A round up of our 2018 summit

Consumers want businesses to break the rules that no longer work. And it’s starting to happen.

At Wolff Olins we’ve always tried to change the conventions. But is this what consumers actually want? And is it what companies are doing? Our 2018 summit, which we ran at our London studio on 30 October, drilled into those questions, with 70 guests and 12 speakers.

To set the scene, Josh Hedley-Dent of CitizenMe revealed the findings of our latest piece of research, asking consumers how they want business to change. This will be published in full later this month, but the headline statistic is that only 6% want businesses to carry on as they are. From everyone else, there’s a mandate to shake things up and break the rules – in four specific ways. The summit explored these four ideas through panel discussions, Q&A and workshopping – and of course multiple conversations over lunch and coffee.

Forget control, share power
Within most companies, as Phil Curtis from Allianz Global Investors pointed out, ‘the genie is already out of the bottle’, though ‘we’re a long way from democracy’. The BBC’s Neelay Patel showed how the new BBC Sounds project – launched on the day of the summit – liberates audio from traditional radio channels to ‘listening without limits’. And Meg Nakamura showed how her business ShiftPayments is giving people new levels of control over their finances, with ideas like a personal finance identity that’s portable around the world. All these power changes are demanding new types of leadership in organizations.

Forget scale, choose better
Again, most organisations recognise that scale isn’t the only thing that matters. As Yasha Estraikh from Piper Private Equity pointed out, for many entrepreneurs ‘sustainability is now natural’. And Natalie Slack showed how, to grow her plant-based ice-cream business Black Milq, she’s searching for partners ‘who share our vision’, so there’s ‘no compromising on quality’. For huge organisations, as Tesco’s Michelle McEttrick pointed out, it’s a constant balancing act, because people of course want the price advantages that come with scale, as well as quality, provenance and sustainability. The new Tesco supermarket, Jacks, gives the company a new way to achieve that balance: because Jacks is small, it’s able to source 80% of its food products from Britain.

Forget speed, go long
Two media innovators, Marcus Fairs of the architecture and design website Dezeen and CJ Fahey of Vice TV and Studios, debated the idea that companies should deliver not just for today’s stakeholders but also for the next generation. For Dezeen, the idea feels natural, since design and architecture tend to have a long-term impact anyway, and Marcus talked about zebra companies – the opposite of the short-termist unicorns. The Vice TV story has a different time dimension – bringing the spirit of 1960s counter-cultural journalism into today, with a long-lasting spirit of ‘just break it’. For both, the impact for the next generation comes from constant ‘cumulative journalism’ today.

Forget customers, think people
Our biggest panel explored the benefits of treating people as people, and valuing their differences. Dan Brooke of Channel 4 showed how people with disabilities are often the most resourceful innovators. Martin Stead of Nutmeg, which aims to democratize wealth management, talked about the benefits of making a workplace that feels safe for everyone: that’s when people ‘do their best work’. Steven Appleyard of the music platform Boiler Room said his was an example of a truly people-centric business, built from the bottom up. Gail Parker of the insurance company RSA talked fascinatingly about how un-corporate language can help people feel included.

As with all the panels, what came across most strongly wasn’t just what the speakers said, but how they talked. They all had conviction in their voices. Rules are already being broken – but success demands from the rule-breakers a deep sense of belief.

As I mentioned upfront, stay tuned for the full details of the research later this month. And thank you to everyone who took part in the day.

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