Marketer inspirations (and some questions) from TedxToronto 2019

Last weekend TEDxToronto hosted its 11th conference at Evergreen Brickworks. Under the theme “Rise,” 12 speakers took the stage to tell their stories about what it means to rise today.

Not everything that “rises” is good. As the curators suggested, a rise can be optimistic, but it can also be ominous.

We’re living in the age of disruption. New technologies seem to appear every day. There are new businesses, new political movements, new online communities and, of course, there’s our rising temperature.

As TEDxToronto’s agency of record, the conference got us at The Garden thinking about what’s on the rise in our industry today, and the important questions that poses for all of us.

Data Imperfection

Everyone is talking about data. But, as Danielle Goldfarb, head of global research at RIWI, explained, data is incredibly imperfect and our insights are only as good as our sources.

While many were blindsided by the results of the 2016 Brexit vote and U.S. Presidential election, Goldfarb wasn’t among them. Most polling and surveys only reflect the data of people who are already excited about answering surveys—which is very few of us. This means we tend to get information and base our decisions and predictions on outliers rather than the masses.

What might we be able to predict, understand and solve if we could reach those missing voices? Who out there can we rely on to provide us with that information? In an industry that has become obsessed with predicting success and minimizing risk, is our reliance on imperfect data actually placing us at even greater risk?

Are we solving the right problems?

Anthony Morgan, criminal justice lawyer and consultant in the City of Toronto’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit (above), talked about how social reform is critical to building a positive future for this city.

As our policy makers try to arrest their way out of rising gun and gang violence, more dollars have been directed towards policing and away from critical social services. We are spending in a way that suggests police officers are more important than social workers, employment counsellors, addiction specialists, librarians and mental health workers.

The resulting funding gap tells the story of a city that is spending more on a community’s problems than it is investing in its people.

Morgan argues that we need to rebalance these spending priorities to create new possibilities for the entire city. He advocates for a culturally sensitive framework for social reform that is inclusive and integrative, drawing upon the skills, expertise, experiences and perspectives of a wide range of individuals; in the case of the black community in particular, he said, “Anything about us, done without us, does nothing for us.”

While most of our daily challenges are not as complex as solving gun violence, it made us wonder what solutions are we chasing that are not actually solving the problem? Are we pushing ourselves enough? And how much more could we accomplish if we brought more diverse voices into the conversation?

The Mirror-tocracy effect

How many women do you know who enjoy sports, and participate in watercooler conversations with their male counterparts on a regular basis? If those numbers seem low, know that it doesn’t reveal something about women specifically, but about the sports news industry itself.

Shireen Ahmed is a writer, public speaker, and award-winning sports activist, focusing on Muslim women in sports and the intersection of racism and misogyny in sport. She argued that sports are an important part of culture, yet the commentary surrounding professional sports remains too exclusive and narrow. Thanks to the 3% Movement, our own industry’s exclusion of women and visible minorities has been long documented—even if little progress has been made.

Like sports, our work is also a part of society’s social fabric, yet both industries are plagued by a “mirror-tocracy” when it comes to hiring and promoting. What questions aren’t being asked? What stories and new ideas are we missing when the creators and commentators don’t reflect the audiences they need to connect with?

Belonging as the bottom line

Gulshan Allibhai, owner of the Indian restaurant Lahore Tikka House, gave a personal and emotional talk about her own experiences finding community in Toronto’s ethnic enclave of Little India. She made an impassioned argument for the importance of ethnic enclaves in our growing city—how they build social capital, provide opportunities for employment and empowerment, and function as institutions of inclusiveness for people who feel displaced and disconnected as they try to fit into a new community. Given the 7.5 million immigrants living in Canada today, this is more than just a Toronto issue.  

She argued that societal success requires private and public sectors to look beyond profit and make belonging the bottom line—a rallying cry that should resonate well beyond our ethnic enclaves.

In June of this year, Cigna published the results of its landmark Loneliness Index, which revealed that nearly 50% of respondents sometimes or always feel alone or left out and one in four adults rarely or never feels there are people who understand them. Most surprisingly, Generation Z (ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations.

Whether we are talking about local communities or global businesses, there is an opportunity for brands and businesses to consider the role they play in connection-making and community building.

What could the impact on society be if every business started to make belonging, rather than shareholder returns, the bottom line for customers and employees?

Now that’s an idea worth spreading.

Shari Walczak is founding partner and chief strategy officer at The Garden, one of Canada’s top independent creative and brand strategy agencies.


—Photo: Johua Best