BREWING NEW IDEAS AT AMA

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Although I knew American Marketing Association chapter presidents-elect were in from all over the country for some serious brainstorming, I still wasn't prepared for what I walked into on a sleepy Saturday morning at the Holiday Inn in downtown Chicago last month.

I was immediately caught up in a whirlwind of ideas. To be exact, I walked smack into 40 ideas in 40 minutes on how to know and satisfy your market-from the Alaskan bush to the Florida Keys.

"To satisfy your chapters, you've got to do all kinds of things .*.*. teach people how to surf the Internet, do guerrilla marketing on the street, take field trips to local companies' headquarters," urged Michelle Elster from the Chicago chapter.

"Meetings should be fun," added Rich Claussen of the Lincoln, Neb., chapter. "Have a Roaring '20s party, hold meetings on city buses, meet at the town baseball field."

The marketers were asked to come together for 30 hours of intense idea-storming at the AMA's Annual Summit, and although after 26 hours they were, in the words of AMA Director of Public Relations Jamie Born, "a little punch-drunk," they were still going unbelievably strong.

Listening to what these marketers were discussing was like eavesdropping on executive meetings at companies across the country.

Conquest marketing. Retention marketing. Interactive marketing. Integrated marketing. Business marketing. Target marketing. International marketing. Relationship marketing. Promotional marketing. Ethnic marketing. It was all there.

"Online services are exploding and they will explode even more," said William Scarvie of the Silicon Valley chapter. "Not only is online a great way to communicate with people, but it's a great way to recruit people."

In fact, not surprisingly I guess, discussions of new media applications dominated many of the conversations.

People exchanged e-mail addresses and World Wide Web universal resource locators-instead of just traditional business cards. They shared ideas about doing research online and developing CD-ROMs and kiosks. They evaluated the pros and cons of the commercial online services vs. the Internet.

"The best marketers are helping to bring their companies out of the Dark Ages into the Fiber Optic Age," said Michael Ronchetti who founded the Anchorage, Alaska, chapter after growing tired of corporate life in Minneapolis and moving to Alaska. "For themselves, marketers must maintain a continuous education program as their job changes, literally almost every day."

Mr. Ronchetti himself went from a very corporate position at a Minneapolis communications company to starting his own company creating and marketing Alaskan birch bowls in Anchorage.

"Interactive technology is changing distribution channels dramatically," he said. "Especially in the world of businesses marketing to other businesses."

The blurring of lines between consumer marketing and business-to-business marketing also echoed throughout the summit.

"Electronic and interactive media are going to change the way we market by breaking down geographical boundaries," added Milton Goto of the Honolulu chapter. "It's also going to change who we market to-we'll reach individual consumers and large businesses through the same channels. Interactive media will definitely become the fourth medium."

But then in the middle of this high-tech talk, Vivian Turner, a chapter coordinator from AMA headquarters, rang an old-fashioned handbell. Conversations lulled. And the AMA raffled off unique prizes that each member had brought to the summit-like Oregon wine, Wisconsin cheese, Texas cowboy hats and Michigan berries.

"Marketing is all about staying loose and keeping it exciting," said Tim Prosch, the association's first-ever director of marketing, who was behind the scenes running the show. "Marketing should be enjoyable. So should a meeting like this."

And that it was. Unlike many seminars, this was a scene. A place to be.

The presidents-elect were like a big family. They mingled and laughed and hugged and ate and drank. They sat in big sessions and they shared in small groups.

They worked through breakfast and they worked through lunch.

"Everyone here has been energized by the tremendous sharing of ideas," said Dennis Jorgensen, the association's recently appointed chief operating officer. "It's been a goal of the AMA to be less bureaucratic and focus more on being better marketers. I think we've definitely come closer to that goal this weekend."

The electricity generated from them was something you could touch-marketers set loose in a mall of marketing ideas. Kind of like consumers who've just won a free shopping spree at their favorite store.

"I'm pumped to go home and start executing some of the ideas I learned here," said Scott D. Michelson, of the Puget Sound chapter in Washington.

Some, like the New York chapters in Syracuse, Rochester and the Finger Lakes, went home with concrete plans in the works, like a cross-chapter marketing boot camp.

"Many of us came to be marketers unencumbered with marketing expertise," joked Doug McCaine, president-elect of the Rochester chapter, who's held 15 different jobs in 25 years. "We're combining our resources here; no one of us is as strong as all of us."

The upper-New York chapter heads stood arm-in-arm; smiling, glowing, bursting with excitement about their future boot camp.

But before going home we all had a few cocktails and a deserving meal. Filet mig-non. Twice-baked potatoes. Swordfish. Chocolate mousse.

Attendees were entertained and inspired by a presentation given by Steve Shannon, director of consumer marketing at Saturn Corp., and his sidekick Walter Smith, a senior VP at Saturn's agency, Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco.

"Relationship marketing isn't a tactic," Mr. Shannon said. "It's a choice."

And then it struck me: It was a choice for all these marketers to voluntarily come to Chicago and share with each other.

In a way, marketing is all about relationships-creating them and maintaining them-which is exactly what occurred during the weekend's summit.

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