Three days of intense energy flowed from Lisbon during the Web Summit this week as the world’s tech leaders and budding entrepreneurs gathered to federate around one thing that we can call agree on: technology is taking over the world. Panels, presentations and pitches abounded across all industry verticals from automotive to government to sports and marketing. Food trucks pumped out the smoke of BBQ and Sangres was downed from the moment the doors opened each day until the last attendees filtered out for the nights’ parties. As usual, it was an inspiring moment to get the pulse of the tech scene, and more importantly, see where all of this stuff is going.

Here are the major themes that came out of the three days if you weren’t able to make it:

Trust is crucial

In light of the recent hacks and scandals at places like Facebook, coupled with the proliferation of fake news and the arrival of the GDPR, discussions about trust were everywhere. The customer experience was front and center, and different panels talked about everything from how to make your customers love you to how to create a positive customer service cycle to which types of problems disgust consumers the most.

Accountability and security were constantly being brought up as thought leaders explained how to navigate the tricky waters of public opinion, the effect that scandals can have on customer bases, and why a data contract is not a data relationship. These arguments provided a context for the following theme:

Data is actually being used!

For many years, the promise of big data and machine learning sounded fine and dandy but it could only be applied to areas with giant – yet highly-controlled – datasets. That’s changing. Now software is able to use data to improve marketing plans, identify optimizations in website performance, e-commerce conversion, predict future trending keywords, and define the LTV (lifetime value) of customers to tailor customer service strategies.

And as companies collect more and more data about people, more and more possibilities open up about what to do with that data, from shortening sales cycles to identifying upselling probabilities to creating cross-marketing partnerships with complementary brands. This is all happening now. Finally!

AI is infiltrating everything

There is a term now for using data to improve everything, and it’s Artificial Intelligence. If trust was the most common theme (from the parts that I saw) AI was the most commonly used term. It seemed like every other startup was using AI to solve problems thanks to the flexibility and power of distributed computing systems and open-source projects that are starting to exponentially multiply the processing capabilities and thus work with ever-bigger datasets.

AI has clearly replaced the term Big Data, which has almost entirely disappeared from the conversation, since Big Data was always the what but never the how. The AI programs being built can provide real answers to problems, and even give robots like Sophia and Hans the ability to carry conversations – with humans but also with each other.

But AI does not equal a blank check from investors. During some of the pitch sessions, the investors asked extremely technical questions – particularly about data integrity and sourcing. Some companies had essentially created rather basic algorithms that they masqueraded as AI but got called out. The knowledge level is rising across the board, and that’s a good sign (unless you’re afraid of a robot AI revolution, then it’s a terrible terrible sign).

Authenticity is a must

There were a lot of influencer panels and if I could group all of their advice into two words they would be “be authentic.” I have to admit that this is said without even a touch of irony despite the fact that between Photoshop, Snapseed and filters, Instagram is far from “authentic.” The readers of my blog know how I feel about influencers in general, but the authenticity message extends to brands as well and this was evident in talks from people like the CCO of Carlsberg who explained that their brand awareness and marketing slogan “probably the best beer in the world” did not align with the fact that people don’t find the beer particularly good – let alone among the best. So what did they do? Go back to their roots. They Jurassic Parked the very first lager created by the founder over a hundred years ago and invited people to tastings around the world, while showcasing the humble, cooperative spirit of the brand and the effect it has had on the modern beer industry.

Now is a golden age for content

The proliferation of screens and the growing amount of time that we spend with them has created a demand for content unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Netflix is driving incredible amounts of new content, and the traditional American TV giants like CBS are getting on board with their own subscription streaming services. As more and more players enter the space, the demand for quality, innovative content will only continue to rise.

It’s not just video. Podcasts are booming. Music is more and more in demand (in part thanks to more and more video content that it goes along with). Music stars like Ariana Grande reach hundreds of millions of streams in a day with a new track – and launch memes that become Internet sensations overnight.

Brands are finally getting on board to see now, buy now

Alexander Wang is leading the charge to change how fashion brands showcase and get their wares into the hands of consumers. The traditional fashion calendars are being thrown out the window. Selling directly on Instagram is becoming increasingly popular, and in order to get products to customers faster – and satisfy that instant gratification – brands are decentralizing distribution centers to regional levels to accelerate delivery times. Swarovski is using this strategy to improve their customer experience, but in order to do it, they need deeper insights into customer desires so they can better anticipate the future sales of their products.

Brands that are strong in retail like Tommy Hilfiger are using hybrid store experiences to let people choose the look they want, touch samples of fabric, and have outfits delivered directly to them, cutting out the need for stock space in expensive retail locations without significantly delaying a customer’s reception of their purchase. This opens up space to have more experiential stores that become destinations in themselves.

