Thursday, June 4, 2009

CaT...a tonic!

On Tuesday evening I was talking with a couple of friends and, unsurprisingly, the subject turned to the economy. More particularly, how do we know if we have hit the bottom and we are on the road to recovery? When will the stock market, the housing market, unemployment, retail spend, general confidence rebound?

I am sad to report that I don’t have a conclusive answer – although we certainly did our best to give a boost to the winemaking industry.

I was able to wake up the next morning (a good start) and I debated whether or not to buy a ticket to the CaT conference – a conference being hosted that day by Creativity magazine that focused on emerging technology and its use in the creative industry. I thought that the general idea of the conference was great, but in my field we already merge quite a bit of new technology into our creative work so I didn’t know how much I would get out of the event. I sprang (ahem!) out of bed after deciding that I couldn’t possibly go. There was no way I could excuse myself from the office for an entire day, too busy, totally irreplaceable, etc, blah.

At work I checked Facebook and got my daily fix of Charles Day’s blog: General Misconception.

It told a story of a company who had missed the innovation curve in the industry. They had lost sight of what it was that their customers wanted and they had believed that their brand alone could lead to continued success. Hmmm. It was only 10.30; I wouldn’t have missed much of the conference. I had another coffee.

After a viewing a few baby pictures and the fifteenth link to ‘Cassetteboy vs The Bloody Apprentice’ I saw that my friend, Kat Egan, was posting from the conference: “At the CaT's doing what a good conference should do...opening up the brain and new possibilities”.

Kat is one of those people who are listened to when they speak. As a partner at Exopolis she has helped to completely restructure the company so that it is relevant to her clients needs. She has not done this as a knee-jerk reaction to shrinking budgets, but as a deliberate strategy over the last decade. And if somebody like Kat was finding inspiration at the conference, I should be there finding inspiration as well. I headed up for the afternoon session and paid the $425 (earlier thinking would have saved a lot of that money) in order to attend the second half of the conference. A number of things instantly struck me:

  • The caliber of the attendees was extremely high.
  • The spirit of optimism and positivity that came off the podium and infused the audience was one of the most genuinely exciting things I have witnessed in a long time.
  • I didn’t understand one word of an entire section about Information Visualisation.
  • Most of the speakers were racing through their talks at breakneck speed because they had so much to convey in such a short space of time.

That latter point has as much to do with the huge technological developments that are changing our industry as it has to do with the economy. This show was originally conceived of as a two-day show but they thought that the costs involved for an inaugural two-day conference would be difficult to cover and the event was reduced to one day. I hope that the organizers more than covered their costs and that CaT will expand to two days next year.

The event was a breath of fresh air. I have no desire to spend any more time at conferences discussing the death of the 30 second commercial or how to survive when clients are asking you to do more for less. For a start, very few people are actually honest about the major issues because that would involve possibly upsetting a client or potential client. Secondly, traditional conferences can sometimes waste too much time discussing how to wring out a bit more from an old model. Yesterday, I was faced with many familiar faces from the industry but there was a totally unfamiliar sense of excitement about what we were hearing. We were shown by the presenters Facebook games, peer to peer multi-platform pranks, interactive augmented reality, a Radiohead music ‘video’ for House of Cards with an innovative use of scan data and the next phase of i-phone apps. We were lucky enough to hear a talk from Raven Zachary, who directed the launch of the i-phone app ‘Obama 08 for Obama America’. While each demonstration offered a new exciting way of getting a message across each also had a brand clearly (and often cleverly) associated with it. It was one of the clearest indications I have had that brands are beginning to understand how they can use this technology to build and expand their brand and message. Not only were the brands never subjugated at the expense of technology, but also the very people who were helping to develop ideas (and overcome the technological challenges) had a responsibility far beyond the delivery.

It was inspiring to see such a simplicity of business model. Many of those giving talks and demonstrations had started their own businesses and were working directly with clients in order to provide them with something fresh, innovative and relevant. The simplicity of this model, the clarity of the vision and the belief in the idea more than offsets the complexity of the coding and the difficulty of describing - and then selling to the client - something that has never been seen before.

Towards the end of the afternoon I bumped into both Charles and Kat and introduced them to each other. I explained how the two of them had inadvertently helped me make the decision that I should attend the conference. I also pointed out that I should take great credit for embracing the new (okay, newish) technologies of social networking that had enabled me to receive their messages. My day, and possibly my future, was altered by receiving these messages from a platform of distribution which was now relevant in my daily life.

The conference did not exactly answer all my questions from the night before. I still didn’t know when the economy will rebound. But as I walked out of the conference I experienced that clear-headedness for the first time in a long while as a great cloud lifted….and I also felt enlightened by the conference. I might not know precisely when the economy will turn around but, after experiencing an afternoon of such inspiration and ingenuity, I know it eventually will.