ANA ends conference controversy

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The Association of National Advertisers is dropping its controversial practice of having sponsors program the agenda for its annual meetings.

The advertising association had stirred vigorous debate over the last three years by charging media companies $100,000 per day to sponsor sessions. Sponsors then were able to put their executives and talent on the stage to present what some charged was a thinly veiled sales pitch aimed at executives who had paid to attend the conference.

MEDIA SPONSORS

TV and radio networks, and magazine and newspaper publishers were among those that snapped up the sponsorships.

This year, the organization plans to reassert control over the agenda of its meeting, to be held in Laguna Niguel, Calif., beginning Oct. 13. More than 500 attendees are expected.

ANA members responded most favorably to the one unsponsored day of last year's conference dedicated to e-business. This year's theme, "Brand building in the new e-conomy," expands on that.

ANA members have said they want more information on e-business and the Internet, said Robin Webster, exec VP of the ANA. "The content is the No. 1 priority, and we'll focus on sponsorship later."

Although ANA has long officially denied it, one executive close to the organization conceded the original premise of media sponsorship went awry. ANA executives contended media outlets would offer attendees access to proprietary research and information, as well as bring in attention-getting present-ers. The reality was programs that were far more self-serving.

"There is that fine line, and it was crossed over," the executive said.

`A HUGE COMMERCIAL SPIEL'

Another industry executive agreed, noting, "They gave away their meeting and they had a very negative reaction to it, with all the ANA members out on the golf course because the program was just a huge commercial spiel."

Andy Cooper, principal of ANA communications agency Cooper Katz, tells a different story. "Evaluations over the last three years have had high ratings regarding general sessions, which is why we continued to do it," he said.

As for the decision this year to eschew offering top e-media companies sponsorship of general sessions, Mr. Cooper said, "It was quite appropriate to reach out to major traditional media companies and involve them, but now with e-commerce, there aren't the same dominant, singular companies that could help us fashion the content as well as we could do it ourselves."

In 1997, the ANA enlisted ABC, CBS and Fox, with each controlling a full day's general session. That caused grousing from some print outlets, and led to the 1998 schedule, which included programs from Hearst Magazines, Reader's Digest Association and Time Inc., as well as ESPN and USA Today. In 1999, the ANA limited sponsorships to two days, one by Conde Nast Publications and one by a collection of four radio networks.

"The day devoted to the Internet, not a sponsored day, was wonderful," said O. Burtch Drake, CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "They had very positive feedback and that's what their members are looking for."

Though this year's exact program has yet to be determined, Space.com Chairman-CEO Lou Dobbs will be the master of ceremonies for the three-day program. Bruce Claflin, president-chief operating officer of 3Com Corp., will be included in the session about the future of e-business, and Joe Weller, chairman-CEO of Nestle USA, will speak as part of a segment on how traditional companies are evolving with new technology.

Sponsorships will be offered for meals, receptions and entertainment, and opportunities will be developed along "new, creative" lines, Mr. Cooper said, but not for any general sessions.

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