2016: Year in review

Over 110 events in the making, here are our editorial team’s highlights of 2016...


2016 has, by almost any measure, been a doozy. A word cloud of the business year would scream “digital” in huge point; around it “disruption”, “transformation”, and “strap in”. Here are our highlights from 12 of the busiest months in GDS Group history…

This year, we’ve attended over 60 summits, hosted over 50 events, written hundreds of blogs, made hundreds of videos, and spoken with some of the most brilliant people in the (business) world. A great big thank you to everyone who took the time to work, speak, and share their thinking with us. Here are our editorial team’s highlights of 2016.

Image of GDS Group editorial team
Clockwise L-R: Ben Thompson, Sasha Qadri, Adam Burns, Shawna Ryan, Carla Curtsinger

The single most important thing you learned this year?

Sasha Qadri: Culture and mindset change at big organisations is one of the biggest barriers to effecting change. A lot of lip service is paid to wanting to make change, but the senior buy in and understanding of how crucial it is to survive this digital shift is lacking. Many people have talked about how their children keep them relevant and current. It’s about understanding how the next generation will think and behave when it comes to technology.

Shawna Ryan: Agreed, and to add to that… It’s the baby boomer who isn’t tech savvy and isn’t receptive to new advances in technology in the work environment that seems to frustrate many executives.

My biggest learning: brick and mortar and digital retail aren’t in competition the way you may think. The retailers who are poised for exponential growth are the ones who find a way to seamless blend the two so one never subsumes the other. When shopping in store compliments the benefits of shopping online and vice versa, well that’s the sweet spot, isn’t it?

Ben Thompson: Post-truth hasn’t (yet) extended to business reporting. Hard metrics still matter, and ROI is still the measure by which most projects are judged. Demonstrating business value will continue to be essential heading into 2017.

“Millennial is not an age demographic. It is a mindset.”

Carla Curtsinger: Mobile apps are as expected by consumers today as websites used to be, and are possibly more essential for commercial success.

Adam Burns: The personal is no longer only political, it’s also business. I’ve been to 24 different industry conferences this year (quick maths: eight speakers per day, two days per event = 284 speakers), and looking back on my notes, the most repeated phrase is “millennials”. But the belated awakening of corporations to the world’s largest demographic is not my key learning: how to reach them is. Shivika Sinha of jewellery brand Alex and Ani spoke of ‘conscious consumerism’. Skins’ Jaimie Fuller demonstrated the power of non-sponsorship. And in the real world, LEGO stopped its Daily Mail giveaways, while Kellogg’s, Nest, Warby Parker and others withdrew their advertising dollars from Breitbart. Mark Adams is Head of Innovation for Vice Media. He says millennial is a mind-set, not a demographic. Expect a lot more issue-driven business decisions.

Anything that surprised/disappointed you?

Ben: The appetite for change was surprising (and in a political sense at least, somewhat disappointing). Last year I complained that not enough people were taking the concept of disruption seriously; this year, they embraced it and decided to shake things up. The moral of the story? Be careful what you wish for!

Carla: Although I have only been hosting summits and Meet the Boss Live events for two years, I am amazed at how much the technology that supports – and makes my job easier – has changed in that short period of time. Digital transformation, I thank you.

Sasha: I’m surprised that one year on, while progress has been made in terms of dealing with digital disruption, the pace is very slow. On roundtables, at summits, at Meet the Boss Live events, similar issues continue to be voiced to 12 months ago. Although, given the complexity of undertaking digital transformation maybe I should be less surprised. I always feel that change should be quicker, but that’s probably just me having a typical customer attitude.

Adam: This year. Bowie, Lemmy, Prince, Rickman, Wogan, Wood, and post-truth politics. 2016 = Morrissey wrote a porno: sadness and dicks.

Favourite quote?

Carla: “Stress is the new fat.” Jan Bruce, CEO, meQuilibrium (HR Summit keynote).

Ben: “Millennial is not an age demographic. It is a mindset. We are all Millennials.” Mark Adams, Head of Innovation, Vice Media (CMO Summit keynote).

