An interesting week has been spent in New York City attending the 4SE Event in Chelsea to hear from some of the leading names and voices in sports, entertainment, brand and culture.
Ahead of the event, I’d been in conversation with clients and agency partners about all things AI.
We had been quizzing each other about the roll out of Microsoft’s Bing ChatGPT product, plug ins and platforms, the plethora of open-source applications being delivered by developers and – because I have this affinity with all things regulatory and public affairs facing – when, rather than if, adequate rules and guidelines were going to be applied and by whom.
As I boarded the flight to NYC, it seemed this was all about a bright shiny future, technology driven, robotics and automation, so, as a slightly greying gentleman of a certain age, it was easy to wonder if I would still have a place amongst this futuristic galaxy of stars.
Looking at the speaker and panel lists for the conversations at 4SE, I expected to hear more of the same, even penning a short blog outlining what I imagined the dialogue to be all about. After all, the companies in attendance were the biggest sports franchises in America, the brand bosses from the biggest brands and the marketing heavyweights from the tech and social media platforms which dominate fan and consumer engagement.
But I was in for a surprise.
The first and only utterance of AI came late on the first day, and from a leading sports memorabilia collector and trader, who was disparaging about the new technology and its ability to connect with people.
Technology was in the room, but it wasn’t dominating the discourse.
The recurring themes of this conference, addressed by all speakers and contributors, were far more prosaic. They spoke about engaging their audiences, they championed tapping into memories and multi-sensory experiences. And they spoke again and again about the critical importance of values; the alignment with fan and audience expectations and how brand collaborations had to be formed around common ideas, aspirations and contexts.
It wasn’t that this group of sports, brands and cultural leaders weren’t concerned or interested in the inevitable rise of AI and the productivity savings it promises, just that they all recognised the success of their brands, businesses and bottom lines were more tightly aligned around storytelling and evoking passion and connection with fans, consumers and audiences.
Reassured that I still had a place in this world, I entered group conversations to hear from Justin Tuck, the former New York Giant and now Managing Director of Goldman Sachs, Allan Coye, head of Warner Music Group; and Noah Garden, Chief Revenue Officer for Major League Baseball.
These individuals based here in Gotham aren’t soft soap peddlers. They are in the business of making serious money – with global deals, distributions and media rights dominating their priorities. But they all acknowledged the power of a story.
After all, Content has been King for as long as anyone can remember in communications and marketing, and while the way in which it is delivered and communicated may change with the times, the elements of a good story are constant.
These were still my people.
I strolled the event venue and enjoyed the 1985 teenage-bedroom which had been set up in a side room complete with movie posters, early video and computer games, and spawned many conversations amongst attendees reminiscing about the assorted tchotchkes of the times.
I confidently joined workshops and presentations with people who were the cultural storytellers and storymakers of our times. Fat Joe, the Bronx-based cultural icon and philanthropist told us about his experiences growing up in the dawn of hip hop, and his recollection of that famous party at Sedgwick House 50 years ago that has now spawned the dominant culture of our times.
We were dazzled by the story of Natalie White, a young twenty something entrepreneur who only three years ago was in college but now owns and fronts Moolah Kicks, the leading basketball shoe brand for female athletes.
And then there was David Kelly, the Chief Legal Officer for reigning NBA Champions Golden State Warriors, their head of Business Development and the CEO of Golden State Entertainments their new music and publishing division. He invited RhymeFest, a grammy award-winning hip-hop writer and performer, on stage for a conversation about storytelling.
We listened to their insights about how music and lyrics and storytelling were important growing up in the largely African American community of South Chicago. We heard how his latest venture Golden State Entertainment was launched and how it focussed on connecting with a portfolio of performers who shared the ambitions of the NBA Franchise, reflected their values and offered a platform to tell their tales.
But you could have heard a pin drop when RhymeFest invited the senior legal counsel to ‘spit a few bars’ – and when the senior advocate delivered a flow of lyrics highlighting social injustice, the power of community, and the responsibilities those in power hold.
This wasn’t a party trick. It wasn’t some cringe-inducing Karaoke performance or misguided attempt to look ‘hip’.
This was the most senior person in a global sports franchising telling a story in a style that was authentic and relevant to him, to basketball fans, and would resonate with the adjacent communities of hip hop and fashion brands.
It was powerful.
Everything we heard in those two or three days was about telling stories.
It was all about being authentic and knowing that those critical Gen Z and Millennial audiences can sniff BS from a hundred tweets away.
The big broadcasters and social media companies – Disney, SnapChat, Meta and others – spoke of their hunger for the fresh content and good stories in and around sport and entertainment which their audiences craved.
The content producers, creatives and agencies told of their hunt and search for original stories to tell about athletes and teams and leagues beyond the locker room and far from the field of play.
And the brands who want to connect with the billions of sports fans, concert goers and content consumers talked about the importance of understanding the context and core values which the athlete, performers, brands and platforms had to share.
Sure, the latest technology will impact how we search for, find and package those stories, but if there was one key takeaway from this gathering of the best and the biggest names in sports and brand marketing it was the power of a story, rich in authentic content, and based on a set of values audiences and athletes and brands share.
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