Google Firestarters NYC

Last week I went alone to the first Google Firestarters here in New York.

It was great. Really great.

If you haven’t come across the programme, it’s a format for Google to spend time with agency folk, in particular planners. Neil Perkin curates it, and he is a genuinely great curator. That particular gift combined with the Google brand means that you get a very good quality of people. And planners are cerebral, smart cookies working in a creative services environment, whose job it is to be very up to date and who work daily with translating lots of input into big ideas. Ben Malbon, Director for Creative Partnerships at Google, brought Neil and the Firestarters format over.

The topic was ‘the new agency OS’ – how do agencies need to be in order to thrive in this changed world.

The line up was outstanding:

  • Ian Fitzpatrick, CSO, Almighty
  • Johnny Vulkan, Founder, Anomaly
  • Noah Brier, Founder, Percolate
  • Spencer Baim, CSO, Vice Media
  • Sarah Watson, CSO, BBH

Over the course of the evening, a few things struck me:

1. This is the center of the world 😉

Of course, I would say that now that I live here.

But what a line up. I have followed Anomaly distantly for years and loved their hybrid model, their venturing. Percolate is very hot, a startup doing great things, so to hear from Noah was exciting. Vice is obviously interesting and significant, BBH provide some blue-blooded pedigree, and Almighty I confess I hadn’t heard of, but I really enjoyed Ian’s opener. It just felt like a superb proper proper event lineup. It was a privilege.

There is something of a counterpoint to that ‘centre of world-ness’ I suppose. 3 of the 5 speakers were British, which was kind of thrilling and embarrassing at the same time. Made by Many got namechecked 2 or 3 times and Clearleft, fellow Brightonians, were referenced once – mainly by Ian who was one of the Americans. So it was enlightening to me, and unexpected, to see the British influence at the heart of American agency-land.

2. Code as a metaphor or proxy for culture

Ian from Almighty introduced this idea that there are ‘big’ small agencies and ‘small’ big agencies, and in fact what we meant by this was a short-hand for their shared code, their accumulated history, their ‘this is the way we do things around here’ through assumptions and convictions.

He used that to talk about stripping back code, about hiring people from different backgrounds and other related ideas, but just that core nugget itself is interesting to me as someone helping to rapidly grow a software startup – given the challenges that creates around culture and given how tech-centric a big part of our team are.

3. The OS and the Apps

Sarah Watson had the most idea-sy approach and I warmed to that, particularly as she was last up. What she did was took this question of the new OS for agencies and differentiated between the OS itself – the platform – and the Apps.

Sarah’s point, I think, was that the OS is like the agency’s culture. And that efforts to evolve or combine agencies often concentrate on the nuts and bolts, the process and teams, and not on the OS. And they founder, because the OS is what fundamentally advances or holds back – this is the stuff that governs who is allowed to speak, what is prioritised, valued and rewarded.

Again, for me it wasn’t so much about how well the detail of the idea was landed, but the idea itself. It was good to be reminded of the different elements at play in systems, and to sophisticate an organisational metaphor that continues to gain in momentum.

4. Getting back to big ideas matters

As I walked the 10 mins from Brandwatch in Flatiron to Google in Chelsea, I realised how little of this I’d done – feeding my brain – since I’ve joined just over a year ago. Understandably, it’s been full on execution-mode from day one.

And being back in an environment where the sole focus was opening up and playing with ideas was rewarding. And useful.

I hadn’t realised it, but I needed that. I have work to do that could easily be dealt with in a hands-on, bit-by-bit, executional way. Thanks to these guys talking about the bigger picture themes and issues in their world, I’ve now been reminded that getting back to the core of a problem, back to the underlying big ideas, is vital.

Looking forward to the next one. Thanks to Neil for the invite and Google and speakers for a great evening.

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