The Advertising Festival, held Sept. 2-4, was billed as an exhibition, seminar and awards ceremony that would bring together agencies, marketers and media companies from around the world. Sponsors and exhibitors, including WPP Group-owned research company Millward Brown, paid up to $5,000 for exhibition stands and signage at the event. Mr. Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, was touted as the keynote speaker to lend credibility to the new event.
But despite expectations of up to 2,000 delegates, only about 50 people showed up the first day, according to the organizers, and only a handful more appeared the second day.
The festival was created by Carl Tooney, a self-described "media entrepreneur" who started a U.K. company called Nationwide Advertising that hires out trucks as mobile billboards but is virtually unknown in the international ad industry. Mr. Tooney said he was "disappointed and embarrassed" by the low turnout.
In a heated exchange, speakers and exhibitors met with Mr. Tooney in a conference room to demand explanations of what had gone wrong. Many asked for financial recompense.
The festival's elaborate Web site, which was pulled on Sept. 4, listed as sponsors The Washington Post Co.'s Washingtonpost.com, The Financial Times' FT.com, Adforum and the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.
Bruce Haines, CEO of Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett U.K., left without delivering his planned speech on Sept. 3 because audiovisual equipment didn't work and there was virtually no audience. Ben Hughes, worldwide advertising director of the Financial Times, also left without making his presentation.
"[The organizers] said it was a major conference and used Sorrell's name for credibility," Mr. Haines said. "On paper it sounded fine."
Mr. Sorrell apparently decided not to appear after he learned of the problems with the festival. WPP did not comment.
"We had been led to believe it would be a big event, and we are bitterly disappointed by the low numbers," said Jonathan Cole, business development manager of Millward Brown in Paris.
"To judge from the amount of people who had booked rooms ... I expected at least 600 people," said Mr. Tooney. "Those who bought stands are clearly annoyed, but I also believe that the quality of delegates who have made it to the event is very high."
More than 400 entries were said to have been received for an awards competition for which there was no entry fee. Springer & Jacoby Paris won the main Campaign of the Year prize with its "Babies" TV campaign for Mercedes-Benz. The Agency of the Year award was not given because only one agency entered.
Mr. Tooney, who said he used his own money to set up the Advertising Festival, vowed he will hold the event again next year despite the setback.
"It is always difficult to launch a new brand ... and we will learn from our mistakes," he said.
contributing: emma hall