Banking conferences are broken…

…and what I would like to do about it.  This is a self-centered post based on my frustration at some banking conferences, it is mainly down the cost of entry but there are a few other issues. This is my attempt to articulate those frustrations and what I would want to see from a banking event effectively designed for me (by me?). Like I said, self centered. I might be making a rather large assumption that anyone other than me would be interested in attending such a thing but a man can dream (albeit a dull one about banking conferences)

That being said, surely it must be possible to put on a decent event about banking that does not cost the earth, is not all bankers in the audience and on stage, covers a broad range of topics about the existing systems, processes, people and the new things trying to improve or destroy them.


Expensive by design?

The event that brought this to a head was the recently announced Wired Money conference. It is due to be held this July in Canary Wharf at the financial technology incubator on Level 39 of 1 Canada Square. This relatively new hub of fintech startups is a good signal of the growth and momentum in London in this space. The event has a great line up of speakers (Kevin Slavin being a big draw) with the majority being based in the UK and a few being flown in from the US and Europe. My main problem is the cost. £995 for a one day conference. Now of course if anyone involved wants to offer me a freebie I am hypocritical enough to accept it gleefully.

Another great conference that the cost of irks me is Finovate. This year a ticket was £1100 for two days made up of 7 minute demos by fintech startup companies. These companies also have to pay to present. I am glad Finovate came to London a couple of years ago, their main conferences are in San Francisco and New York, and they have helped raised the profile  of the UK and European Fintech scene. That being said it is still prohibitively expensive for me.

Next week we have another example – Customer Experience in Financial Services. A strong lineup of senior banking folk talking about exciting things like ‘deepening customer relationships through face-to-face interaction’ and ‘Engaging the millennial generation’ and while I am sure it will be a fine conference I doubt there will be any customers there to talk too face to face or any millennials who can afford to attend.  So will it just be assumptions about what they like and want? Just £1000 for a ticket or £1600 if you want to attend day two as well, Social Media in Financial Services. I am sure it will be a good conference I am just venting now.

I know conferences have to make money or there is no point hosting them but it feels like these banking conferences are being priced at such a level the price tag means prestige or only senior executives can afford to attend. While I fully understand these influential folk are key to making the changes needed to banking or having the budget to invest in some of these startup companies it feels like there is an air of exclusivity which does nothing to change the attitude to banking for the better. Some of the new finance events feel more like ‘Let’s get all the cool kids of new finance to parade their wares and ideas in front of the kingmakers’.

There are of course good examples in banking. Last years Next Bank Europe event last year in Rome had a great lineup with speakers coming from all over the world and the ticket was 300 euros. It is bordering on the expensive but a damn sight more affordable than those already mentioned, even with a flight and hotel in Rome. BarCampBank London now in its sixth year was held the day before Finovate and the price was the princely sum of £10.  Now there were sponsors and a few favours pulled but profit was not the driving factor. (UPDATE: Dave Birch, the organiser of BarCampBank London messaged me to say the ticket money was also donated to charity ‘We sent £685.34 to Jubilee Action for their work with street children in Kenya and with former child soldiers in Uganda‘). Last year’s TEDxLeeds had a new finance focus and for a shortish evening event managed to pull together a good selection of speakers for not much money.

The two one day conferences I have been able to afford to attend this year, The Design of Understanding and The Story have been excellent and the combined cost of tickets for both was just over £200. The people behind these conferences, Max Gadney and Matt Locke respectively, are very talented, smart and respected in their fields and they clearly have great taste in choosing interesting topics around their chosen themes of information design and narrative. They are choosing talks they want to hear talk over and above making money.


Pass the tissues

‘Oh boohoo poor little mid management banker can’t afford to go to conferences, my heart bleeds’ Yes, yes I can imagine there is very little sympathy for me but all I want is an event that tries to bridge the worlds of new and old but also opens the door to others that may be interested. At a price I can afford to go to as well. We have a wealth of digital talent in the UK and I feel like the majority are not engaged in any meaningful way with ‘banking and financial services’ over and above their day to day use, complaining about the deficiencies of their Internet banking offerings or doing great redesigns hoping the banks will notice. I want to get hackers, designers, writers, makers whatever in to a room to listen, learn, contribute and get excited about the future of finance.

As I said before we have some great things happening in London. Great companies like TransferWise and OpenGamma are leading the way. The London based Anthemis Group have their laser like eyes focused on investing in the best of the best with a view to redesigning and replacing the banking systems so they are fit for tomorrow not struggling to be fit for today. Sean Park of Anthemis has a great line about this momentum shift.

“We are starting to see a Cambrian explosion of new ventures, new companies, entrepreneurs focusing on this space. The fruit maybe high on the tree but it is enormous and juicy”

He is right, we are seeing a change and it is exciting to bank geeks like me. How do we get people outside the industry to learn more about this? Get more people eyeing up that fruit?

For me John Kay’s 2009 book titled ‘The Long and the Short of it: A Guide to Finance and Investment for Normally Intelligent People Who Aren’t in the Industry’ sums it up perfectly, although I would of course like to see people from the industry in the audience.


Aircraft engines & ‘opaqueness’

The other thing I would want from my dream event is not just about the new and the innovative. I want to know more about the existing system. There was a great quote recently from Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan when he was challenged by Paul Singer that their accounting was unfathomable.

“Businesses can be opaque. They are complex. You don’t know how aircraft engines work either.”