Sasha: “At SocGen no one is allowed to use the word legacy – it is banned.” Karan Walia, COO EMEA and Global COO Technology Newedge, Société Générale (Meet the Boss roundtable attendee)

Adam: “What we make today will be legacy tomorrow. What we make tomorrow will be legacy in the future. And it’s a convenient excuse to use legacy technology as an issue to not move forward into a digital world.” Marcus Jewell, VP EMEA, Brocade (Meet the Boss video)

Shawna: “What we’re seeing is dynamic organizations, that are disruptors, that are coming in fresh, and they’re not letting process get in the way, but instead are adopting agile processes so they can quickly respond to the market. That’s why process is the new black, we have got to get out of our own way.” Lisa Arthur, former Terradata Applications CMO and author of ‘Big Data Marketing’ (CMO Summit workshop host)

Most innovative/inspiring person/people you spoke with this year?

Sasha: I really enjoyed speaking with Atom Bank CEO Mark Mullen and the COO Stewart Bromley as I think they are really trying to do something different in a tough industry. It’s a risky, stressful venture which has the critics lined up, but they are committed to being a digital pure play, fundamentally trying to change the industry and prioritising the customer experience.

“Businesses fail when decision-makers are distanced from customers”

Ben: Meeting Arian (Kalantari, co-founder) and Ian (Moore, Head of Content) from the TheLADBible at the CMO Digital Summit. Great to see a business having so much fun with what they do. You can be serious about success and still retain a sense of humour.

Carla: As a group, the senior executives who attend the HSE Summit inspire me. I have never interviewed anyone in that field who does not love getting up every morning and going into work. Keeping their people safe inspires them in a very visceral way, and it’s very humbling to be around.

Recommend one piece of content you’ve produced this year…

Adam: This blog. I am a believer in great customer service. And I am a believer that businesses fail when decision-makers are distanced from customers. They become complacent, like the 26-year old multimillionaire sportsperson who no longer plays like the hungry 19-year old. There is – quite literally – an entire generation waiting for you to serve it better. If your management team are not leading customer-centric digital transformation like their lives depend on it, it’s time to serve notice. By fax.

Carla: How Kelly Ripa’s walk-out brought workplace respect in focus. This piece was ripped from the headlines, so it was very topical and backed by some interesting research. It received more traffic than any other blog I wrote this year!

Shawna: Marketing misspellings! Neil Ackerman, the Global e-Commerce Director for Mondelēz International, one of the world’s largest snack companies with power brands such as Oreo and Nabisco, says in digital retail when trying to optimise your content and increase your search options online, don’t just go for obvious terms and adjectives. You should also include typos and misspellings as well. When Oreo increased its search terms from 9 to 500, it soon became the number one best seller flag in assorted cookie in Prime Pantry.

Ben: This blog I wrote on digital disruption at the start of the year. It really set the tone for much of what we spent the rest of 2016 talking about.

Your working highlight of 2016?

Shawna: Honestly, I think meeting some really fierce female leaders has been a highlight. I met decision makers across the HSE, Oil & Gas, Retail and Marketing industries and while there are still a majority of men in the top positions, the women who were in those big roles were forces to be reckoned with.

Ben: Expanding the Meet the Boss format beyond the fourth wall with the launch of Meet the Boss Live. Great conversations, brilliant networking, fantastic insights – but not such great news for my waistline. All that five-star food is bound to take its toll at some point.

Carla: The Meet the Boss Live ‘day at the races’ at Kern Raceway in Bakersfield on behalf of Bulwark Protective Clothing. The venue and the program of events uniquely supported the client’s messaging, and I think everyone who attended – including the GDS team – will remember that event.

Adam: HPE flew Kevin Mitnick to London and let him loose on a room full of CISOs. It was a brilliant evening. One highlight: Kevin used a device with a range of less than 3ft to copy someone’s “uncrackable” ID access card. It worked in seconds. Room in shock – and happy they hadn’t volunteered their cards – Kevin pointed out the bag on the desk behind him. It contained a battery pack and an antenna that extended the reach of his device to 45ft. As Benjamin Franklin said: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”