SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- Trading in golf bags for hashtags, the 4A's continued its march into the present with this year's leadership conference -- a confab that, despite some shortcomings, showed ad agencies' main trade group is making good on its promise to get with the digital reality.
The organizers continued to diversify the speaker list, mingling agency bigs like MDC Partners' Miles Nadal and Euro RSCG's David Jones with digital-media stars such as Hulu head Jason Kilar and AOL's newly-minted CEO, Tim Armstrong. In a nod to the tech tool du jour, Twitter, attendees were provided with a hashtag that helped organize their conference-related tweets on the popular microblogging platform. And this year's conference opened with the announcement of two major structural moves: the merging of the 4A's leadership conference with its media conference, and the rebranding of the organization.
Nancy Hill, now heading into her second year as 4A's CEO, put it best when she said the institution is having a "Benjamin Button" moment in her opening address. It surely is, especially with the admission that it doesn't make sense to separate the media-agency and ad-agency conferences, given how fundamentally media and message are interwoven in today's world. Re-bundling anyone?
But, while the 92-year-old organization does have a younger feel under the leadership of Ms. Hill and Chairman Tom Carroll, its conference still has some work to do sharpening the content. There wasn't that much practical advice for a hotel full of attendees who are seeing their industry in its worst state in memory.
Despite this weakness, points should be awarded for placing Madison Avenue's weak record on diversity front and center with a moving speech from agency legend Dan Wieden. One executive said next year the 4A's should "continue to focus on a very impressive attendee and speaker list" but at the same time "really dive in and tackle the relevant issues of the day and have experts share their points of view more than their agencies' capabilities and kick things off by talking about what the 4A's is going to do to really address industry issues."
A new structure to its major conferences might help. Ms. Hill told Ad Age, "Engaging the entire marketing-communications community, rather than each discipline in isolation, is a natural and important evolution of where the business is today -- and where it's headed."
That move is a return to the previously unified conference format that existed before the organization began dividing the content of its events by discipline during the mid-1990s. Next year's joint event is slated to be held in Austin, Texas, home to the South by Southwest conference and a burgeoning tech scene. Like San Francisco, the site of this year's confab, Austin represents the organization's attempts to shed a country-club image by not holding the conference at a golf resort, as it used to.
Shortening its official name from the American Association of Advertising Agencies to the acronym by which its long been known, the 4A's, is another positive, if largely symbolic, step, and represents a desire to evolve the group's historical focus on the American ad market to a focus on a broader range of marketing disciplines -- and the rest of the world. Last week, the 4A's opened up membership to international agencies in order for agencies to better serve clients who are digitally enabled to do business globally.
Like most events in this tough economy, last week's confab, held at the Westin Hotel in downtown San Francisco, saw attendance fall to about 300 registered attendees, from the 370 executives who flocked to the 2008 4A's Leadership Conference at a beachside resort in Laguna Niguel, Calif. The turnout was a bit better than organizers anticipated, especially given that the 4A's Media Conference in New Orleans in March saw attendance slashed in half to some 650 attendees.
But despite the theme of "New Realities," conference sessions didn't have much in the way of actionable advice on how agencies can weather the economic storm. One exception was MDC Partners' chief Miles Nadal, who spoke frankly about current business challenges during a Q&A session and described the ad business as "under siege," predicting a rise in performance-based compensation models. That latter point was a source of buzz at dinner tables and meeting rooms, and a topic several conference-goers cited as lacking as part of the program.
Mr. Wieden, legendary co-founder of Wieden & Kennedy, addressed the 4A's for the first time, urging its membership to take on the diversity issue with a grass-roots approach by engaging with local arts groups. He gave a personal example with the tale of Caldera, his mentoring program for underprivileged kids in Oregon. The kids -- many of whom are black -- spend their summers at the camp learning such skills as filmmaking and drumming, and some have also spent time at the Wieden offices, getting comfortable with an office environment.
"We have to do better, and we have to do better quickly," he said. More than anything else his approach seemed to contrast with that of the committee -- and with the quota-oriented tacks of many other agencies. Fittingly, the Nike ad maestro's tactics seemed to be more of the "just do it" variety.