My favourite Elevate sessions, and why they matter to business leaders

The theme for this year’s Elevate Tech Festival in Toronto was “Moonshots,” so perhaps it’s appropriate I was asked to highlight my favourite sessions using just 900 words (editor’s note: it’s actually more than 1,100).

The 15 festival stages were filled with hundreds of talks from accomplished individuals, and my biggest complaint about the week-long event is that the multi-track design makes it impossible to see them all. But my seven favourite sessions from those I was able to watch are highlighted below, listed in the order I saw them.

Commander Chris Hadfield

If you want to have a festival about “moonshots,” getting an astronaut to co-chair it is pretty smart. And Hadfield, the first Canadian to walk in space, did not disappoint. He gave an informative, entertaining, and inspirational presentation about the various moonshots the human race has taken throughout history.

His presentation was great, but I admit my favourite part was the end, when he pulled out a guitar and, a piano was rolled onto the stage (to be played by the incredibly talented Emm Gryner), and the duo treated the audience to a rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”—a song Hadfield famously performed on board the International Space Station in 2013 (if you’ll forgive the fact this was filmed on my cell-phone, you can watch it here).

What can marketers take away from Hadfield’s session? The fact that throughout history, we’ve always set audacious goals and have somehow managed to find a way to achieve them. Doing the same for your business is something to be celebrated.

Martha Stewart

When you’re about to see someone whose Wikipedia entry lists her as “an American retail businesswoman, writer, television personality, former model, and convicted felon,” you know you’re in for a treat.

Interviewed alongside Canopy Growth CEO Mark Zekulin, Stewart’s presentation focused on her role in the burgeoning cannabis market, highlighting her incredible ability to evolve and extend her brand.

If you have any doubt as to whether reinventing or reinvigorating your brand is possible, just remember that Martha Stewart is now involved with the cannabis industry and hosting her third season of a successful cooking show with rapper Snoop Dogg.

Neil Blumenthal, co-founder and co-CEO, Warby Parker

Neil Blumenthal believes that building and scaling Warby Parker would have been much easier to do today. He would have used Shopify, he said.

Blumenthal talked about the challenge of building a company when there’s a lot of overlap in the (limited) experience of the co-founders; the need to focus on recruiting the right people, and the critical importance of getting the culture right.

Asked what he would tell people who wanted to build a successful company, Blumenthal responded: “Build the company that you want to go to work for everyday.” I think the same principle can be applied to your brands. If you’re not building a brand that you would want to buy, how can you expect your customers to buy it?

Marcus Buckingham, author of “Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World”

During an engaging and insightful presentation, bestselling author Marcus Buckingham exposed the audience to “Nine Lies about Work”, the subject (and title) of his new book.

When you listen to him explain those “nine lies” and how they cause frustration and dysfunction in the workplace, it all makes sense. If your company has a “high potential” program, believes in the importance of “feedback”, or thinks you might be better off if you were a more well-rounded individual… you might want to pick up a copy of Buckingham’s book and leave it on the CEO’s desk (or you can forward the link to his website).

It would be easy to dismiss Buckingham’s conclusions as hyperbole based on what we’ve been told and experienced our entire careers, except he’s spent his entire career studying companies and gathering data.

Jen Rubio, co-founder, president and chief brand officer of Away

Away is not a luggage company: It’s a direct-to-consumer lifestyle brand that creates luggage and other travel products. Jen Rubio made that very clear during her presentation, then went on to explain how that important distinction has allowed Away to become a $1.4 billion dollar brand.

“It was a really bold thing to talk about being a travel brand early on, when we had just one suitcase,” she told the audience. But it’s clearly working: Do you know any other luggage companies that can partner with a boutique hotel in Paris to rebrand it as “Chez Away” for a limited time, then sell-out the hotel’s bookings in just minutes? Neither do I.

Guy Kawasaki, author “Wise Guy: Lessons from a Life”

Guy Kawasaki is clearly a guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously; when an out-of-time indicator appeared at what should have been the end of his presentation, he laughed and said, “What are they going do to… not invite me back next year?” then kept going.

An American marketing specialist, author, and Silicon Valley venture capitalist who was famously hired twice by Steve Jobs at Apple, Kawasaki’s presentation was filled with entertaining and authentic stories from his life and career, loosely tied together as a list of “10 Lessons from Silicon Valley”.

The most important lesson for marketers: “Get high and to the right.” When those words appeared on the screen Kawasaki was quick to note, “This isn’t about marijuana or politics.” What he meant was that if you think of “unique” and “valuable” on two axes, you always want to position your products in the upper-right quadrant. That’s the spot the iPod occupied when it was first introduced.

Scott Galloway and Kara Swisher, The Pivot Podcast

Without a doubt my favourite session of the festival. Galloway’s incredible sense of humour, combined with Swisher’s charming cynicism, is a powerful combination (want to listen to the made-in-Canada podcast for yourself? Trust me, you definitely do.)

Galloway was hugely enthusiastic about Canadian-born Shopify, so when I met him backstage after the session, I said that Canada likes to pride itself as being “Silicon Valley North” and asked him if he had his eye on any other Canadian tech start-ups.

He responded: “I don’t know, I don’t really hear a lot about Canadian start-ups… who would you pick?” Full disclosure: I didn’t have an answer. The lesson here is clear: marketing matters. If you’re a tech start-up that isn’t at least thinking about building a brand, you might want to ask why that is, and whether having an expert like Galloway know about you might help you gain customers and investors.


David Pullara is a senior marketer, consultant, writer, course facilitator for the Schulich Executive Education Center, and speaker. His career has included roles at Starbucks, Yum! Brands (Pizza Hut), Coca-Cola, and Google. You can follow him on LinkedIn, Medium, and Twitter.

David Brown