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Advertising Week: Bigger not better

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Clutter. Audience fragmentation. Confused positioning. Lack of a coherent message.

Those bete noires of marketers and agencies alike were on full display at this year's Advertising Week, about as conspicuous as a team of Clydesdales trotting through New York's Times Square.

Not long after news spread that the famous Budweiser mascots were forbidden to take their rightful place alongside the Geico Gecko and the Doublemint Twins during the event's opening act, it was clear there were problems besides the NYPD regulations regarding horse traffic.

Let's be clear: There were valuable moments, which, if nothing else, ought to give audiences the confidence that there are industry leaders who have a clear, positive vision of where the business is going.

Group M CEO Irwin Gotlieb impressed, responding to at-times hysterical concerns about the shifting media landscape by demonstrating how different media solutions are emerging for different marketers; former Bartle Bogle Hegarty chief Cindy Gallop gave an eloquent soliloquy on what's ailing the ad business; and Carat chief David Verklin delivered an upbeat vision of marketing's future, using the metaphor of "the reforestation of the ad industry" over the oft-bemoaned "desert landscape."

But attendees had to dive deep to find these pearls, as they were put through a relentless, confusing and contradictory schedule of more than 300 events around Manhattan organized by a committee of more than 30 trade organizations. That's about 100 more that last year's schedule, which already brought complaints that it was too jam-packed.

The overwhelming agenda led to nagging problems such as uneven attendance and counterprogramming problems, but, more important than any logistical snafu, it contributed to the kind of identity crisis that's anathema to what is essentially a PR play designed to tell the world just what the advertising industry is. Said one industry executive: "Is it a celebration? Is it an open debate on what's right and wrong with the industry? Tell me what this week is."

O. Burtch Drake, president-CEO of the Association of American Advertising Agencies, refused to define it: "It's meant to be different strokes for different folks."

He was right in that participants certainly got a wide-angle view of the industry. The event was less ad-centric than last year, with media agency executives, for example, playing larger roles. There was more frank discussion of the need for ad agencies to reinvent themselves for a world no longer dominated by the TV spot, and the new generation of entrepreneurs-most notably executives from Anomaly, Taxi and Strawberry Frog-at times threatened to steal the show with their smart, aggressive pitches.

Fuller portrait

And, if you strayed outside of the events put on by the trade organizations that comprised the organizing committee, you could see discussions about direct marketing, word-of-mouth marketing and branded entertainment. All in all, the diversity offered a fuller portrait of the marketing world than the inaugural week.

Mr. Drake, interviewed Sept. 29 as festivities were winding down, was generally upbeat. He did allow that the organizers will look at fixing some of scheduling problems by revisiting the number of non-organizing committee events, potentially reducing head-to-head conflicts. The organizers will also be looking to change the sponsorship structure by trying to get fewer sponsors to cough up more money. That would be one way to trim the schedule.

Financially, he said, the event's in the black. "The week's not over yet, but we know we're going to better than break even," Mr. Drake said, declining to offer more details.

One thing that won't change is use of the host of ad characters, largely drawn from Madison Avenue's bygone days, as the central way for the event to get media attention for the industry. Over the past two years, Charlie the Tuna, Mr. Peanut and company have become unwitting pawns in a debate over how the industry should be portrayed, with some observers, including this publication, criticizing their hogging the spotlight.

"Those icons aren't going away," an exasperated Mr. Drake said in a diatribe full of profanity. "We're sick and tired of Ad Age being on our case about it. ... The consumers love it. I was at the Apollo Theatre last night and the icons were up there, Juan Valdez was on stage, and the consumers loved it. To say that the icons were outdated just blows my mind. ... Who was one of the hits of the goddamn parade? The Burger King king, who was done by the hottest agency in America, who has resurrected an old icon."

Many observers nonetheless expressed a wish to see more involvement from marketers, more of a sense of marketing as a sophisticated business tool and more venues where current cross-platform creative work could be exhibited.

Mr. Drake said the committee will consider ways to bring the creative community into the event. He added that the event hit its objectives in reaching out to students, communicating the importance of advertising to the New York business community, and speaking to general consumers.

"For something that's 2 years old, I think we've come a long way," Mr. Drake said. "The general reaction-and there are always going to be complainers and whiners-is that it was great for the industry, good for New York City. I don't think you expected me to say anything else."

On the web

For more on all of these events, see coverage at AdAge.com, QwikFIND: aaq92v

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