It was called the Brave Conference but that wasn’t the only theme to emerge from this fascinating Marketing Society event.
Passion, collaboration, boldness, togetherness, diversity - all emerged as critical subtexts of the day-long conference at London’s Science Museum.
Lyrical Essex poet Hussain Manawer opened up and knocked us off course, with a stirring tale of facing fear, feeling - and then overcoming - negative energy to achieve the overwhelmingly positive. And the sessions that followed explored how we can all be brave enough to do just that.
Hosted by BBC journalist Tina Daheley and introduced by Marketing Society chief executive, Gemma Greaves, it began with psychologist and author Dr Emma Barrett urging people to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. Fear in itself is not a bad thing and can perform a useful function, she said, but it can stop us achieving our goals if it is not kept in check.
There is nothing like being told that something is impossible to encourage you to achieve your goal, she added.
And who better to talk about achieving extraordinary ambitions than mountain climber Raha Moharrak, the first Saudi woman to climb to the summit of Mount Everest and the youngest Arab person to achieve that feat.
It wasn’t just a physical challenge for Raha but a battle against family, society and gender norms.
Her story, she explained, began with a simple two-letter word: ‘No.’ But Raha did it anyway. ‘All I wanted was to prove I could do it,’ she told the conference. ‘Your dreams are not too far to reach.’
Like Raha, Syl Saller, the Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer for Diageo, found inspiration from being told that something was impossible. In her case it was developing and then delivering against an almost mythical £1bn innovation plan.
Syl told the audience that growth begins outside your comfort zone, and she urged people to ‘ignore the little voice inside your head’. Her message was about the ‘we’ rather than the ‘I’ and the power of a good team, and role models who make ‘courage contagious’. She said too many brands are internally focused and had to be brave in order to grow.
Andrew Clarke, Chief Marketing and Customer Officer for Mars, said people could challenge industry orthodoxies and be braver by selflessly collaborating more and controlling less, putting trust in teams and data, and by looking beyond the brand to the society in which we live.
Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the British Trades Union Congress talked about being brave at work - not just firefighters and frontline emergency staff but the courage shown by people who stand up to bullying and sexual harassment, campaign against unacceptable working conditions and for what they believe in.
She said brands had to think about how their values play out, not just when it comes to customers but their staff as well, a theme that was echoed throughout the day.
And the stories from luminaries kept on coming: from a BAFTA award winning filmmaker to the Californian surfer of the world’s biggest wave. So what can a big wave surfer tell us? That fear is very close to excitement. You can choose to feel fear, or not. And that when you’ve tired of big wave surfing, a future bartering organic kale on the West Coast is an equally thrilling adrenaline rush, to a quiet family man.
Provocative and far more diverse than last year, the Marketing Society responded well to criticism of the previous speaker line-up. In short, as marketing conferences go, it was, well…brave.
This review was by Bart Michels, Global CEO, Kantar Added Value and Country Leader, Kantar UK. You can follow him @BartAMichels