The great and the good of tech and marketing gathered here in Dublin last week for the Web Summit. Now in its fourth year, the Web Summit in Dublin is being heralded as Europe’s answer to SXSW Interactive. A record 20,000 people attended the 2014 event last week (from 500 when it started), and the speaker lineup included everyone who’s anyone in Silicon Valley plus a smattering of celebrities for light relief. Lucie Greene, director of JWT Intelligence, rounds up her highlights from the event.

So what happened when the great and the good of the tech world descended on Dublin?

Big Data and privacy were naturally front and centre, as well as the future of media, marketing and advertising in the digital age. Content — what makes good content, how to use good content — was a constant. Tech giants and multinational lifestyle brands touted their innovation programs (Unilever and Coca-Cola both held talks about theirs) and startup-support initiatives. Among the tech stars, there was a recurrent focus on company culture and the struggles they’ve had in identifying who they are, building company DNA and attracting the right people.

Stripe’s rapid ascent into the world of payments

When I mentioned Stripe to the head of innovation at a major payments company two years ago, it was dismissed as a blip. The company is now worth $1.75 billion. Stripe is quickly gaining ground on PayPal and others in the space. Stripe now manages Apple Pay, supports Alipay payments and is facilitating both Twitter and Facebook payments. Co-founder John Collison, 24, said he wanted to help U.S. and international brands enter the Chinese market. Collison also talked about wanting to remove some friction in e-commerce and payments by storing consumers’ financial IDs, as long as security is ensured.

It’s a question of how big online payments could get.

John Collison, Co-founder of Stripe, on how big his business could get.

Oculus Rift and the future of personal communications

Oculus Rift CEO Brendan Iribe said that long term, the most exciting thing about his company’s virtual reality headset is the potential to revolutionize communications, in the same way email and telephones have. He envisions people wearing headsets to feel as though they are in the same room with others around the world in real time — 3D phone virtual reality/augmented reality communication, in other words. Iribe also hinted at smart garments working in sync with Oculus Rift games to make them more immersive and multisensory.

 

Tech giants commission research and expand business services 

Tech companies are ramping up their role as enterprise facilitators, offering a raft of services to businesses. Amazon had a major stand for its Web Services cloud computing service. Twitter’s Adam Bain discussed offering enterprise tools like enhanced search, Twitter social data analysis and consulting thanks to the acquisition of Fabric, an app development company, and a partnership with IBM. Twitter is also commissioning research from MIT Media Lab to better analyse how people use Twitter and how information spreads. He also said Twitter was exploring emotion of shopping and what inspires the impulse to purchase.

 

Facebook’s Erik Johnson spoke about Facebook Atlas, the new ad-measurement platform, in the context of digital natives. He described “FOBO” as the new FOMO — that is, the Fear Of Being Offline. Jonson says the traditional cookie is over: It’s of little use in a mobile-first world, especially since he said 40% of browsing starts on one channel and ends on another. Atlas’ proposition is that it joins up the dots between channels and cross-pollinates offline data with Facebook profiles, as well as granular insights into online consumer behavior in relation to ads. Plus, Johnson said any data registered by shoppers as they pay in stores can be cross-referenced with Facebook profiles for those who submit their details.

I imagine this will raise questions for companies whose business model is based on the content-to-commerce ecosystem. What happens to affiliate retail without cookies?

Where does Nest go from here? 

Tony Fadell, CEO of Google-owned Nest, talked about the challenges of building thermostats that work in the context of global markets, where architecture and energy usage patterns are hugely disparate. He said Nest’s aim is to create social change and help the environment; its business interests are not monetizing data. Time will tell.

Google fleshes out “search” 

Lorraine Twohill, Google’s marketing chief, discussed how she’s built the advertising around not only what Google does (search) but also what that means in human terms — using search to tell stories that resonate with people and interact with them. She’s focusing on highlighting the art, emotion, experience and creative potential of Google and digital platforms by working with artists, using Google’s mapping to create virtual reality games or tours around cities — stretching the creative boundaries to show how inspiring Google’s technology should be.

Creating things audiences can participate in is key.

Lorraine Twohill, Senior VP of Marketing, Google

Citizen journalism/activism

From the many talks on the future of media, one theme that stuck out was how news coverage is changing, led by engaged, activist Millennials. Something is definitely happening here — though some of it is relatively shallow (e.g., the rise of hashtag social media activism). Vice has talked a lot recently about how, contrary to popular thought, Millennials are very engaged politically, and this has become a major platform for the brand. Vice has expanded its citizen journalism platform and is launching an environmental news channel, Toxic. Also aiming at Millennials, the BBC recently launched BBC Trending, an interactive platform for popular videos and consumer-generated coverage. As speakers noted, the functionality of mobile phones now allows for very professional production quality, opening up media coverage to everyone — the smartphone is democratizing media.

John Sculley’s affordable smartphone

 John Sculley, ex-CEO of Apple, is launching a brand of affordable phone in China that is also beautiful — following the Apple thread  but cheaper. (He says he’s stolen lots of design talent from Apple.) 

This reminded me of Bloomberg Businessweek’s recent article on affordable smartphones coming of age.

Peter Thiel on Silicon Valley and aging

Caroline Daniel, Weekend editor at the Financial Times, was refreshingly direct in interviewing Silicon Valley icon Peter Thiel—for instance, challenging him on the tech world’s oft-cited “change the world” mission. She was a good match for Thiel, whose responses were thoughtful and eloquent, especially in regard to aging as the next key problem for Silicon Valley to “solve.” Thiel discussed how aging is related to many of the world’s illnesses and how exploring aging’s causes could drive a lot of innovation in medicine.

Lasting Impressions

Despite Eva Longoria’s appearance, the event felt more tech- and tech-industry focused than SXSW, and was perhaps the lesser for it. SXSW has a more cerebral feel, with cross-disciplinary speakers from outside tech and an emphasis on big ideas.

There was a polarisation between the major names onstage and the exhibitors, which were mostly still in developing stages and seeking investment; more mid-level new companies could have rounded it out. 

And more women — it’s tricky with tech conferences, but this felt very male.

I would also love to have seen more exploration around the convergence of transmedia, gaming, entertainment and tech, where so much interesting stuff is happening now.

In terms of access to the superstars of Silicon Valley (and, rapidly, the world at large), however, the Web Summit was difficult to beat.

(Image credit: Sportsfile)

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