When I say great quote I mean it was a great insight into the attitude of some in banking. You might not know how aircraft engines work but they are built by multiple providers and that is repeatable. We can build new ones that improve on the old ones. That is not so easy when applied to the bank network.

There are many vast and complex systems that make up the banking world and they are systems we use every single day and impact our lives in ways we may never think about but it is fascinating. How is a cheque actually cleared? How on earth does an ATM work? How is a debit card made (I want a video like this please)? What the hell is a complex derivative? There are so many elements of the banking system that are understood by so few (including some people that work for banks i.e. me).

Contrast the comment by Mr Dimon with this one by Ben Milne of Dwolla.

“Payment networks should have a memory. You absolutely should be able to login to and see every transaction you have ever engaged in with a Visa card. The fact that you can’t do this is ridiculous.”

For those with  a modicum of banking / card issuing knowledge might laugh at the naivety of this statement i.e. the Visa cards are issued by a number of other companies and as such Visa should have no way of tieing all this data together. This only shows how brilliant web thinking is when applied to the historic models that make no sense to new generations, of course you should be able to search every transaction you have ever made. Just the ability to search a years worth of transactions would be a massive leap forward for most financial institutions.


Dream event

So…after all that rambling what I would love to have is an annual event aimed at those that just have an interest in banking and finance and where it is today and where it is going. Hosted away from the steel and glass of the Wharf and somewhere a bit friendlier like Conway Hall, the venue for The Story and another excellent conference, This Is Playful. With a price that makes it accessible to more than those with tailored suits and handmade shoes but for anyone who already works in this area or just people who are interested in learning more. It should be neither focused on banker bashing or bankers only but a happy medium that can hopefully foster soemthing approaching coherent debate.

I would like to hear Joris Luyendijk’s stories about all the real bankers he interviewed and get past media stereotypes (or confirm them), or how about some people who try to circumvent the banking processes for their own gains (no, not bankers), James Bridle talking about the design and architecture of data centres alongside someone who actually designs them, Pelle Braendgaard on OpenTransact and can open source code really replace the banking network etc. etc.

My initial Twitter rant caught the eyes of a few people who were willing to offer advice and help so we will see what they say after reading this rambling word spew. My partner is about to give birth to our second child so I will have no time until May to think about this but in my humble opinion the best time to hold it would be the Thursday after Finovate as there are plenty of new finance types around which could give a head start for speakers and attendees. Finovate London has traditionally been in mid-February so it also gives a bit of time to get things organised if there is enough interest. Feel free to leave any thoughts below especially if you think this is a good idea and what you would want to see from such a conference if you do.


Danielle Sheerin says:

I totally agree, the conferences I want to go to are totally out of my price range (I only managed to go to Finovate this year because I held my ticket over from last year – but the cost then was around £500 I think, so it seems I got a good deal!).

I’d like to see all of the things you list above. I want to understand how banks are responding to the technological and reputational challenges they are facing today. I want to know if they understand how business is changing and what their response is.

This frustration was one of the reasons we held the Social in the City conference last year – but in hindsight, I think we didn’t really nail the theme of the whole event, so it didn’t quite deliver the insight we wanted. I also think it should have been more participative – I want to have a discussion about the challenges, experiences and successes that banks have had -a banking unconference would have hit the mark better.

Anyhow, once you have welcomed your new arrival (congrats!) and you are ready to pick this up, I’m happy to chat and act as a sounding board or even help organise something.

Aden Davies says:

Nailing the theme of an event really does seem the tricky bit. Especially if you want a diverse audience. Would love to have a chat about this stuff at some point in the near future i.e. post baby.

Danielle Sheerin says:

Cool – drop me a line when you are ready!

Rob says:

Danielle we want Next Bank Europe to be that event you want to see – affordable reasonable prices delivering an inspiring and interesting agenda and speaker lineup with REAL interaction from the audience.

Dave Hopton says:

Very valid points. As a student I’d love to be able to attend more of these events but just can’t afford to.

If things progress I’d love to be involved somehow.

Rob Findlay says:

Welcome to get involved with us in organising the 2013 Next Bank Europe event for September.

Dave Hopton says:

Would love to – need me to send you an email or something?

Russ says:

Excellent post Aden, very well put

What can I say? Hear hear. Been sorry to miss BarCampBank (due to preparing for Finovate), but would love to be there, and the New Finance meetups are affordable with a good crowd. It’s the punk grassroots level where the real innovation takes place.

Aden Davies says:

Agree the grassroots are where it is at. How do we show more people the shoots?

Rob FIndlay says:

Great post Aden, and I agree that most banking conferences are either too costly or simply not good value, or often both. When I started the Next Bank conference series in Asia and Europe, my goal was to make the most inspirational and real events possible the most accessible for anyone in the industry I still believe thats a viable model that can grow across the planet, and even into other verticals like telco, insurance, private banking, etc. I’d be very happy to add you (and you readers) as an advisor or co-curator for our upcoming 2013 London event in the autumn. We truly want to make Next Bank Europe and Next Bank Asia a collaborative effort.

Aden Davies says:

A worthy and viable model. I would love to help where I can with Next Bank.

Rob Findlay says:

Genuinely keen to make Next Bank a model that everyone can contribute to and benefit from. All comers welcome. Its a banking conference run by banking people.

John Sills says:

A big fat AGREE from me. This is exactly how I’ve been feeling this week, also promoted by the Wired event. The issue is that there is so much free knowledge and networking across Social Media now, that the conferences need to either be cheaper or significantly different to how they are now.

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