Out front, English school children scampered in mustard jumpers and maroon knickerbockers. Inside, presenting amidst Charles Saatchi's modern art collection, speakers addressed about 300 of Europe's digerati—and a canvas of multi-color acrylic paint spatters entitled "Raft of Perseus."
The event brought together designers, creatives and technologists from agencies like Organic and Crispin Porter + Bogusky to discuss work ranging from Fiat Eco: Drive to Poke London's Baker Tweet, as well as technology's increasing importance in creative departments.
"If you are a creative and don't know about technology, you'll be out of a job soon," said panelist Yates Buckley, technical director at digital production company Unit 9.
The event featured a cross-section of Europe's best talent. Between a lunch of traditional bubble and squeak, and a break for coffee and lemon soufflé, Claire Boonstra, cofounder of augmented reality mobile app Layar spoke about the future of her business, claiming that companies are queuing up to be included in the latest AR browsers.
Ms. Boonstra invited the audience to "describe your dreams," when thinking about the future of AR, and outlined some of the ideas that Layar is working on: you will be able to use your phone to recreate the famous Abbey Road album cover and "see" the Beatles on the exact same zebra crossing in west London—and then insert yourself or a friend into the scene. Or you might use mobile AR to see your new house, placed in its exact location on the street, before it's even been built."
And before long, you'll be able to walk directly into a different reality—Ms. Boonstra showed a virtual dome, which you could enter, phone in hand, and find yourself in Japan.
Social networking will also move forward with the help of AR. Dave Cox, technical director of Lean Mean Fighting Machine, predicted that geographically-based social networking—discovering a friend in a nearby pub, for example—is the logical next step.
Ms. Boonstra preceded a creative panel of Organic's Irish chief creative Conor Brady; Agency Republic executive creative director Gavin Gordon-Rogers, a Scot; and Crispin Porter + Bogusky Europe creative director Anders Gustafsson, a Swede. An entire panel of Swedes discussed their native land's high population of the digitally dexterous.
"Sweden has a long tradition of design that fits with digital media," said North Kingdom CEO-creative director David Eriksson, adding that government mandated broadband all over the country has also helped grow the digitally literate.
A large theme that emerged was how information is jumping off screens and into the real world. Bringing the idea of networked physical objects to branding, Usman Haque, director of his eponymous studio, posited that soon enough busy, graphics-saturated packaging won't be necessary because consumers will simply hold their smart phones up to a barcode to get product information.
"All the things we've been trying to communicate with graphics can now be delegated to informatics," he said.
Perhaps the brainiest speaker in a day packed with intellect was Nokia's head of design direction, Adam Greenfield, who talked about networked urban spaces—imagining a city that could collect data and adapt to how its residents used public spaces and services, like traffic lights and buildings.
He said, "We need to stop thinking of the city as bricks that don't communicate. In the computer revolution, every constant in the world becomes a variable; everything around us is scriptable, which makes everything deeply interactive."
Mr. Greenfield described the experience of living in a modern city, and the tension between the advantages of a digital life and the "melancholy" that it can bring.
"The environment is deeply knowable," he said. "Urban savoir-faire is served back to us on a silver plate, which is good in one way, but it makes specialist knowledge profoundly less valuable. Big cities force people to live cheek-by-jowl with difference, and that friction makes us grow. When we wrap ourselves in online comfort and only seek out people like ourselves, we lose something important and real."
The big versus small debate is raging in digital as well as traditional agencies, precipitated by Wrigley's recent move pulling its AOR duties from Tribal DDB and putting it in the hands of roster of agencies that includes Big Spaceship, Firstborn and EVB.
Already, even the hottest creative shops are asking how they can stop themselves from becoming dinosaurs. James Hilton, co-founder and chief creative officer at AKQA, said, "In my head we are still three guys in a basement. You have to believe you are the same company as when you started. Staying fresh is also about the new talent influx—we look for people who remind us of ourselves when we started the agency."
For Crispin Porter + Bogusky's head of tech, Scott Prindle, the answer is to keep going back to basics. "We need to stay agile and work with smaller digital media," he said.
Ian Tait, partner at Poke London, worried that it's not just agency size that counts—he thinks digital shops are getting carried away with technology and creating campaigns that are too big and showy. He said, "As an industry we have a 'little man' complex—why are we obsessed with size? We want everything to be massive right from the start.
"Now that we've been invited to the party and have money, influence and power, I worry we are like a bunch of kids with the keys to the sweetshop. Do we need all that? People like things that are free and simple—money likes stuff that is slick. Building big things is fun and impresses people, but it has no value."For more play-by-play of the events, check out the discusions at #crcat on Twitter.