joe puglisi buzzfeed huddle 2014

Joe Puglisi, senior creative strategist at Buzzfeed leads a workshop on how to craft the perfect Buzzfeed headline.

[Full disclosure: Mindshare is a WPP company, as is Sparksheet’s publisher, Spafax. Sparksheet was invited to this closed-doors event due to that relationship.]

Back in 2006, software developer and blogger Dave Winer experienced a eureka moment at a conference while sitting in the audience “waiting for someone to say something intelligent, or not self-serving, or not mind-numbingly boring.” He dubbed it the Fundamental Law of Conventional Conferences and it goes like this:

The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of expertise of the people on stage.

Winer, along with a handful of like-minded new media evangelists, used this idea to popularize the unconference, a loosely-structured and audience-driven event that prioritizes the crowd’s wisdom.

As with many pieces of internet culture, it wasn’t long before this fringe idea leaked into the mainstream. Which brings us to last week’s Huddle, a corporatized version of the unconference operating in the spirit of the prototype.

Twitter vending machine lets participants exchange tweets for t-shirts or candy.

The Twitter vending machine lets participants exchange tweets for t-shirts or candy.

Organized by WPP’s global media and marketing services behemoth, Mindshare, the invitation-only event gathered nearly 300 partners and clients from the media and marketing industries at its Toronto headquarters for a day of “Huddles” (guided 45 minute conversations) and “Cuddles” (day-long activities and displays of novelty technologies like Google Glass, Twitter vending machines, “fraud-bots,” and 3-D printers).

The original Mindshare Huddle took place in London in 2012 and was devised as a means of breaking away from typical vendor pitch meetings and lunch-and-learns, and to encourage casual conversations that might lead to networking and business opportunities.

Since then, they have been held annually at Mindshare’s London, New York and Toronto offices. “Each year it gets better, louder, tougher and stronger,” Armin Huska, Toronto’s organizer, told me before the event.

At this year’s Toronto Huddle, more than 45 guided conversations took place over the course of a day. We’ve done our best to distill the crowd’s wisdom into a few key takeaways.

Huddle 2014 t-shirt press

A Huddler presses a t-shirt with a custom Android logo.

Adaptive marketing is here, so what now?

I began my day in a room that houses The Loop, Mindshare’s proprietary “adaptive marketing” system, which launched earlier this year.

The “data-infused war room,” as technology partner Visible Measures calls it, is designed to help brands monitor online conversations, churn out bespoke social content and purchase ads in real time, depending on the behaviours of their target audiences.

The session I attended was on the topic of programmatic advertising but the tables, graphs and twitter feeds ticking quietly away in the background preoccupied me. I was baffled by The Loop.

And I was not alone. Later in the morning, during a session on adaptive marketing facilitated by Seraj Bharwani, chief analytics officer at Visible Measures, only one of the brand marketers in attendance seemed to have a clear idea of the potential of The Loop. Almost no one in the room had tried it. Another brand marketer repeatedly asked, “Why is the brand in The Loop?”

Seraj Bharwani, chief analytics officer at Visible Measures

Seraj Bharwani, chief analytics officer at Visible Measures, educates attendees about the potential of The Loop and adaptive-marketing.

Despite the ambivalence, plenty of brands are diving into the data-driven adaptive marketing space. Ford and Land Rover have both found success with it, for example, while Oreo has become the poster brand for real-time responses on Twitter.

But the extent to which brands will be using data monitoring systems to jump into social conversations and boost their campaigns in real-time seems unclear at this point.

In a refreshing interchange during a Huddle on social media, an AMEX representative piped up that the brand stays away from real-time social. “As a corporate brand, I don’t know if we need to be a part of events.”

Her reticence points to a big problem for marketers: Brands might want to act like publishers, but they’re still uninvited guests for the bulk of people using social networks, surfing the web or watching Netflix.

Mindshare's The Loop

Andrew Casale, VP strategy at Casale Media (background) and Jake Norman, chief strategy officer at Mindshare Toronto, take in The Loop. Image via Mindshare Canada’s Facebook page.

In his own words

Seraj Bharwani on why brands are slow to adopt adaptive marketing.

Audience dictates format

What hit home after listening to conversations spearheaded by a newspaper publisher, a digital news site editor and a creative strategist at Buzzfeed, was that no matter which way you slice it, you have to know your audience. Intimately.

The loudest proponent of this mindset was soft-spoken Kenny Yum, Huffington Post Canada’s managing editor.

kenny yum managing editor huffington post canada

Kenny Yum, managing editor at Huffington Post Canada, discusses the finer points of social media etiquette at his Huddle.

For him, understanding audiences has become central to his job as a journalist and steward of one of the most popular news sites in North America. He spends about an hour analyzing Huffington Post’s readership each day.

“The most important thing you could ever do is understand your audience and their patterns throughout the day,” he told a room packed with aspiring marketers. “This helps you understand how to create and shift and cater your content.”

When he says, “shift and cater your content,” Yum isn’t referring to what stories to publish. He’s talking about where to publish them and what form they take.

Yum thinks that brands and publishers need to be content agnostic: Rather than linking back to their own web pages, publishers should create content that can live independently on social platforms.

In his own words

Kenny Yum on why brands and publishers need to prioritize audience analysis.

Automation has arrived; everyone’s confused

Mindshare is in the business of competitive advantages. As one of the world’s leading planning and buying networks, it’s no wonder that data – specifically, programmatic, analytics and real-time marketing – factored into so many conversations at the event.

rebecca shropshire andrew casale huddle 2014

Rebecca Shropshire, director of commercial innovation at CBC and Andrew Casale, VP strategy at Casale Media discuss the ins and outs of programmatic advertising.

While it’s easy to think today’s web runs on branded content – after all, it seems to be the business model that’s worked out for some of the web’s most successful publishers – it’s also not true.

In 2014, programmatic digital display ad spending in the U.S. alone will hit $10 billion and is expected to double by 2016, according to eMarketer.

Numbers like this are driving people like Rebecca Shropshire, director of digital commercial innovation at CBC/Radio-Canada (one of Canada’s premium content publishers) to proclaim that “We’re in the biggest time of change in the media business, maybe ever.”

john cruickshank toronto star

John Cruickshank, publisher of the Toronto Star and president of Star Media Group describes the future of journalism during his Huddle.

Problems of fraud, measurement and adoption aside, the debate about whether programmatic is saving or killing journalism is becoming as pugilistic as the one surrounding that other ad buzzword, “native” (which itself isn’t safe from programmatic).

During his session, John Cruickshank, publisher of the Toronto Star, one of Canada’s leading newspapers, told the crowd, “If programmatic is the only mode of advertising, there won’t be any more news.”

If the enthusiasm of the programmatic crowd is anything to go by, programmatic is much more than a passing craze, so here’s hoping Cruickshank is terrible at predictions.

In her own words

Rebecca Shropshire on why publishers should embrace programmatic.

Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments.

And for more photos, check out our album on Facebook.

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