Thin Client Surfing

By Pauline van Mourik Broekman, 13 January 2004

Pauline van Mourik Broekman peers into the open mind of Surf’s Up

With its fading grandeur and hard hats, it was a strangely appropriate location, said first speaker Malcolm Garrett of 1892, the old Victorian school turned loft heaven playing host to digital networking bonanza Surf's Up. The new media industry was, after all, still very much under construction.

Described by the organisers as an antidote to phenomena such as First Tuesday, whose rampant techno-corporate zeal they see as threatening the 'creative' bit of the creative industries, Surf's Up was billed as an opportunity to put the appropriate people in the driving seat of the e-revolution and to build “creative synergies between the UK's investment and creative communities.” One of the assumed shared objectives being to make those upstart MBAs – they who know nothing of the black arts of creativity – eat humble pie. It was for this reason that, in addition to assorted designers, marketeers, financiers and lawyers, a small arts contingency had also been invited to attend.

To make their ideas a reality, Surf's Up organisers David Gryn and Kenny Who joined forces with a veritable powerhouse of partners, including tech consultant Digital A&R/Prospect, The Arts Council of England's Collaborative Arts Unit, Creative Review's Creative Futures exhibition, EU-funded research body New Media Knowledge and dot com business support network Digital People, all of whom espouse the construction of a strong and inclusive support structure for the UK's digital economy.

Surf's Up's boisterously integrationist agenda is a compelling one and its desire to engage what it sees as the “hitherto estranged groups” involved in business and creativity in a mutually beneficial dialogue quite predictably drew a full house. Perhaps equally predictably, it wasn't long before expletives and eulogies to the 'revolution' and its 'revolutionaries' filled the exschool's dusty classrooms.

The day was structured around four core workshops: b.Shrewd – on financing and capitalisation strategies; b.Heard – on effective marketing in the digital economy; b.Protected – on legal and copyright issues; and b.Strategic – on that certain je ne sais quoi, the 'winning idea'. They were preceded by case studies from companies AMX and Host Universal, the first of which gave a rather resigned but happy explanation for their friendly takeover by global corporate The Havas Group (“They've made it possible for us to concentrate on the kind of projects we've always wanted to complete”), the latter the kind of bizarre rabblerousing speech many will be familiar with from the more religious ends of the technology press (comparing the 'big idea' of VISA to that of Christianity and coffee seller Cafè Direct's 'ethical' business rationale to the holistic, communitarian values of tribal societies).

This being a gathering of self-defined 'creatively led' players, there was much talk of thinking outside of boxes, changing the ways things are done and generally doing away with a web-endemic subservience to the status quo – whether that be in relation to the ineffective advertising convention of banners, moribund narrative models derived from television or any otherwise redundant operational dregs from bygone media paradigms. b.Heard, for example, was testament to the degree of energy and thought being leveled at understanding the quintessentially satisfying Internet experience, as well as the tectonic shifts the net inseminated attention economy is creating in advertising economics (interesting statistic #3246799: offline brands spend 2-20% of their annual revenue on marketing while their online brethren spend 60-65%). However, like all the others, it was also testament to the inescapable first commandment of any group dedicated to business, however creative – namely that this experience will be that of one breed of human, and one only: the client.


No, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Don't cry 'wolf' at a wolf's tea party, and all that. But, brushing aside the attendant mountainous issues inherent in defining 'creativity' as well as those involved in revisiting the art vs. commerce debate, it remains somewhat perplexing that, in an environment such as this (100% dedicated to innovative, pluralist thinking; funded by a public arts body; attended by all and sundry creatives champing at the bit for a better Internet), certain statutes remain immovably cemented in the books. And they are financial. Online design and marketing may feel driven by 'blue sky' thinking but, as proved by b.Shrewd (where top financiers repeatedly warned participants not to think outside of the 3-year seed funding-to-IPO plan; not to attempt structuring senior management in-house; not to lose sight of a very specifically shaped profit curve; and to basically do everything as it is already being done in the Venture Capital goldrush), it seems anathema to the financial-logistical area that drives them. Statements like VCs Ken Olisa's and Tom Teichmann's – that whatever percentage they own, VC owns all of you, that seed is the key because this is a landgrab excercise, and that VC looks for people whose heart and soul is in their company and then buys them – leave little room for doubt about who is really steering this wagon.The question must then be: Can we have one blue sky thought without the other?

Surf's Up has set its sights on becoming a regular meeting place and is already pooling responses to the first session on its website. If you think you have a new model for micropayments, communities that deserve the name, interplanetary-financed R&D or anything else truly creative, this is where you need to be.


Pauline van Mourik Broekman<pauline AT>