Don't know your Twitter from your Flickr? Then maybe next year you should head to San Francisco for the American Association of Advertising Agencies' Leadership Conference. Yeah, you read that right. The 4A's Leadership Conference, an event known as an excuse for agency bigs to get their drink on, play a little golf and splash around in the pool, this year dipped its toes into something more substantial: the 21st century.
This will go down as the year the 4A's, under new management, geeked out. In the span of a year, the annual gathering was transformed from a venue for PowerPoint-driven dog and pony shows from big-agency CEOs to a vastly more engaging gathering with a diverse list of speakers who addressed the change sweeping the marketing world. This year's event, held at a Ritz-Carlton hotel on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, had its shortcomings, the most glaring being the absence of marketers who ultimately control budgets. But for the most part, the conference finally felt like an accurate depiction of the marketplace rather than a museum piece -- an important development for an industry often accused of not keeping up with the times.
Credit goes to 4A's Chairman Tom Carroll, who for months had been working on a way to modernize an event that seemed to have bottomed out last year, and Nancy Hill, who recently became the first woman chosen as CEO of the organization. With different styles, the pair managed to instill a sense of purpose to an affair that was not merely flirting with irrelevance but rounding third base. Besides getting a wider variety of speakers and honing the content on important issues, they did what would have been unthinkable in past years: They stripped club and racket sports from the official agenda.
All eyes on Hill
Mr. Carroll, head of TBWA Worldwide and one of the few senior executives in advertising who visibly enjoys working in the business, kicked things off Tuesday with an impassioned, off-the-notes address that took aim at the industry's critics, i.e. the ad press, and poked fun at agencies' fear of digital, comparing it to the way the Bush administration depicts al-Qaida.
All eyes were on Ms. Hill, still in her first months as president-CEO of the 4A's. The longtime agency hand succeeds O. Burtch Drake, who in his 14 years on the job took a lot of flak for encouraging a country-club feel to the organization and its events. Getting into the spirit of things, Ms. Hill referred to herself as a "geek" when introducing Google's Mr. Schmidt. She also continued to signal that improving the industry's record on diversity would be a priority during her tenure. On Wednesday, she announced a partnership with Howard University, a historically black college, to create a center to boost minority inclusion -- particularly of African-Americans -- in the industry's senior ranks. The 4A's is pledging $250,000 to launch the center, with another pledge to raise an additional $750,000 annually. The center will provide professional development and leadership training and also will produce research about diversity in the industry.
But the biggest priority was clearly the digital education of the conference's 380 participants. Not only did the list of speakers include people from all the right companies -- Yahoo, Microsoft, Digitas, Tribal DDB, media-buying goliath Group M, Google -- but the organizers even set up some hands-on schooling. The morning of the first day was devoted to general sessions with big-name speakers, while the afternoon was reserved for breakouts focused on digital themes. In conferencespeak, the term "breakout" often translates to "beer me!" but these sessions were generally well-attended, despite the nearby presence of a pool, a beach, a spa and two bars. (An in-depth Ad Age investigation of these venues found them largely devoid of attendees.)
All participants interviewed said it was a marked improvement over recent conferences. "I found it surprisingly engaging in ways that I didn't think I was going to," said first-timer Cary Hatch, president-CEO of Washington-based MDB Communications. "I figured it'd be leaning toward digital, and there would be great entertainment, food, what have you ... but the level of brain thrust for networking and the passion for the business that exists today as opposed to 10 or 15 years ago was palpable."
Joe Grimaldi, president-CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos.' agency Mullen, said this year's confab had a noticeably different vibe. "I'm not saying old is bad and new is good -- I'm saying different," he wrote in an e-mail. "Nancy and Tom are different people with different perspectives and some different thoughts. No dissing the past; rather, it's a reminder that change is good for every organization to get re-energized."
If there was one source of concern among some attendees, it was the organizers' announcement early in the week that future conferences wouldn't be held in boondoggly resorts in places such as Naples, Fla., or Scottsdale, Ariz., but instead would be destined for urban locales like next year's setting, the Westin Hotel in San Francisco. Mr. Carroll may have caught some heat for that stance, because as the conference went on, he softened a bit and suggested the organizers would alternate between cities and resorts -- a reminder that no matter how much the ad game changes, it's still very much a business of compromise.