For some reason I don’t question too hard, I have been lucky enough to be invited to WPP’s annual “unconference” Stream for 10 years.
For those who haven’t experienced an “unconference” before, it is a conference with a structure but no content ahead of time. The content is volunteered and led by the participants, in the form of discussions, workshops, talks, a talent show, a pitch contest, a Stream band, a bonfire/chair-stacking content, a gadgethon, etc.
WPP has been running its version of the unconference – Stream – for 12 years, and I started going in 2008. It was perplexing to me why I was invited then, as I have nothing to do with WPP. But as it turns out, the people curation is very deliberately looking for a balance of WPP Group employees, WPP’s brand clients and partners, and random technologists, artists, social entrepreneurs, anthropologists, startup community, and other innovative or creative souls. It makes for an incredibly diverse, stimulating, and enlightening few days.
I described Stream this year in my feedback form as “Predictably unpredictable”, which is a perfect description. Each year, it is exactly the same, yet each year is totally different. This paradox is at the heart of why it is my favourite event each year: it feels like home, yet always surprises me.
Firstly, it is always at the Golden Coast resort in Marathon, Greece, an hour out of Athens. It has quite basic accommodation, but in a beautiful setting right on the sea surrounded by mountains, and even in late October, the weather is warm and fresh. It is wonderfully set up for this kind of event, as it has lots of nooks and crannies yet is still each to accidentally encounter people as you walk between sessions. Sessions are conducted in little tents on the lawn by the beach, which is just blissful. A lot of people – particularly senior executives coming for the first time – are shocked at how “Club Med” it all feels, but for seasoned Streamers, it is part of its essential charm: Stream equalises everyone, and makes the event about the people and the discussion, not about the glamour and the room quality.
Secondly, there is a fixed structure every year (with very minor tweaks year to year): two big whiteboards are erected at the start of the weekend, and people write in what talks/discussions they would like to run. You can see the boards from this weekend here:
There is always a talent show (called the Extravaganza!), always a set of Ignite talks, always a Midnight Cooking Madness (guests cook dishes at midnight, obviously), always a Pitch contest, always a talk by the WPP CEO, etc. However, despite this strict structure, or probably *because* of it, creativity flourishes, and I’ve been to odd and fascinating talks on how organic equations can be represented by dance (yes, really), future cities, systems thinking, Chinese sci-fi books, story-telling in business, and so much more.
And then there is the people… Stream is curated so there are 80% of new people each year, and they do a great job of bringing diversity of gender, race, age, background, nationalities, employers, and more. You can literally turn to anyone all weekend, start talking, and find yourself an hour later entranced because they are so fascinating. Just this weekend, I met a former No 10 Special Advisor, a museum curator, a virtual reality specialist, a disabled persons activist, a specialist in regenerative soil systems, a maths writer, a leader in startup incubators, an actual Iron Man who invented a jetpack, and so many more. And everyone is buoyant, open, and vulnerable.
I prepared a workshop called “Ikigai and other models for working out what’s next and best for you”. I’ll write about it in a separate post… but it was a session on how I’ve spent the last 7 months post-Skimlinks exploring my curiosity and intuition, to find a deeper purpose and life mission, and the retrospective model I created to frame my analysis. The participants then worked through the model themselves, leading to all sorts of interesting discussions and revelations. All this while sitting on the beach by the Aegean sea.
Each year at Stream, there seems to be a general theme or vibe, gleaned from the discussions on the whiteboards and what is going on globally. Last year’s was very pessimistic: lots of how AI was going to destroy humanity and GDPR was going to end the world. This year was much more positive: lots of talks on sustainability and female empowerment.
It was also the first Stream since Sir Martin Sorrell stepped down as CEO after 33 years at the helm. Mark Read is the new CEO, and having met him many times over the years, I am delighted he got the job. His fireside chat at Stream this year was representative of why I think he’ll be incredible: he is humble, collaborative, pragmatic… less showman and more practically innovative.
I am typing this at Athens airport, very tired after lots of late nights dancing and drinking and chatting and learning, but blissfully happy and deeply grateful. I have new friends, new business contacts, new understandings, and a few extra pounds (damn that tasty smorgasbord!). Now to put it all into action, and turn my life plans into reality.