The Structure Dilemma

Are you a Diamond or Graphite?

Clue? You could be either. It's all a matter of organisation.

The world of high growth tech start-ups typically revolves around speed and deft execution. Every day is an ongoing race to do things bigger and better; a day can blur into a week which blurs into a month, the only constant factor being change: product shipping, new team members joining (11 for us the other week!) and new offices opening. A break might consist of a meeting conducted over a brisk walk around the block, twice if you need to discuss something in detail. Juxtaposed against this permanent state of acceleration, Stream, with its no fixed schedule and anarchic approach, seemed both mysterious and alluring.

I am not the typical start-up employee. I have adopted the start-up mentality as a way of life but, in the beginning, its fluctuating dynamics were foreign to me. I joined Percolate from Sotheby's, the esteemed auction house and the oldest company traded on the NYSE. Naturally, it is a place deeply entrenched in tradition, and it is a very well-oiled machine. I worked in the Watches and Clocks department, where I spent my days with objects that were often several hundred years old, ranging from complex Patek Philippe watches similar to this one just sold last week, to vintage Rolexes, to utterly charming 19th century automatons, like this Ethiopian Caterpillar.

When I arrived at Percolate, it was clear from the beginning that not only was rapid change a way of life for us internally, the media landscape was also changing dramatically. As I spent day after day sitting with clients and agency partners listening to their challenges in this evolving new world, everybody acutely felt the challenges that social and mobile had introduced to their marketing efforts in some way, shape or form. All of us in the industry are well aware that these factors have extraordinary, and difficult, implications for marketing, largely because the operational infrastructure that exists today does not support either this type of scale or pace of production and distribution.

At Sotheby's, when I was confronted with a problem, I had all the best restorers, herpetologists and ornithologists on speed dial to fix any problems that arose, no matter how rare or obscure. If I needed to identify a single feather on a 200 year old object, I knew who to call. Unfortunately, no such Rolodex existed in this brave new world. To be clear, there were many experts in marketing, in digital, in branding, and so on, but there was no roster of tried and true experts, in the sense that we were all contending with a very new landscape. We were watching the merging of two previously separate disciplines: marketing and technology, and the challenges we encountered simply hadn't existed before.

My most memorable and fruitful conversations with clients and agency partners in this context always revolved around the resulting new challenges; they often lingered on difficult questions with no clear answers, and they were always stimulating and thought provoking. I often wished that I could spend the entirety of these meetings only discussing these issues. They seemed to warrant much more time than simply the first 15 minutes of a meeting. To think of these challenges as merely context seemed to be a massive understatement to me.

I wasn't sure what to expect of Stream, but I knew in advance that there was something irresistible about its dialectical format, especially given it would take place in the birthplace of dialectics: Greece. My inner nerd was completely thrilled just hearing about this. Of course, I was also very curious having seen the attendee list, which drew from across a wide span of industries and roles. However, industry conferences often give me reason to hesitate, as I find those worthwhile attending are few and far between. Too often, keynote addresses can drag on as speakers on the conference circuit rehash presentations given multiple times at other conferences, and conversations are harried with everybody hurrying to exchange as many business cards as possible.

Set aside the fact that there are no keynote presentations at Stream, and conventional powerpoints are in fact banned - what I quickly came to realize about Stream, additionally, was that it broke down a series of barriers, making it a very different conference experience, namely because:

  1. Conversations are off the record
  2. For better or worse, you are confined to a geographically limited space for an extended period of time
  3. Hierarchy is deconstructed with anybody hosting a discussion on any topic

Moreover, the environment is designed for chemistry. The existence of only one coffee bar means that chance encounters are highly likely in the afternoon when jet lag kicks in. Communal dining means that somebody (anybody) could sit down next to you during lunch or dinner. These often yielded the best and most unexpected of conversations.

The attendees of Stream, of course, are vital to this chemistry. I read an interesting blurb tucked into the back pages of the FT last week which referenced the research of Yale sociologist Professor Nicholas Christakis, who studies how people interact when they come together in groups. He uses an analogy to compare graphite to diamonds, thinking of humans as metaphorical carbon atoms, who can come together to form either substance, depending on how they are arranged.

This insight cast light onto what I found to be the most remarkable aspect of Stream - that somehow, the Stream team had assembled a group of people, who when they came together, formed not merely a common substance like graphite, but something much rarer and brilliant, akin to a diamond. My initial inclinations around that attendee list were right on target; some of us may never have crossed paths outside of Stream, and most of us would never have wound up in the same place all at once, otherwise.

There were a number of conversations about talent at Stream, but what wasn't addressed was that while attracting and retaining talent when it comes to individuals is certainly a tough challenge, constructing groups and building teams to collaborate and work effectively together is perhaps even more difficult, and I would argue, even more important. As marketing merges with technology, it becomes increasingly important to collaborate across these disciplines that were once separate.

The constant change which defines our industry today also requires constant creativity to deal with its ever evolving set of challenges. For the mind to contend with the unknown, it can benefit from the removal of parameters. What if there were no established way of doing things? What if you could discuss anything? What if you could create anything? I think of our annual hackdays at Percolate where the business and product teams come together to dream up new ideas and products, temporarily removed from any firm roadmap or client requests, and the unexpected, brilliant ideas that always emerge from it. Stream, similarly, was a unique environment, devoid for rules, for precisely this type of open ended discussion so important to navigating the difficult challenges we face today as an industry. I attribute its success to the chemistry and environment so thoughtfully constructed by the Stream team, not only in terms of format, but in terms of the group dynamics that would take shape over the weekend - it was no small feat.

Thank you, Martin and Yossi, for inviting me. I hope you'll invite me again!