This article was originally posted on my blog Wantrepreneur on 17 October, 2016
In October 2016, I won a wildcard place at the WPP stream2016 in Athens.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the name (like me until recently), WPP is the world’s largest advertising agency, and Stream is their unconference. It takes place in 10 different locations around the world each year and is invitation only. It’s attended by future leaders, influential and high profile people related to the digital media, future technologies, and advertising world.
The event I attended was in the town of Marathon, just outside Athens, and my prize included attendance at the unconference, three nights in the conference hotel, airport transfers, food and drink, and access to all the facilities. The only thing I had to pay for was my flight to Athens.
For anyone unfamiliar with the concept of an unconference, it’s basically the opposite of a conference. There’s no structure, no agenda and no brief. It’s entirely down to the people attending to create the agenda themselves, mould the event to their interests and expertise, and participate as fully as they can.
This creates an atmosphere where people can react and discuss in depth some of the issues our society faces at an up-to-the-minute pace. The agenda can be influenced by things by social change, politics, ecomonics, geography, weather, and there can be discussions on specific or niche areas of personal interest or expertise. Discussions can be academic, silly, intuitive, idealistic, rational, compassionate, you name it. It’s entirely in the hands of those attending.
So what's a wildcard?
For those of you who are familiar with my blog, you’ll know that I recently quit my job in the corporate world to start my own business, Wizzbox, so I’m no longer strictly part of the heavy hitting digital publishing glitterati. So I got a place through Stream’s wildcard process. I applied, and was amazed to find out a few weeks later that my application had been accepted. I was, of course, thrilled, but also more than a little nervous.
I was nervous to go alone, especially once I saw the guestlist. There are some seriously high profile attendees at these events, some super influential companies, some famous, as well as truly inspirational and ambitious startup organizations, and all-round massively smart thinkers. I thought briefly about chickening out and not going, but even whilst that crossed my mind, I knew it would be a massive missed opportunity to not go, and I felt there was a lot I could contribute, and a different perspective I could offer.
It’s perfectly natural, however, to be nervous about going to an event like this, especially as it was only the second time I was representing my new startup in a professional setting. Once I got there, I discovered I wasn't the only one who was nervous about attending.
So how did I feel about attending?
I have to confess though, even though I knew it would be a great opportunity, a part of me was skeptical about just how informal and unconferency the event could be. I was expecting it to be corporate-pretending-to-be-uncorporate. I was expecting people to turn up in ‘smart casual’, despite the invite very clearly saying that the dress code was officially ‘casual’. I also expected that a lot of people would know one another, and I’d end up just mixing with people who were new to stream, that there would naturally develop these ‘new vs old’ groups. I expected cliques, and groups of ‘old boys (and girls)’ who would only mix with one another.
Basically, I wasn’t entirely convinced that it would do what it said it would, and I wasn’t sure what I’d get out of it, but it was big enough and interesting enough that it was worth pushing beyond my comfort zone to attend, and taking the gamble on the cost of the plane flight (which wasn’t expensive in the grand scheme of things but is a big deal when you currently don’t have an income and probably won’t for several months). Most important of all, I knew I would regret it if I didn’t go.
And how did it go?
Of course, I needn’t have worried about a thing. On landing at Athens airport, I saw a bunch of 4/5 people huddled together. Instinct told me they were probably all Stream attendees, so I immediately introduced myself, and it turned out that none of them knew each other either, but we had all arrived on the same flight. They were all so warm, so welcoming, so eager and interested to meet me and one another, and, importantly, they were all dressed super casually in shorts, trainers and T-shirts, and I instantly knew (much to my relief) that a) these were good people and b) it was going to be OK.
By the time the short bus ride to the hotel was over, I had already met and had decent conversations with around 15 people. And to my amazement, they were all normal, lovely people, who were just as curious as I was about what they would encounter at Stream. They were friendly, encouraging, interested in my business (as I was in theirs) and we were already sharing ideas about the discussions that we were looking forward to attending over the following few days.
What were the highlights?
Without giving anything away, one of my highlights of the event was the opportunity to participate in a pitching event, responding to a challenge set in person by a representative from the UN. (Holy crap guys, the U-N! Talk about it being a priviledge and an honour to take part.)
The setting of the event itself was a highlight in itself. Nestling on a golden sandy beach, with a backdrop of foothills, landscaped gardens and picturesque swimming pools, the hotel ground really contributed to the atmosphere. People were immediately at ease, and had chance to wonder at the immensity of nature. It’s so easy not to have time to admire the beauty in nature, and this was a little oasis where we could – and were encouraged – to do this.
There were hundreds of little things that surprised and delighted me, though, from the banners with ‘stream’ lining the pathway to the beach; the motivational phrases in coloured paint on pathways all over the hotels; an emojibooth where I got my own emoji, a human piano, a pedal-powered smoothie maker, painting on huge #wppstream lettering; a talent show, drones, virtual reality booth (courtesy of Curiscope and others), computer making stations (from Kano and others), and a the photoboard of attendees.
I also enjoyed attending discussions, wellness sessions and various futuristic activities around the hotel grounds.
Above all though, I loved the fact that, although it’s a conference full of people who are leaders in digital and technology fields, the real emphasis of the event was on the magic that happens in the offline world. The event was all about social, human interaction; the random conversations, the serendipitous ideas that are sparked when talking about concepts you don’t usually get to focus on. It was about approaching work as a playground. It was the kind of event I'd expect twenty-something Silicon Valley startups to throw and attend; it was the antithesis of corporate.
How would you sum up your experience of Stream in 5 words?
Inspirational, uplifting, connection, challenging, playful.
So how can I get an invite?
Stream is invitation only and I got in on a wildcard, which pretty much means that anyone can! A wildcard is a little like an online competition. If you’re curious, here’s a link to my winning tweet.
You can get to stream on a wildcard by following @WPPstream on Twitter and looking out for announcements about a stream event near you. Applications are open once a year for each regional event, and next year there will be 10 events worldwide. There’s a different wildcard challenge every year, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled!
If you like this post, you can see more of what I write on Wantrepreneur2entrepreneur. The articles here document my journey from corporate escapee to wannabe entrepreneur and startup founder: all the highs, all the lows, and everything in between. It's a work in progress and I'd love to hear what you think, so drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Facebook or Twitter.
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