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Events Business Leadership B2B Marketing

At Anthropy, marketers grappled with their role in the UK’s future


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

November 16, 2022 | 9 min read

Anthropy, a three-day ‘gathering’ of leaders from across industries at Cornwall’s Eden Project, has wrapped. We sat down with the marketers who made it happen to talk purpose, planet and positive change.

Sadiq Khan at Anthropy

Anthropy brought together marketers with experts across sectors to discuss a positive future for Britain / Image courtesy of TRO

A major gathering of leaders from the worlds of marketing, commerce, politics and culture has concluded after three days at Cornwall’s iconic Eden Project. It marks the first time that the famous ecological attraction has been closed to the public in its two-decade existence.

Over 1,000 people, collectively dubbed ‘Anthropists,’ attended, including over 450 speakers across almost 200 sessions at the start of November.

Intended to be the first in a series of yearly events occupying a space somewhere between the World Economic Forum and Glastonbury, the event aimed to drive positive thinking about the nation’s future in relation to four pillars: ‘quality of life,’ ‘quality of place,’ ‘the qualities we want to see in a good economy’ and a ‘global perspective.’

Anthropy gathered a group of participants as motley as it was impressive: at least five lords, two dames, three knights and three members of parliament; mayor of London Sadiq Khan; pop star Imogen Heap; dancer and Strictly Come Dancing judge Darcey Bussell; and marketing and media heavyweights such as Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland.

Its output will be a manifesto on practical steps toward the future of Britain envisaged by delegates, to be delivered to the House of Lords next year. What those practical steps are remains to be seen, following a program that covered artificial intelligence (AI), women’s sport, pension funds, creator journalism, the openness of democracy and much else besides.

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In the garden of Eden

For a gathering about ambitious visions for making the country more equitable, sustainable and successful, Cornwall’s Eden Project is a natural home. Built around a former clay pit (whose distinctively-colored clay originally gave The Financial Times its pinkish hue), its two mega-domes bring the rainforest to south west England. It’s an attraction that stands for sustainability, rejuvenation and entrepreneurship.

The event’s founder, John O’Brien, is himself a marketer in a manner of speaking: one of the (many) hats he wears is as managing partner of One Hundred, a purpose-focused strategy group within Omnicom. Colleagues from Omnicom came on as founding sponsors of the event, alongside consultants Ernst & Young.

O’Brien tells The Drum that the shock of the pandemic in 2020 kickstarted his ambition for the event. “I thought, this is the biggest impact on my country in my lifetime, both economically and socially,” he says. “I thought, there are a lot of global gatherings – Cop, Davos, the UN week – but if we’re going to ‘build back better,’ where’s the national gathering that’s not just the business elite, but brings together business leaders, academics, politicians, not-for-profits, and social and societal leaders?”

Eden was the only place for this gathering: resisting pressure to hold the event in London, O’Brien says Cornwall is “somewhere where people have to make a serious decision about committing to be here. I chose to base it on consequences, rather than a location of convenience.”

Anthropy’s broad church of varied themes from an array of industries is no accident: “I get invited to two types of conferences: marketing conferences, and sustainability and ethical business conferences. At a sustainability conference, I’d look at the audience and say, ‘put your hands up who’s got sustainability in your job title?’ They’d all put their hands up. So you’re sustainability directors, talking about sustainability, to other sustainability directors, at a sustainability conference? What’s the point of that?

“At marketing conferences it’s the same problem. The point of this is that you get a teacher next to a sustainability officer next to a brand manager next to a retail CEO.

“This is not a sustainability conference. This is a national conversation about the future of Britain, and it’s nothing less than trying to change the national narrative and setting a long-term vision.”

That vision, O’Brien says, has not been forthcoming from politicians locked into short-term cycles or from eternal combat on social media; in fact, it can’t come from any one group alone. “If I have a problem, and I ask three teachers for a solution, I’ll get a teacher solution. If I ask three bankers, I’ll get a banker solution. Three artists will give me an artist solution. But if I ask a teacher, a banker and an artist, I’ll get something innovative and different.”

‘Dare to dream and organize to deliver’

The event was delivered by a raft of Omnicom agencies, including Porter Novelli, Fuse and experiential specialists TRO. The latter was among O’Brien’s first partners, putting in work before paid sponsorships were even in place. TRO chief exec Michael Wyrley-Birch tells The Drum that, from day one, it was always about showing a new way forward: “We’ve got a real opportunity to change the narrative and have a positive post-Covid ... what we learned during Covid was that anything’s possible. We proved we can. So this is an opportunity to do big, brave things and break the status quo.”

For Wyrley-Birch, this means addressing a “conundrum” for marketers. “There’s this tension point between consumption and climate change. Does marketing drive consumption? Yes! Almost every ROI of a brief is, ‘we want to sell more stuff,’ whatever that might be, and that’s directly opposed to what’s happening with the marketing. But marketing’s an incredibly powerful tool for communication, and communication is about inspiring people. So rather than just saying, ‘this is a big challenge,’ we thought the best way to do it was through action.”

David Bentley, chief exec at Porter Novelli, agrees that the event will be a success to the extent that it inspires tangible change down the line. “My hope is that this was a catalyst for action, not just dialogue,” he says. “Just to have the discussion I don’t think is sufficient.”

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From talking to doing

Plenty of events promise conversation that (they hope) will lead to transformative action. It’s impossible to say now whether any such action will come from Anthropy. Lisa Merrick-Lawless of climate action catalysts Purpose Disruptors told us that while there might be value in dreaming alone, action must follow quickly.

“The overarching theme for me is imagination,” says Merrick-Lawless. “I think we’ve forgotten a little bit about the power of that. These things – the Eden Project, Anthropy – are only possible because somebody first imagined them.”

Nevertheless, “there’s a lot of chat in the industry, but it’s shallow, small and slow. We need to shift to systems change, at scale and speed ... we shift the mindset of the people in the industry. And by shifting the mindset of the people, that will shift the output of the industry and then society.”

Merrick-Lawless goes on: “It’s about the ripple effect: how do you give people in the industry the tools they need to make change happen?”

The focus on action over words is echoed by Eden’s own founder, Sir Tim Smit. “Eden’s obsession is doing stuff. We’re a bit allergic to talking about it ... our projects are fired by this desire to create example after example, which shows that ordinary people working together with good hearts can do marvelous things.”

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