Playing without fear in a brave new world - London Braver Conference 2018

Playing without fear

I am still feeling slightly giddy from trying to process all the stories and advice that have been tumbling round in my head ever since The Marketing Society’s “Braver” Conference in London.

“Being braver” comes in many different forms and fourteen speakers, from hugely different worlds, wove together a consistently thought-provoking stream of stories. I dutifully wrote down all their advice, and without exception they all had something valuable to say. But what remains in my head now that will guide me for the next year? And what will I actually do as a result of all this exhortation?

The first thing I have actually done – and I recommend this to all marketers whether you came to the Conference or not – is take Thomas Barta’s Braveometer survey. It is cunningly designed by Kantar to delve beneath your exterior bravado, and it offers some practical guidance on how you can improve in different areas of leadership.

Looking back on my own career I can think of many times when I wish I had been braver, but what can I do now? Encouraged by the Braveometer, and having given myself a bit of a pep talk, I am going to try and follow the advice of the speaker whose talk I enjoyed most. He described himself as “The suit behind the waistcoat”- that is Martin Glenn, the Chief Executive of the FA - and he was referring to the nattily dressed England team coach, Gareth Southgate, who in turn wanted his players to express themselves and “to play without fear”.  

It was a particular treat for me to listen to Martin speaking positively and without fear. He was President of the Society when I was Chief Executive, before Gemma Greaves began our brave agenda, and I happened to be there at our annual Dinner when he was first asked by a head-hunter if he would like to apply for the FA job. By coincidence, I was also able to give him a manly hug on the day he heard he had got it. From then on I suffered the same agonies as every other football supporter in England as we were humbled by Iceland, and additional agonies as the back page writers jeered at Martin’s “I’m not a football expert” comment and howled for his head.

But behind the scenes at the FA, braver leadership has indeed produced many successes - most conspicuously our unexpected advance to the World Cup semi-final. It took bravery to tackle the deeply conservative culture of English football and to learn from other countries - like Germany, Spain and New Zealand - and other sports like rugby and American football. The England team upped its game on fitness, work-ethic, patriotism, handling the media, and of course most importantly taking penalties. As Martin says, we didn’t win the World Cup, but there has been a paradigm shift in our approach to tournaments and to the media, and England did re-connect with their fans.

I think “Playing without fear” is a common theme that every speaker at our Conference would sign up to. It was implicit in the session where three very successful marketers -  Michelle McEttrick, Pete Markey and Syl Saller -  revealed how they had overcome their feelings of inadequacy. It was there in Detective Superintendent Tor Garnett’s description of how she has bravely run a campaign to change conventional thinking from within our police force - which she acknowledges is physically brave but culturally conservative. And it was a key message from Cecilia Weckstrom of Lego who says that children naturally play without fear, and in doing so they develop the social and cognitive skills that will make them the builders of the future. 

In my own case, as a manager, I have always wanted people who work for me to express themselves, because above all I love to see them make things happen. But looking back I have probably been too reluctant to give feedback - especially any kind of negative feedback - for fear of discouraging them.

I also feel now that I have reached my eighth decade that it is time to break out of the tyranny of worrying about what other people think about me and to express myself more freely. Burkitt watchers, watch this space.

Which brings me to my (I’m being brave now) piece of negative feedback about this year’s Conference. I hated the Orwellian look into the future by Marcus John Henry Brown. I discovered when I spoke to him later that his dystopian view of what lies ahead is based on how he thinks an amoral multi-national company would run an entire country. I didn’t get this at the time and I didn’t understand how his performance – well acted though it was - could inspire any of us to be braver.

But perhaps he made us all think more deeply about the need to be brave in a future when our individual brains could be controlled by new technology, and also that as individuals we must stand up to over-mighty multi-national corporations. This would certainly have been worth a discussion. But on reflection I am embarrassed that I stood up when he told me to, because if I am right about his message I should have been brave enough to ignore him and remain seated.

Still it was arguably a brave decision by The Marketing Society’s conference producers to end with Marcus rather than Jaz Ampaw Farr, who inspired us by demonstrating a wonderfully positive outlook on life despite her traumatic childhood. And perhaps it gives the Society’s Conference team a pointer to next year’s theme. As we start the process of celebrating six glorious decades of The Marketing Society, we will surely also want to look forward to what will happen in the next decade or two. We all need to learn how to Play Without Fear in this Brave New World.    

Written by Hugh Burkitt, Global Ambassador The Marketing Society