Business leaders are not short of events to attend. From conferences run by publishers to expos by tech firms to summits of global importance, the people at the top of big business could probably spend half their careers speaking at and attending events.
Into this crowded market comes Anthropy. The brainchild of entrepreneur and brand purpose consultant John O’Brien, it has an ambitious aim: to inspire a better Britain. Much like Davos convenes journalists, politicians and business leaders from around the world in Switzerland, Anthropy aims to attract people from across the UK to answer key questions on how to create a more positive, sustainable, equitable and successful country.
O’Brien is aware this sounds very lofty. But he believes there is a need for leadership and long-term thinking that is currently missing.
“Traditionally we have looked to parliament to shape our long-term vision and direction. Regardless of party politics, we just don’t get that sense anymore. If that’s the case, then where does our direction from?” he asks.
He has an answer to his own question, which is why he set up Anthropy. The future of the UK, he believes, is “too important to be left to politicians” and so those leading businesses, charities and other organisations need to step up.
“I believe that everybody who has a position of influence or leads an organisation should be thinking very carefully not just about how they create success and sustainability in their own area of influence, but also how they collaborate with others to make sure we have a society and economy that is better for everybody,” he says.
How Anthropy started
The idea for Anthropy crystallised for O’Brien during Covid, when he became concerned about how Britain was going to recover, both economically and as a society. His career has been defined by the idea that there are better ways of running businesses, ones which incorporate more than profit. Having spent 10 years in the army, he has since worked in CSR and brand purpose, including for Business in the Community, the king’s responsible business network and, currently, for Omnicom’s brand purpose group One Hundred as managing partner.
“I’ve had the privilege of travelling all over Britain, and other parts of the world, from mosques in Leicester to inner cities like Tower Hamlets to schools, hill farms and fishing communities looking at all the different aspects of British society,” he says. “But equally I’ve been in the boardrooms of some of the biggest companies trying to build connections [between business and society].”
He felt, increasingly, that there was nowhere for the UK to talk about national issues and that there might be a need for such an event. Having built up a “fairly good black book” of contacts during his career, he sounded out interest among senior business leaders.
“In my initial conversations I asked some pretty senior leaders what they thought of this idea and people responded very positively,” he recalls. “Even if they couldn’t be involved in the event itself they were willing to give up their time and offer their perspective [on what we should focus the event on].”
That meant that, in Anthropy’s first year in 2022, more than 200 organisations and 50 leaders worked on its agenda. This aimed to tackle the direction Britain should take over the next 30 years, considering the built environment, the economy, its people and its place on the world stage.
For O’Brien, central to Anthropy’s success has been getting people out of their “silo” and thinking more broadly about how to tackle key challenges. Attendees included CEOs and other senior business leaders, but also artists, charity campaigners and sustainability experts, and this was mirrored on stage. It also meant the audience was as senior as those on stage, with more than three-quarters of attendees at the C-level or above.
“We wanted people to bring their experience but leave their silo and their ego at the door, so that people would go beyond the normal parameters that they work in,” he says.
One big gamble O’Brien took was on location. Anthropy is not held in London or even Manchester or Birmingham. Instead, it takes place over three days at the Eden Project near St Austell in Cornwall, not the easiest place in the UK to travel to.
But he thought such a location was necessary to create the type of event he wanted: one where speakers mixed with the audience and most people stayed for the full three days to discuss what they heard and take part in debates.
“I wanted a place that was of significance, not just convenience. The Eden Project is a redundant industrial wasteland that has been transformed into a new vibrant location. And it’s unique because of the different environments [The Eden Project has biomes based on different climates],” he says.
“Nobody had ever tried to do anything like this there before, so it was a big gamble for them and for us. But I knew it was a really different and engaging location.”
The second year of Anthropy
Anthropy this year is taking place between 1 and 3 November. Last year’s event attracted 450 speakers and 1,100 attendees. This year, the goal is more, targeting 600 speakers and 2,000 attendees. There are also more sessions – there were around 150 last year but will be more than 190 this year, with many of these smaller events, such as roundtables, to enable more open discussion.
This year’s event has also been developed with more actionable insights in mind. There is now an Anthropy ‘framework’, so people can take what they hear and see at the event back to their organisations to work on change for next year. This will be even more important, O’Brien believes, as the UK heads into a likely general election.
O’Brien is also keen to improve the mix of those who attend. He admits it has not yet got diversity, in all its forms, right. Nevertheless, he points to the fact that there were more women on stage than men last year and that it has an emerging leaders programme that attracts those from more diverse backgrounds.
“[Diversity] is constantly looked at. So, I’m not saying that we get it right… but because it’s a leadership gathering we are saying to people if you are leading an organisation or you have influence come along,” he says. “My aim is to get Britain poured into a cauldron.”
For those considering attending Anthropy this year, O’Brien has a parting message.
“If you have a concern and a belief that you have something you can add to shaping the new vision and direction of this country, and joining together with people who will try to influence that by changing practice, building partnerships and affecting policy, then there is nowhere else like this to be,” he concludes.
Anthropy is taking place at the Eden Project in Cornwall between 1 and 3 November, 2023, and Raconteur will be attending as a media partner. To find out more about the event and to book tickets, visit https://anthropy.uk/