The International Consumer Electronics Show is Mecca for gadget geeks, but for marketers like GE and Unilever it's something else entirely: a glimpse of how they'll reach consumers in the future.
For media agencies and a growing number of non-tech brands, CES has become the most important date on the calendar, if not for the opportunity to see where tech is taking consumers, but to conduct a first round of meetings with ad sellers like Google, AOL, Yahoo and Twitter.
While in years past brands might have approached CES with wide-eyed wonder, this year they're coming to Vegas with a more-focused agenda. "Today brand marketers are coming with a much clearer picture of what they want to achieve," said MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan. "It's not the exploratory stage. They know what they're there for."
The past few shows have largely focused on 3-D and connected TVs, but this year it's about one word: wearables. "The real specific agenda is 'We need to understand wearables: what's real, what's not real and how people are going to use this,'" Mr. Kassan said.
They'll have plenty to take in: wearable devices will take up two times the space on the show floor as last year, said Chad Stoller, managing partner, IPG Media Lab. "And you can be sure to see health-care companies surrounding them," he said.
David Berkowitz, CMO of Publicis Groupe's MRY, said he will be looking out for internet-enabled watches and headgear. Scott Hess, senior VP-human intelligence, Spark SMG, said he'll be looking less at smartwatches and more at activity-tracking devices like Fitbit and FuelBand.
CES has begun to attract non-tech marketers in numbers. This year, Kimberly- Clark Corp. will send more than 60 execs to Las Vegas, the company's first major commitment to the show -- or the show around the show.
The marketer, which owns brands like Kleenex, Huggies diapers and Scott toilet paper, will host an innovation competition in conjunction with WPP's Mindshare Worldwide in an effort to identify and support startups that might help them better connect with consumers.
"CES is the world's premiere showcase for innovation and how technology can evolve consumers' lives and daily experiences," said Mayur Gupta, global head of marketing technology at K-C, who noted that the company doesn't believe in digital marketing, but rather building brands in a digital world.
K-C isn't on the hunt for specific technologies in any one particular category, but Mr. Gupta will keep an eye out for tech that can enhance consumer experiences, a heady goal for a marketer of toilet paper.
Now that so many agencies, brands and media sellers converge, CES becomes valuable for the same reason Cannes and South by Southwest did: because everyone else is there. Rather than schedule meetings with execs and partners spread among many states over several months, agencies and companies like Google, Yahoo, NBC and Facebook can pack them all into one week on the strip.
"There are probably two to three times a year where the entire industry is in one location -- execs on the media side, the tech side, the platform side -- and CES has become one of those," GE digital-marketing chief Linda Boff said.
CES has become the official kickoff to deal-making and a way to gather employees to set an agenda for the new year. "CES, in many ways, is the first opportunity that technology, media and consumer companies have to come together and talk about what the year is going to look like," said Yahoo Chief Marketing Officer Kathy Savitt.
This year will mark Yahoo's second CES under CEO Marissa Mayer and it's biggest. Last year the company's presence was fairly quiet. Yahoo didn't make an effort to dominate CES with giant booths or lavish keynote speeches. But a lot has changed in a year. This time Yahoo looks to be one of the faces of CES, as underscored by Ms. Mayer's keynote on Tuesday. Aside from Ms. Mayer and Ms. Savitt, several of Yahoo's top execs, including Chief Operating Officer Henrique De Castro; Chief Development Officer (aka the acquisitive company's chief dealmaker) Jackie Reses; Head of the Americas Ned Brody; and senior VP-mobile and emerging products Adam Cahan will be among the roughly 100 employees the company is sending to Vegas.
The 'unofficial' show
It's hard to know how many marketing professionals attend CES. The Consumer Electronics Association says 5,000 people registered for its "Brand Matters" programming last year, up from 4,800 in 2012. That doesn't include anyone just attending CES and those who don't register at all because they have no intention of actually going to the Las Vegas Convention Center.
For brands, the real business of CES occurs in private hotel suites and during intimate dinners, where the industry's elite gather to hammer out deals and strategies that will be later publicized in headlines throughout the year.
GE will host a private dinner for its contingent of roughly 27 execs and invite eight or nine startups to join. Similarly many companies reserve hotel rooms to confidentially brief partners on their latest products and upcoming business plans.
Yahoo will once again host meetings at The Cosmopolitan, while Clear Channel will be next door at the Aria.
Clear Channel's iHeartRadio digital-radio service has made a point of coming to CES since its 2011 relaunch. "CES is the Super Bowl of media and technology," said Brian Lakamp, president-digital, Clear Channel Media and Entertainment.
With all the wheeling-and-dealing, it may be easy to ignore the actual CES show floor. Some may intentionally -- and forgivably -- avoid the 2-million-square-feet of exhibit space that last year was overrun with 152,759 humans and 3,282 exhibitors.
When it comes to the show floor, agencies and media companies stumble over one another to be "curators" of the experience for brands that would like to convert into clients or advertisers.
No one really knows the origin of the "floor tour," but GroupM CEO Irwin Gotlieb, a Vegas regular since 1979 (attending Comdex before CES) started doing them for clients in 2003.
CNET owner CBS and Engadget parent AOL have found it's nice to own a media property that specializes in all things CES. To capitalize on that role, AOL will host a "Best of CES" event that presents the awards finalists to marketer and agency execs. "What we saw was a need to curate and create context for what is happening in Las Vegas," said AOL Advertising CMO Erika Nardini.