My First (Last?) Barcamp Vancouver


Open to All—Except Advertisers

Yesterday, I joined 175 folks at BarCamp Vancouver 2010, an event billed by local organizers as an “ad-hoc un-conference born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment.” I had read an entry on Wikipedia about the history of BarCamp before registering and expected an informal, peer-driven series of sessions on a variety of topics.
 
Happily, Barcamp Vancouver didn’t disappoint on that score. Armed with post-its, a plastic milk crate and the stopwatch on an iPhone, the organizers opened the floor to a steady stream of participants who wished to pitch a session. All attendees then “voted” to see which topics ocurred in the big room (sponsored by Mobify), medium-sized “Nitobi” room or in the smaller rooms on the upper floor at The Waldorf Hotel. Since I’m more interested in social media than coding, I headed for the following:
 
 
Listen, I enjoyed myself and met up with old friends and made a few new contacts too. The conversations were sharp, smart and I left knowing more about how to set up a strong promotion in Groupon, why Reddit is cannibalizing Digg’s user base, and how developers used a “Trojan” system at BBC to first standardize company websites before centralizing key systems.
 
Mission accomplished, right? Err, right.
 
Except that I can’t shake the feeling that I was an interloper–someone to be politely tolerated rather than strictly welcomed at yesterday’s event.
I’ve spent the large part of my career in corporate advertising. I’ve held all sorts of positions within the field, from copywriter to proofreader and content strategist. I define myself first and foremost as an advertiser.
 
During Eric Weaver’s session on Why You Don’t Need a Social Media Strategy, things got a little…tetchy. Weaver’s from DDB, a large creative agency, and–incidentally–one of the event’s sponsors.
 
During his presentation, he walked us through a recent campaign for Unilever’s Knorr product line of Sidekicks in which the character of Salty, an anthropomorphized salt shaker, became the emotional hook for driving awareness and engagement. Sales rose by 10%, the client’s website experienced the highest traffic ever and the brand overtook Uncle Ben which had been the market leader until then. Weaver’s point was that we shouldn’t get sidelined by the tools, it’s about having an integrated strategy that starts with the business’s end goals in mind.
 
But during yesterday’s session, the comments veered off the topic to focus on the product itself rather than the strategy Weaver and his team implemented to achieve success. He was asked to defend the line of rice which was “poisin,” then his industry’s business model (making money by making money for his clients), and the ethics of crass agencies co-opting the social media space for their own greedy ends.
 
To be fair, I think there were people who were genuinely engaged in the conversation and not for the sake of pure conflict. (See Weaver’s own diplomatic tweet.)
But for the most part the conversation seemed adversarial, argumentative and deliberatively rude. I felt pummelled sitting in the audience. Others noticed too. After the session, a special #adrant was organized to continuing exploring “people’s hate of advertising agencies.” I stuck around for it but didn’t glean much truthfully so I’m leaving it to others for their take.
 
In the end, I’m left with the same question I tweeted yesterday: “If you are so turned off by big, bad advertisers, maybe you shouldn’t ask them to be your sponsor?”
 
And should I, and others who work in advertising, feel welcome to join Barcamp Vancouver 2011?
Updated to include a link to Earl Von Tapia’s excellent presentation on Reddit.