfortunate byproducts of the digital revolution is that our ability to process and communicate that which is numerical, sequential, rational, proportionate and intuitive, has leapt ahead of our real understanding of human psychology and human nature,' argued Ogilvy Group executive creative director and vice-chairman Rory Sutherland. 'So there is a kind of imbalance that's created, which, in many cases, leads to inefficiency in the value creation that businesses can actually achieve.'

YouTube's 'Life in a Day' shows the potential of online video

Film director Kevin MacDonald explained that YouTube's 'Life in a Day' project, the creation of a feature film from videos submitted by users around the world, points to a new way of storytelling and entertaining. 'We ended up with the idea that on a single day, we'd invite people to film their lives and answer a few simple questions. What do you love? What do you fear? And what do you have in your pockets? We had 81,000 submissions from 191 countries and 5000 hours of material.'

Self-drive cars

At any Google conference there is the obligatory 'out there' project. Last year the search giant wowed the audience with its impressive development of Google Translate. This year the star project involved 'self-drive cars'. This is not a theory, it is a reality. The only question is, which will be the first car brand to get involved and lead the way?