Google has greater claims than most when it comes to embracing the zeitgeist. And the marketing for its annual London event promised a gathering of Google leadership, business leaders and thought leaders to "share personal insights into the rapidly changing world".
FROM RELIGION TO POLITICS
The line-up was pretty impressive: keynotes from Archbishop Desmond Tutu on day one and Mayor Boris Johnson on day two were both absorbing, but were also vastly different, very personal and only loosely connected to the Google or media world.
But at least the two of them set the tone for each day and set the bar high for the other speakers. Tutu leapt around subject-wise, but engagingly so. We learned he did not have a Facebook page and that, in his view, daily interactions with people face to face remain vital for how a humane human race should exist. Understand others and be true to yourself. Be authentic, but considerate. Heavy stuff. Not lightened when Rupert Day, the chief operating officer of Group M, asked what Barack Obama had to do to earn his Nobel Peace Prize and Tutu answered: "Solve the Middle East." And all before 10am on a Monday.
Boris was a delight to listen to. Entirely comfortable in joshing us "Googlers" (sorry, you can't help but start using Boris-speak after listening to him), and anyone who thinks he's a bumbling idiot, be warned: he is furiously bright and charming, so underestimate him at your peril. I'm not sure he spoke much about digital advances, but quite a lot about the scholarly classics, the history of the Thames and how fantastic 2012 was going to be for London. So, on-brief from his point of view, if not quite Google's.
CONVERTING TO STARBUCKS
All the main speakers were impressive but one of the highlights was Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, who finally made me like Starbucks after years of waging my own personal campaign against it (not that it had seemed to notice). It really does have better CSR credentials than most and, unlike 99 per cent of US companies (before the recent healthcare legislation at least), provides healthcare as mandatory for all employees - making it the biggest cost on its balance sheet.
COOKIES ARE FOR SHARING
My two favourite sessions, though, were those that had real debate and challenge. The first was themed "The power of data" and was always going to be contentious as it is the focus of the biggest debate right now for digital media.
Leading the charge for more sharing of data was Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, who envisages a world with almost every piece of government data being openly available for use online. His vision is for the web to maximise "linking data" to create augmented reality constructed from real data points. Sir Tim is clearly a man so intelligent that he at times can't get out all the words he wants to say in the most considered manner. So his enthusiasm for a world of fully linked, freely available data almost compelled Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, to combust on the spot.
He did say at one stage he meant data that is not personally identifiable, but that got lost in his overall enthusiasm, and so created a long debate on sensitivity of data.
THE ETHICS OF TARGETING
Chakrabarti's argument was essentially "We can, but should we?" and built on a broader theme of where ethics and business begin to rub. Add into that the fact that so many people now voluntarily put all kinds of personal information online without realising the data depth they are supplying to people like us, and you have further complication.
Behavioural targeting is used by most marketers, but understood by few consumers. We collect data and we use it arguably to enhance online experiences and provide more relevant messages and services (more efficiently for clients). This is not that different to what we've always tried to do in other forms of marketing communications, but with online and the explosion of trackable data, of course, this becomes much easier, richer and more precise. As Ben Verwaayen, the former BT chief executive who is now boss of Alcatel-Lucent, said, perhaps we should be "not asking for permission and instead for forgiveness".
THE HAPPINESS FACTORY
And it was Verwaayen who really made the second of my favourite sessions. Less intellectual debate, but what a ding-dong. He played the role of incredulous business grandee, placing Tony Hsieh (the founder of Zappos and author of Delivering Happiness) in the role of naive new-age optimist.
Hsieh's zealot belief in how his company's values created a happy culture and his assertion that it hired and fired on the basis of these values was dismissed "a perfect world", choosing to hire based on uniformity, so hiring "what you see and like in the mirror". People clapped when Verwaayen pointed out this is impossible when you run an international company with 70,000 employees.
THE SECRETS OF SUCCESS
So, overall, the content was incredibly varied and it was a privilege to attend. A chance to take a step back, listen intently, meet interesting people and, of course, network furiously. As a first-time attendee, I was excited to have made the list. From an attendance perspective, I'd have two observations: a very low proportion of women and low numbers of agency folk. I suspect the former is endemic of the technology world in general and the latter, one might argue playfully, indicative of the value Google places on inviting agencies versus clients.
On a personal level, I learned that leadership is increasingly important, as is setting the emotional tone for a company: that how you behave is as relevant as what you say. And being authentic in what you say and how you relate to others matters more than ever.
It was a diverse group of speakers. Sir John Hegarty described in his session that the truth of successful communication is "inspiring customers to come to you, and have a dialogue", and that "truth is not enough, make it interesting". Google Zeitgeist delivered both.
- Lindsay Weedon is the chief executive of Maxus UK.