A Crisis Gone to Waste: Why Samsung Shouldn't Have Canceled ANA Presentation

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Christoph Waltz Gets 'Busy, Busy, Busy' in Samsung Galaxy Note S7 Olympics Ad
Christoph Waltz Gets 'Busy, Busy, Busy' in Samsung Galaxy Note S7 Olympics Ad Credit: Samsung
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A couple of thousand people are going to descend on Orlando, Fla., this week for the Association of National Advertisers' annual Masters of Marketing conference. I'll be among the horde subjected to case study after case study, in which marketers take to the stage and humblebrag about how they've succeeded in the past year or so.

I confess to being a little jaded, but mostly because we cover so many of these stories throughout the year. For a number of marketing execs, especially those from smaller companies, there's a lot to learn from big-company chief marketing officers at the top of their games. And I'll even admit that a good speaker is a good speaker no many how many times you've heard him or her.

For example, I'd go to a conference at which Mondelez Senior VP-CMO Dana Anderson was the only speaker. I don't care if she just took to the stage and rambled for a day and a half.

Ms. Anderson spoke at last year's Masters of Marketing conference, where among other things she said of companies like Airbnb, Facebook and Uber, "I'm happy for these guys. But they are the turd in my packaged-goods punch bowl."

Audi of America Marketing Director Loren Angelo also spoke at least year's conference. His topic was the "Power of Challenging." Audi was positioning itself as a challenger brand, but it was then facing its own challenge. Parent company Volkswagen was ensnared in an emissions-rigging scandal. Not only that, but the Audi brand had been implicated. Despite Audi's "Truth in Engineering" tagline, Mr. Angelo didn't utter a peep about the scandal or how the company was dealing with it. And, as our E.J. Schultz reported at the time, despite extreme interest from the audience, which was allowed to submit questions real-time via the ANA conference app, ANA CEO Bob Liodice steered clear of the scandal during Q&A.

Apparently, the parties involved didn't want any turds in the punch bowl.

Which was too bad.

These conferences are meant to be learning experiences for all involved, right? If they aren't, then it's just an opportunity for vendors to hound marketers for three days.

Even if there were a few Audi competitors at the conference, one has to assume that the CMO of an embattled brand is not going to get a much friendlier crowd than a room full of fellow marketers. "There but for the grace of God," was probably the thought going through the minds of most of them when Mr. Angelo took the stage. Mr. Angelo was in the midst of a marketer's nightmare and he could have taken the opportunity to share his thoughts, his feelings, his potential strategies.

It likely wouldn't have helped Audi or VW much in the consumer space, but it could have educated those gathered -- and in times of crisis, you need all the allies you can get.

All of which brings me to this year. On Thursday morning, Samsung Electronics Senior VP-Global Head of Marketing Pio Schunker was scheduled to speak. His topic? "The Power of Marketing: Transforming Brands From the Inside Out."

The description read in part: "Marketing, at its best, doesn't just tell a brand's story, it shapes it. But there are challenges that stand in the way of shaping a compelling story and connecting with people today."

One of the things standing in the way of that marketing story at the moment is that Samsung has ceased production of its Note 7 phone because it was catching fire. It's also had issues with its washing machines.

I don't envy Mr. Schunker. He was tasked with standing up in front of 2,500 or so people at a time when his company is under intense media scrutiny. Over the weekend, Samsung canceled the presentation.

But I think it would have been better for all involved, even Samsung, if Mr. Schunker had given us a peek behind the curtain. A lot of crisis experts have a lot of advice for companies in Samsung's situation. Be transparent. Pull back on ads. Get the corporate culture on track.

Well, how exactly does one do that? How painful is it? How hard is it at a company like Samsung that, for all its tech prowess, reportedly has a fairly conservative culture back in South Korea? And if that culture is indeed changing from the inside out, how is its current response different from how the company would have responded had this happened two years ago?

These are all fascinating questions. And Mr. Schunker was in a unique position to answer them. Further, those answers would have been a unique learning experience for conference attendees.

He had a choice between canceling, doing a presentation but avoiding the topic (and being mocked in the ANA app for doing so), or delivering what would likely have been the most valuable presentation of the conference.

I know which one I wanted him to make.