Top talks

As usual there were clear winners in terms of the talks and panels. While I personally enjoyed seeing Tony Blair talk about American politics the morning after the (rather positive) midterms, and harp on cancelling Brexit, the conversation missed any mention of technology and what Tony Blair is doing with it. Some of the panels, like Sarah Bird from MOZ discussing SEO in 2019, were super practical in seeing how search is going from portal to destination – and what we as marketers can do to take advantage. But other talks were extremely vague or veered off-topic without providing any useful information.

That being said, there were three talks that stood out:

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian is my spirit animal when it comes to presentations. Two years ago at Web Summit his presentation about Reddit was almost entirely pictures of cats, and it was probably the best presentation of the conference. This time he focused on advice that he wished VCs would have told him when he was just getting started. Clear slides with dead-simple messages supported his charisma as he strolled across the stage in an inspiring diatribe of what’s important when starting a company: values that you share with your cofounder, striving for authenticity instead of faking authority, keeping an eye on long-term strategy. But most importantly, he thrashed the idea of hustle porn and drove home the truth that you need to take care of yourself if you’re going to be successful. This message is so critical and it is buried under the false assumptions that if you’re not burning the candle at both ends, you’re never going to be successful. Praise be to Mr. Ohanian!

(Side note, Mr. Ohanian is also using his investment fund Initialized to tackle the enormous problem of student debt in America, his family is adorable, and his kicks were epic. Did I mention he is my spirit animal?)

As a Wendy’s man, I am not a big fan of Burger King, but I absolutely loved the presentation by their Global Head of Marketing Marcelo Pascoa. In 20 moving minutes, he showed just how creative advertising campaigns can be – and how counter-intuitive thinking can generate huge returns. Remember the campaign of the Burger Kings burning to the ground with firefighters arriving on the scene? Yep, flame-broiled since 1954. In taking a huge risk, the campaign creates a delayed realization in your head, and once you come to this realization yourself, the message stays with you. He also recommended being friends with lawyers, because sometimes you have to take even bigger risks, like using pictures of the elaborate back yards at the mansions owned by McDonald’s executives. What’s present in all of these photos? A grill. Even McDonald’s executives don’t want to eat fried meat. It was inspiring to see a brand taking bold risks and honestly I gained a lot of respect for BK.

It was also extremely refreshing to hear from Alexander Wang who is deconstructing nearly every aspect of the traditional fashion industry. Aside from his stellar record of designing, his approach to break down barriers by inviting his customers to fashion shows (that are really more fashion events) and pushing a see now, buy now approach to fashion, he is truly leveraging the power of digital platforms to not just gain notoriety, but to get products into the hands of his fans. The clothes he shows in September are weather appropriate for September, not for summer of the following year. By bucking the fashion cycles and opening his process to the world, he has been accomplishing things that few luxury brands are capable of pulling off.

Overall Takeaways

Web Summit is great because of the osmosis that happens. Even as a marketer, simply walking around booths and stands from the likes of Google, Amazon Web Services, and Cisco provides the opportunity to see technical solutions in action. So much of what we read on the web we do not actually ever see in practice – technology is often invisible to the end user and therefore misunderstood. Demos provide a chance to see the latest developments and how they can be used.

Even strolling along the aisles of startup desks and reading the one sentence pitch descriptions of each new idea is potent fuel for driving the motors of innovation as problematic after problematic come to light. Stop to hear a pitch and an idea that could be designed for the travel industry could create an idea of a crossover concept to apply a completely different sector.

But perhaps the best thing is the focus on the people. Given that there are many, many panels, the interviewers often direct the conversation towards personal experiences: how a founder got off the ground, the challenges she faced and how she overcame them, what aspects of his character are the most valuable, or what they are hoping to do in the future. At times it could seem a little frustrating because as an actor in this space I wanted more concrete information and advice that I could turn into actionable strategies, but in the end I feel like that focus on people makes it so much more worthwhile.

Wandering around the startups – with my decade of experience working for and with them – I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness knowing that nearly every single one of those startups will fail. I know that the enthusiasm that I felt during pitch after pitch could be followed by crushing despair of failure. But by keeping the focus on people, I know that it’s not really the startup that’s important. Those entrepreneurs are all on their own journeys and those journeys all crossed each other this week. In this moment of time, those ideas are all contributing towards the advancement of society. Whether a startup fails, pivots, or succeeds, those entrepreneurs are gaining valuable experience from today to help shape tomorrow.

Long live the Web Summit!

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