Hmmm… Interesting

Attending a conference where you have no idea what might happen involves a considerable act of faith, but Rob Mortimer is glad he took the risk

It’s extremely rare for people to attend an event where they have almost no idea what will happen. Yet 300 people did just that on Saturday 16 June, when they filled up Conway Hall near Holborn in London for Interesting 2007.

Organised by former Wieden + Kennedy planner and Nike brand manager, Russell Davies, the sold-out event was billed simply as a “conference of interestingness”. Made up of three-minute and 20-minute slots, the aim was that the speakers would hopefully talk about some original and unique topics. Web 2.0, user generated content, virals, the London 2012 logo were just some of the subjects left at the door, despite many of the audience working in advertising or design.

Worryingly, Davies casually mentioned in his introduction that he had only ever seen two of the day’s speakers present before, which created an almost tangible sense of uncertainty. Indeed, the day would hang on the quality of the individual speakers, but I doubt that anyone in the audience expected the quality that followed.

The first 20-minute slot went to Richard Wilson, producer of Have I Got News for You and Room 101 at Hat Trick, who showed us just how hard it is to get a television programme off the ground. He included a brilliant clip of a pilot based on Apprentice contestant Paul Torrisi’s attempts to get his self-penned sitcom commissioned. The clip included Paul reading out a few lines of dialogue about renting houses, to which he chuckled, waited for laughs that wouldn’t appear, and then gave a nervous grin that was far funnier than the script. Particularly interesting were Richard’s descriptions of how commissioning editors are keen on pigeon-holeing production companies; so if you made Wife Swap, you’re more likely to get It’s Me or Your Car onto the airwaves. Though thankfully that show has not yet been made.

Jennifer Lyon Bell of Blue Artichoke Films raised a few eyebrows with Nine Tips for Making a Better Erotic Film, including the universally useful recommendations to “decide on pubic hair” and “always provide a hot meal”. The biggest surprise of the night, however, was an appearance by the brand philosopher Sacrum B Rown (http://sacrum-applicant.blogspot.com ); who had walked all the way from Germany to take a photo featuring the crowd and his travelling bag. His brief moments on stage had much of the audience in awe, until he had to leave to start the long walk back home. He had half of the audience in stitches while the other half pondered who he was.

The impressive thing about the speakers at Interesting 2007 was that despite the topics varying wildly there were still enough amusing and charming observations to keep the crowd smiling all day long. One particular treat was watching the editor of The Spectator, Matthew d’Ancona, perform his Al Pacino impression as part of his talk, which covered how creative freedom actually leads to discipline rather than the expected anarchy.

Ad planner Andrew Hovells (http://joymachine.typepad.com ) managed to squeeze both inspiration and biological education into his three minutes. He demonstrated how having an unusual body shape made him rubbish at most sports, but helped him excel at swimming. The underlying message of “find something you are good at and run with it” was well-made, and certainly resonated with the audience. Other great presentations included Rebecca Northam (http://beeker.typepad.com/beeker_ideas), who successfully showed what she has learnt from both the Muppets and Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, namely to “be objectionable”; “care about things”; “look for balance” and “end well”.

There were also several presentations which revolved around photography. Funky Pancake (www.funkypancake.com/blog/ ) showed a surprisingly funny and entertaining collection of photos of signs, lights, mannequins and other everyday objects. Anne Ward’s Is it Just Me or is Everything Nice presentation was a fascinating documentation of the character in the buildings and objects that we see everyday. Especially “nice” were the pictures of a knitted village in Lancaster produced by three “Kendal Ladies”; the images of quirkily British buildings in faded seaside resorts and the reminders of the unique styles of homemade design that adorn thousands of shops and cafés across the country.

For me though, one of the most thought-provoking slides of the day was from Matt Jones’ (www.blackbeltjones.com/work/ ) presentation, The Vernacular of the Spectacular. It quoted architect Eliel Saarinen’s mantra that you should “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context”. This comment related well to a day featuring personal topics, but one where each speaker had tailored their presentations to the larger context of an event, making them all utterly fascinating to watch.

In fact, the only real negatives to the day were down to Conway Hall itself. Whilst ideal in terms of size and facilities, it did suffer from being quite stuffy, and the sunlight from the windows occasionally masked the slides and videos playing behind the presenters. However, its overall quirkiness and suitability for bunting made it feel like a good home for this kind of event. (The seats were also a little on the hard side too: being reminiscent of those you might remember from school dinner times).

Continuing the school-like atmosphere in the foyer was a large stall from Folksy (www.folksy.co.uk ). Selling hundreds of different hand-produced bags, toys, trinkets and other items it felt very much like a stall at a school fête, except that the products were very well made and managed to capture the imagination of everybody who stopped to look.

The event itself also had a distinct but varied identity that was created by The Design Conspiracy, who printed a handmade-looking typeface onto peoples’ T-shirts and shopping bags. In this way, while there was therefore plenty of Interesting 2007 branded items, they all maintained a sense of what they originally were. The free Yorkshire Tea, Innocent smoothies and scones with jam and cream also gave the event a very personal and charming touch: it felt very much like an extended family get together.

By the end of the day most of the audience had noticed the words above the stage which read “To Thine Own Self Be True”; and it was a fitting description for the whole event. Everybody spoke about the things they enjoy, topics they feel strongly about, that they believe passionately in and that enthusiasm and honesty made the event more enjoyable than anyone could have possibly expected.

It would take a long time to detail the highlights of everyone who presented but there was a consensus in the crowd that every single speaker delivered something worthwhile. The impression the event left can be seen on many of the blogs written by the audience – and that response has been almost entirely positive. Interesting it certainly was; but it was even more inspiring.

Rob Mortimer writes the advertising blog The Ad Pit (www.ad-pit.com) and is a media comms manager by day. You can view several of the slideshows presented at the event by searching  on the tag “Interesting2007” at Slideshare (www.slideshare.net )

 

 

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