Tom Head, co-owner and director of Lab, on how the company created an off-the-scale emotionally engaging experience for the digital crème de la crème.
We’ve all been to one…
People blankly staring into the distance. Reluctantly sipping on really bad watered-down coffee. Uncomfortable silences and sales pitches poorly disguised as ‘chit-chat’. Events can be all of this, but they don’t need to.
Digital Podge is a legendary event that has been taking place annually for the last 24 years. Every year, Podge’s founder, the lovely Phil Jones, invites the best of the best in digital to have a drink and celebrate the passing of yet another year in the digital industry.
This year, we had the honour and slightly daunting task of designing the experience for this notorious event. As we thought about Podge and how it started out back in ‘94, we realised that the thing it really stood for – particularly in the rather transient world of digital, where new things are created and forgotten in a split second – was relationships.
So, being an agency driven by our love for human behaviour, we set the intention of using all of our cognitive skills to nudge relaxation, openness and genuine connection to create the best Podge ever.
By setting the playful theme of ‘Unconsciously Coupling’ and asking attendees to describe serendipitous relationships bonded through Podge, we got them thinking about the socially potent quality of the event from the very beginning.
Causing a healthy amount of cognitive dissonance and friction by playing with a well-known phrase, ‘Consciously Uncoupling,’ we took it a step further and came up with the concept of monogamous promiscuity. This concept refers to the behaviour encouraged by the event, of mingling and getting to know a lot of people while still remaining faithful to what Podge represents.
As attendees walked through the entrance of the Institute of Directors, we welcomed them into a space littered with carefully crafted messaging that aimed to prime them for trust and openness. The first was the banner at the top of the stairs. Here as attendees walked up into Podge we hoped they read the text which used pacing, by referencing the steps they were taking, to try to help people to let go of the stresses and strains of work. As they left their outerwear in the cloakroom, the messaging encouraged them to ‘leave their baggage behind.’
The space was warm and inviting, fragrant with the scent of lavender (which has been proven to stimulate trust) and buzzing with the sound of upbeat music with positive messaging. Featuring movie soundtracks and songs that ignited a sense of nostalgia and openness, our playlist for the afternoon nevertheless tingled their subconscious mind to make them more positive.
We served mulled wine as well, which gave attendees that extra warmth they needed in the wintery day of the event (which is proven to make people feel closer and more connected).
As everybody mingled and started to sit down for lunch they discovered that the QR code on the front of their badge took them to their own personal Podge page. This used facial recognition AI technology to scan all previous photos of Podge and build their history of the event automatically picking them out in the archives. The core aim of this was to create nostalgia, a really powerful emotion, helping shift our mindset to a more optimistic and warm way of thinking. It created a talking point as people gathered round old photos or ones the AI had got wrong!
Beyond messaging, sensations and music, we asked five Podge regulars to deliver a short story on some incredible Podge-related connections.
Pip Jamieson, founder of The Dots, talked about being reunited with a childhood school friend, who had designed her first tattoo, after many many years at Podge. That same person, James Henderson, is designing the theme for the 25th anniversary of the event next year. Jim Bowes and Leon Mills took on a six pack challenge after challenging each other at a Stodge Podge. Where else would you create a six pack challenge? Lab’s Steve Radjen discussed his mind boggling ‘21 marathons in 21 days’, which was inspired by his attendance at a previous Podge, and another attendee Adrian Lomas. Steve ended up raising over £160,000 for Naomi House, a children’s hospice on the south coast. Then there were the two Toms (Tom Adams and Tom Evans), whose business ventures were built and expanded round the lunch table at Podge, and finally Tim Fendley who told the heart warming story of meeting his wife at Podge one year!
All of these talks however were building up towards the most intriguing part of the evening: The Booth of Truth. As Podgers went in to talk to a very intelligent piece of AI (sponsored by Microsoft), they received feedback on the emotions found in their facial expressions.
The AI then proceeded to engage with them in lighthearted, fun conversations about their Podge experiences. But there was something that the attendees never discovered…
For the AI we designed a simple decision tree to greet people, ask an opening question, ask for more information and then say goodbye. It was based on a handful of questions and responses.
But there was a twist.
For most entertaining results, and to accurately process the slurry statements from the attendees we triggered the conversation manually. Our Director of Human Technology was controlling the conversation by cueing pre-programmed responses to keep the conversation alive.
The outcome of all this activity was an event that encouraged trust and openness within Podge more than ever before.
Cheers to Podge, cheers to Phil Jones for being at the centre of it all – and cheers to the people of Podge, who make it the exciting, unpredictable, mesmerising little melting pot it is.