Report from AdLounge’s Conversuasion Event

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AdLounge Conversuation

Like many of my friends involved in interactive media, I find it hard sometimes to get an evening out.  In the hustle and bustle of it all, it is easy to lose sight of one thing: it is play we do.  We are lost without our sense of humour, our capacity for wonder, and our ability to entertain. 

For those of us who are enlisted to deliver messages that stir the listener to action, it is ever more important to recharge our creative resources.

This is why I find what AdLounge is doing with their events so interesting.  I previously attended Art from the Unexpected, and recently took in Conversuasion.

Like the first event, Conversuasion had a theme of play with purpose.  In other words, the event, while attended by some of the most influential members of the advertising community, manages to not take itself too seriously.  While heavy concepts are discussed concerning communicating stories in modern ways across varied media, this is done in a comfortable atmosphere.  Participants are encouraged to speak freely, in a comfortable setting, sharing their insights with those fortunate enough to be in attendance.

Conversuasion took place at the historic Arts and Letters building on Elm Street.  I used to work a stone's throw from there in one of the glass towers, and I've often wanted to see inside the building that was a favorite of the group of seven.  Now I had my chance.

Nestled inside, many portraits gazed from the walls towards me as I took my place in the audience.  But the focal point of the room was a comfy chair next to a crackling (digital) fire.  It was here the speakers, Colin Drummond, director with Crispin Porter and Bugusky, and Neil McOstrich, founding partner of Clean Sheet Communications, would sit to share their stories.

It was the perfect setting for an event that stressed the fusion of traditional storytelling with the digital age. And the stories told were both amusing and insightful, and daringly enough…human.

This is another thing I've come to value from an Adlounge event.  They take a person who, while a skilled communicator, is often hedged by support staff, and give them a chance to be in front of a receptive audience telling their story on their own.  And it does genuinely seem to be their story, not one distilled by rote.  It is a brief glimpse behind the curtain, and a welcome view of the actual people of the industry, what excites them, how they create, and how they arrive at their insights.

Colin Drumond started off with a bang, recalling current events that are on his mind, including the Kanye West debacle and Robert Fowler.

'What do they have in common?', he asked the audience.  Both prompted a response that was immediate and highly negative, he noted.  But both changed the cultural conversation in a matter of minutes.

'My take on conversuasion is related to the kind of conversation that happens around the world, and how that can be created…using the many tools available to us' he related.

'We are so influenced by culture, that our culture is what we are' he said, and he noted that part of Canadian culture is to know Florida better than we know Nova Scotia.  He went on to discuss some of the cultural nuances that he personally experienced in going from Canada to Miami, to Boulder.  For each comparison he showed images to accompany his observations.

'This is my personal way of showing you the importance of culture' he said.

He then identified culture as millions of rules that we all live by – and that those rules must be challenged to open a 'conversuasion'.  Challenging rules leads to tension, and that tension moves people to decisions outside of their usual experience.

'If you want to change the rules, challenge culture', he advised, 'because culture is not real…you can actually start to affect change'.

He went on to explain that brands are, like anything, a part of culture.  Find and exploit a cultural tension that starts people talking  – to your brand's benefit.

'Don't mess around', he advised, 'have your brand pick a side.'

Doing so, he suggested, can tip the scales of a conversuasion in minutes.

Nobody should know that more than the director of the agency that was charged with taking on the Mac versus PC challenge, the size of the Mini, or the claim that the Whopper is America's favorite burger.

Besides introducing the tension, Drummond encouraged providing the tools to allow people have the conversations they need to around that tension.  I found it interesting that the tools, while very clever, were a secondary consideration.

And it might be a small point, but I noted as well that Mr. Drumond actually laughed along at his company's work on campaigns like 'whopper deprivation' – interesting when one assumes that he must have seen it literally hundreds, if not thousands, of times already.  I was left with the thought that it must be this ability to see things with fresh eyes that would allow the formation of uninhibited ideas.

The next speaker, Neil McOstrich stressed the importance of stories.

Everyone has an interesting story of their own, he suggested, and the very best brands tell stories that help people understand their own stories.  He illustrated this with a picture of his ecstatic daughter on Christmas morning before a pile of presents.

'We have clean sheet walls all over the shop' he said, 'my thoughts are tangential…some of my best creep up the side of the page'

The process continues until he has a good story to tell, and he seems to like stories whether they are simple, good, bad, or profound.

The man practically glowed as he recounted one such brand story they told for the Spuds potato product, which resulted in the CEO of "Mister Potatohead" leveraging accusations of cannibalism.

Amusement turned serious when he related how, at one point in his career, he came to realize that some agencies are much like banks.  He showed an image of a typical boardroom and indicated 'many ideas have been carried out of here on shields'.

Keep in mind that the delivery of the idea is even more important than the idea, he suggested.  Although he admitted that sometimes this principle can go astray.

He went on to relate a story of a time when he impishly interpreted the term 'guerilla marketing' by dressing a friend in a gorilla suit and putting them in front of a client.

'It was the most uncomfortable three minutes' he related, smiling all the while.  Would he do it again, he wondered aloud?

'Sure,' he acknowledged, 'it wasn't me in the monkey suit'.

This is another fine example of play with purpose.  The telling is fun, the stories amusing, but within it is a kernel of wisdom for those listening for it.

'Conversuasion', Neil suggested, 'is the act of making people feel good about themselves for buying'.

He then went on to talk about insight, optimism, and linkage – all elements that can be powerful tools in initiating conversations.

Mr. McOstrich spoke at some length about making use of nostalgia.

'Bring people to the past to fire them into the future' he advised.  With fondness, he suggested that the number of creative pieces he has worked on that make use of this technique have 'piled up like barnacles' on his portfolio.

I took careful note of his observations around productivity, the idea that being busy and being productive are not the same thing.

'Don't be the person who says "have you seen" ', he admonished, 'get out and have a life'.  He advised that this is how one is able to bring passion and curiosity to their work.  I found this one of the key insights of the event.

(For audio files of both presentations, visit http://www.adlounge.ca/conversuasion/)

I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. McOstrich personally after the presentation.  I was ducking out from the crowded bar and ran into him conversing with a small group near the entrance.  He was as well-spoken and enthusiastic in person as he was during his time in the comfy chair, and I found it very easy to talk with him. 

We spoke a bit about his work on the Chrysler account, one that I've also worked on in the past.  But mostly we chatted about the experience of starting an agency, and he warmed to this topic very easily.  It is quite apparent that the man is still strongly engaged after all his years in the industry.  It was most encouraging to witness this.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention some more of the fine folks that turned the event into a fantastic time.  The video crew with Studio M was great, snatching interested people from the crowd to interview them.  They seem to have a way of both setting you at ease and making you feel like a celebrity at the same time.  I couldn't help geeking out with them about par-lights and parabolic microphones for a while.

And as was the case at the last event, this one was well stocked with pastries.  I mentioned them last time, and by gosh I'll do it again.  The cupcakes at Adlounge are…well let's say I want to form a long-term relationship with them.  These ones were full-sized rather than the minis, so I managed to avoid going into double-digits in the number I consumed.  Dignity maintained.  Check out alittlesweet.ca when you're ready to be hooked.

And of course Trina Boos, the organizer, was a great hostess, greeting one and all with a warm smile and thanks for their attendance.

I hope that these events will continue in the same casual but educational manner.  I look forward to many more "conversuasions".

Check out AdLounge Conversuasion event photos courtesy of JenGilbert.ca

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