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Never at an industry conference have I been moved to tears – other than perhaps by sheer boredom.
Today, thanks to a searing, visceral speech by humanitarian and singer Sir Bob Geldof, that changed.
The man who first became famous for his signature song ‘I don’t like Mondays’ with The Boomtown Rats seemed to underline that sentiment as he strode on stage at the traditional Monday opening conference at TFWA like a man supercharged with anger, perceived injustice and a sense of mission.
Suffering from a heavy cold, Geldof was in no mood to talk platitudes – nor take prisoners – as he waded into mankind’s abandonment of the people of Africa and the rapid environmental deterioration of our planet.
Talking about the abject poverty afflicting Africa, he said: “I don’t know if you’ve seen or held a child who is dying of hunger – it’s agonizing.
“I don’t want to hold such a scrap of humanity again,” he said, his anger raging about the continued disparity between the poor and dispossessed of Africa and those with wealth.
He also put the notion of corporate social responsibility under intense scrutiny, saying that while it was a good thing, far more needed to be done on both an individual and institutional level.
“How many of the luxury goods companies have gone down their supply chain to discover the children at the bottom?” he asked.
At times his oratory reached inspirational levels. “But I tell you when we see a human being hurt and we don’t feel a sense of responsibility then something deep inside us will wither and die.”
Later he said: “20% of the planet use 80% of its natural resources – that’s not sustainable”.
Quoting Gandhi, he said of the necessity to maintain the push for change: “First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you. And then you win.”
It was powerful stuff and yet at times almost unbearably poignant. I have been attending TFWA conferences for 21 years and I have not heard better.
We’ll bring you more on the event as time permits in what is already shaping as a frantic week. But let’s close this Blog with our lingering impressions of the speakers and of the day.
Erik Juul Mortensen: Perhaps anticipating Geldof’s contribution, The TFWA President gave exactly the right big picture speech for the occasion. Refusing the comfortable option of a self-congratulatory address on TFWA’s 25th anniversary, he instead insisted that the association become more outward looking and give much more back to society. Later, Geldof was to note astutely: “Your President is trying to unpick the dilemma that your industry faces.”
Yes, he was, but someone has to start the process and if today’s speech truly marks a new beginning for TFWA – and perhaps a new humility – Juul-Mortensen’s speech was very significant indeed.
Jacques Attali: Touted as a humanitarian, historian, futurist and economist, the Frenchman’s modest delivery style made him hard to understand at times (especially for those to whom English is a second language) but the content was thoughtful and challenging.
“The world is like a plane with very, very powerful engines but the problem is that we have trouble driving the plane,” he said in a somewhat strained reference to the spiralling loss of control in the world in recent times, economically and environmentally. He said that one billion people today suffered from hunger compared to 500 million 20 years ago.
“A lot of people say this will go down – it won’t,” he said abruptly, noting that the global economic crisis had simply accentuated the disparities between the haves and the have nots.
He called for global governance “and even global government” as vital in dragging the world out of a sustained crisis.
William Lauder: The Executive Chairman of The Estee Lauder Companies (above right) put on an erudite, polished performance in handling a searching interview from BBC ‘Hardtalk’ presenter Stephen Sackur.
Asked if big businesses such as Lauder were simply adopting the concept of corporate social responsibility because it was fashionable, Lauder replied: “All businesses must be part of the community. You must participate, not just take… it’s not just so that the corporate executive can sleep well at night.”
Overall conference rating: Outstanding. A fine mix of speakers, none of whom ever lost their affinity with the audience or strayed from the power of their convictions. The packed auditorium at the end of a long morning told its own story.