12 things we learned @APGLondon’s #StrategyVsRobots conference

Earlier today, the excellent Account Planning Group held its annual conference. Dubbed #StrategyVsRobots, the event brought together a typically eclectic blend and roast of some of the best thinkers around. Not just in marketing and planning and digital. But also neuroscience, design thinking and thinking per se. It was an afternoon of light yet profound metacognition where, wilfully separated from our day jobs, we were actively encourage to think about thinking.

From Baroness Susannah Greenfield, the audience learned that (1) thinking is movement for the brain. Activity in the motor cortices of people actually practicing the piano and those simply thinking about practicing the piano is indistinguishable. In making her case that technology – like all other experiences – shapes and actively changes the brain, that most plastic of organs, she showed us that (2) hot chocolate served in an orange mug tastes more chocolatey, and that planking is an unusual form of mass participation happening because (3) planking has no story or narrative behind it. And with dementia, we regress and become more and more childlike; (4) with dementia, we become more and more sensory and less and less cognitive, because we lose connections that add abstract connotations to memories of objects and places and happenings. And Edward Bernays, the creator of public relations in his 1928 book Propaganda, created (5) a campaign to market smoking to women as “the torch of freedom”.


Futurologist Richard Watson gave us an early, pre-digital proof that (6) Big Data doesn’t necessarily translate into Big Insights. The collapse of the East German secret police service, the STASI, was precipitated by the fact that the organisation had collected so much information it didn’t know what to do with it or how to make sense of it. The impact of that sheer weight of data should serve as a salutary warning for those who champion the role of Big Data in generating ever-deeper insights.

Rushi Bhavsar is an inspirational fellow. Currently a WPP fellow at Grey – a chemical engineering graduate, just 25 and with only eight months in the communications business – he speaks more sense with more wisdom than many advertising lifers. His understanding of systems and the impact of technology reminded me of another comms great who started as an outsider, Philip Sheldrake. Among many other scales-from-the-eyes revelations, Rushi pointed out that, while (7) the data aggregation tools we have at our disposal today allow us to effectively sample the Zeitgeist, we must remember that (8) the algorithms we use to understand data have no capacity to understand the meaning of what they’re sampling.

Mr Digital at the co-op – and for the past six years the head of the Government Digital Service – Russell Davies said that (9) Amazon and Tesla don’t succeed because they have better technology – they succeed because they have a better relationship with technology and have learned how to use technology as a transformational agent of change. He pointed out that, although this is a contradiction that Government often finds hard to resolve – and he should know – done right (10) digital can and should make services both more efficient AND more human.

And talking of Government, it’s been hard work for the past week or so not to trip over Steve Hilton in all quarters of the media. Cameron’s former comms guy – turned tech entrepreneur turned human-centred design guru – is in town to promote the paperback of his interesting read, More Human. He said that (11) we are threatening our long-term future by parenting in both over-protective and under-protective ways. We cosset our children and don’t let them get dirty or fall over in nature, and then we give them smartphones with ready access to pornography which normalise exploitative, abusive sexual relationships. In fact, he believes we should take smartphones away from children for their own good and the good of The Future.

#StrategyVsRobots was challenged as a titled by most speakers, and the consensus was that human-tech is the way forward, and this partnership does not represent a threat to jobs. We need to harness the power of tech for good to help us all, and by way of evidence for the positive benefits of human-tech symbiosis, Russell Davies said that (12) Centaur chess – human + computer vs human + computer – is the highest form of the game.

Strategists and algorithms have already achieved a lot together. Judging by the mood from the floor in Faraday’s stage at the Royal Institution, we’re only just scratching the surface of what we can do by investing properly in this partnership.