Reporters' Notebook: Lessons From the 4A's

Creativity, Diversity and Decoupling Among Highlights of Last Week's Conference

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With some 1,300 people, last week's annual 4A's confab was well-attended, and the content was something of a step up from 2011. Representatives from major TV networks were present, and there were snappier presentations from agency leaders and tech companies such as Facebook, Hulu and Microsoft.

Many attendees noted the lack of young folks at the conference, and that 's definitely a crowd the 4A's needs to work on attracting if it wants to compete with events such as South by Southwest.

Still, the 4A's is a lot hipper than it was a few years ago, and the Los Angeles location attracted celebrities such as P. Diddy, Kim Kardashian and Ryan Seacrest to evening events. At one point, Will.i.am even sat in on a conference session about sustainability. (The event moves to New Orleans next year, and it's unlikely the celebs will follow).

There are always a few important takeaways from the 4A's, so here's what we jotted down in our notebooks this time around.

The old-school creative team doesn't work anymore, said Andy Hood, executive creative director at AKQA. Traditionally a copywriter and art director came up with ad ideas. But today, if an agency doesn't give a tech person a seat at the brainstorming table, "an opportunity is going to be missed," Mr. Hood said. "The technologist now is a crucial part of the ideation of everything."

Jason Kilar, CEO of Hulu, discussed targeting capability and new concepts that could "solve the relevance issue," such as an opt-out tool that makes consumers to respond to a question asking if the ad is relevant. "Not everyone answers, but when people say "no,' we feed it into an algorithm," Mr. Kilar said. Then the next commercial comes from a different category. "We need to make the experience come to life," he said.

It's been talked about for years, but it bears repeating: Agencies need to commit to hiring a diverse workforce at all levels. If they don't, they risk creating work that doesn't appeal to the changing demography of the nation. Speaking openly, Ogilvy North American Chairman-CEO John Seifert said the agency received its latest cultural survey last week, and called it "depressing" because "we hadn't achieved what we set out to do."

"Steve Jobs was passionate about all the traditional media that people think are being eclipsed by social media," said TBWA creative Lee Clow, speaking alongside former partner Steve Hayden about the "1984" spot. Mr. Clow said shops should focus on doing beautiful, eloquent advertising and not the channel. "That is the genius of new media—the audience now is really smart, and they are going to figure out what brands they want to spend time with."

Lisa Donohue, CEO at Starcom USA, said she draws on sources outside the industry for creative inspiration, such as TEDTalks. But inspiration can also be found in the mundane, and those in advertising should seek it daily. Doing an ordinary task is the perfect time for creative thinking because the brain isn't focused on the activity at hand. As Susan Credle, U.S. chief creative at Leo Burnett joked: No one gets in the shower and thinks, "I wonder what I'll wash."

Leadership needs to evolve at agencies to reflect an understanding of the changing skills at shops, said Jeff Benjamin, JWT North America's chief creative officer. It's not just about finding the right talent, but about ensuring that talent is being guided properly. Agencies need to be thinking about installing leaders who know how to interact with and manage tech folks. "It's one thing to hire them, but we need to lead them in the right way."

During a panel about changing agency models, David Rolfe, who joined BBDO last week as director-integrated production after holding the same job at MDC Partners' CPB for several years, called the idea of decoupling—the separation of broadcast production from the agency—"something relatively loathsome to me. ... Execution is as important to everything that came before it, arguably more important."

Mike Geiger, president-chief integration officer at JWT North America, hates the word "outsourcing." He pointed out that many shops make the mistake of treating outside partners, especially production companies, as vendors. Quality work will come from treating these partners with more respect, Mr. Geiger said. All agencies should know everyone at a production company by name and understand their unique capabilities.

The 4A's gathering is the place to discuss serious issues, from talent to diversity to compensation, but the  most philosophical comment came from Kate Robertson, group chairman at Euro RSCG and co-founder of global forum One Young World, addressing whether advertising—a business about selling—can ever be in sync with sustainability.

"We do have to be able to answer to this and question ourselves and examine: Are we just sort of an ugly baby doppelgänger of an uncontrolled consumer capitalist model? ... Do we meaninglessly encourage people to buy, eat, consume, drive things they don't need? Or do we have a point of view?

"Are we really thinking about it? Are we liars? Do we lie in our advertising on behalf of our clients? How do we run our businesses? John [Seifert] raised the point, "Are we the "Mad Men' of yesteryear?' ... The question about our role in society is a great question and I do think we're up to it, because we are that creative and that smart and it's a challenge."

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