Congregation takes place once again this year on 22 November. Now in its seventh year, Blacknight will once again be a sponsor of the event.

Congregation is run according to the principles of an ‘unconference’, where the agenda is largely set by the participants and the distinction between speakers and audience is set aside. At Congregation, everyone is a speaker, and attendance is gained by submitting an article, blog post, audio or video which sets out the contributors ideas in advance. You can’t buy a ticket to Congregation: you have to “blog your way in”.

Congregation organiser Eoin Kennedy has run the event since founding it in 2013. Each year he consults with participants and decides a broad theme to set the tone for the event. The theme for 2019 is community. Dozens of submissions have already been published on the topic, which should prompt some interesting discussions at the various ‘huddles’ in the village throughout Saturday.

David Gluckman has been an annual attendee for the past three years. In 1973 he invented a drink called Baileys Irish Cream, which has become extremely popular and spawned many imitators over the years. When Congregation 2017 took the theme of ‘ideas’, David was invited to share his experience.

I sat with him the morning after he spoke at the initial gathering in Ashford Castle.

 

David’s story is a testament to creativity and fun. Playfulness and experimentation were key ingredients: he makes no secret of the fact that their initial attempts to blend Irish whiskey with dairy cream “didn’t taste very good”. But they persisted, and the discovery that chocolate brought the drink to life meant that they had a world-class product on their hands.

But the challenge was to sell it. It was so different from anything else on the market, that executives struggled to imagine who would buy it. “That S*it Will Never Sell”, one executive told him. The phrase became the title of his recently published autobiography.

David used his previous experience of working with Dr Tony O’Reilly on the Kerrygold brand, to develop an identifiable Irish character for the new product, which included the choice of the name (including fictitious initials for R. and A. Bailey) and a bottle and label which have become icons of the industry.

His approach is rooted in a professionalism which puts a great emphasis on delivering a solution to a problem.

“Coming up with multiple solutions to a problem is very easy. But coming up with one answer – I think that is what I am professionally required to do, is come up with one answer to a question”

Because Baileys was so revolutionary, it faced huge obstacles from conventional product development tools, such as focus groups and market research, something he believes is “hugely overrated”.

“It’s a very crude tool, in my opinion, but it’s become a kind of a fallback for marketing people. It stops them from making a decision. I mean, I think there’s a cliché which is: consumers like what they know; they don’t know what they like – and so you have to persuade them over time and you have to go against the received wisdom. The man who said Baileys was girls’ drink was one guy, and of course all the other people agreed with him. But he was wrong and I was right”

He is full of praise for the executives who championed the new product, in spite of this “received wisdom”.

“The client is the hero. The real test of an idea is whether the person who’s putting his reputation against it, and his job, buys it”

Ultimately it comes down to the quality of the product.

“I’m a great believer in good product. I mean, it’s all very well having fancy packaging, but if you’ve got a strong product story, you have something to sell”

Congregation 2019 takes place from 22 to 24 November. We’re looking forward to it.