Getting Michael Roth, John Wren, Maurice Levy and Martin Sorrell to the same event is rare and possibly unprecedented save for Cannes every June. But the CEOs of the world's four largest ad-holding companies will be bumping up against the estimated 2,700 exhibitors and 150,000 attendees making the pilgrimage to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month, which has stealthily become one of the most important dates on the calendar for marketers.
Just a few years ago, CES was the domain of geekier agency executives and digital specialists. Some had to fight to justify the expense of the trip, especially if their client roster didn't include names like Sony, Microsoft or Intel. Then a few digital-media businesses made CES the unofficial start of the selling season for the likes of Yahoo, Google, Facebook and AOL.
Coca-Cola held its global marketing meeting at CES last year -- the annual confab's first time outside of Atlanta. Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Citibank are bringing large contingencies this year for agency-led tours of the floor to meet with tech companies and startups.
Just how many agency executives and nontech consumer marketers will make the trip to Las Vegas?
A manual search of 2012 registrants found more than 5,000 identifying themselves as in "advertising and marketing," which doesn't include those who do marketing for tech companies. The attendee list includes more than 1,000 CEOs of companies identified as involved in "advertising and marketing." That probably comprises plenty of ad tech but not digital-media firms, startups such as Pandora and Spotify, and others that flock to CES.
Soaking up the zeitgeist is part of the experience, and the real action happens off the exhibit floor, in suites at hotels like the Venetian, Wynn and Mandarin, restaurants, and boozy club parties.
"You could spend six months meeting all your clients and customers, or you can do it in six days," said Jeff Levick, chief advertising officer of Spotify. "It's a very efficient use of time."
CES is catering to its newfound, big-spending constituency. In 2011 it added a Brand Keynote Panel, which this year will feature participants from Facebook, Unilever, GE, Hyundai and AT&T. The discussion will be moderated by MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan, who has made quite a business from connecting consumer marketers and technology -- often representing both sides.
"It's the biggest show outside the show, with leadership from every creative agency, every media agency and the top 50 marketers in the world," Mr. Kassan said.
What put CES on the advertising map? Two megatrends: Technology focused on ad-supported models, and mass marketers realized that reaching the next generation means understanding the technology that is altering the way they shop, communicate, consume media and experience brands.
"What's bringing marketers out is that they know the future is inherently linked to what consumers are doing with technology," said Curt Hecht, CEO of Publicis Groupe 's Vivaki Nerve Center. "They don't have any ability to control that . They need to embrace it."
CES lets marketers meet with tech vendors and get their hands on devices, and enables agencies to fulfill their historic role of locating new opportunities and delivering them to clients.
Mr. Hecht is expecting more than 100 Publicis clients, as well as officials from all four media agencies, SMG, ZenithOptimedia, Digitas and Razorfish. Clients can sign up for floor tours online or participate in a speed-dating session with scores of startups, including Visible Measures, Gizmo and Simulmedia.
Curating CES for marketers has become agencies' primary function. The floor tour is becoming a tradition, with ad execs acting as guides and interpreters through what would otherwise be an overwhelming 1.8 million square feet of gadgetry, wonder and hucksterism. Over a decade ago, Group M CEO Irwin Gotlieb became probably the first agency honcho to give a floor tour; he still leads them personally, steering clients around to look at the latest TV technologies.
IPG's Mediabrands is taking a high-tech approach to the floor tour by affixing to exhibits yellow placards that are near field communication-enabled. Clients will be able to point their phones and download information, or even buy the product if it's for sale.
"It will give you all the info and a case study if it is being used by a client," said Matt Seiler, Mediabrands' global CEO. Its executives are leading tours with a special focus on five exhibitors "worthy of client attention," though Mr. Seiler won't say which they are.
Though everyone is cordial, a stiff competitive spirit lies beneath the surface. Like tech-crazed consumers, no brand or agency wants to miss the next big thing.
"There is something around the corner that may change the way we think, and I don't want to find out about it after my competitor did," Mr. Seiler said.