At the American Association of Advertising Agencies' Media Conference last week -- with 1,500 attendees, the ad business' largest individual event, thanks in part to its massive trade show -- evergreen issues such as the endlessly debated commercial-ratings system and much-derided online auction dominated much discussion.
Spins its wheels
The proceedings showed off how the media business, because of antagonism between the supply and demand sides, spins its wheels on important yet somewhat parochial issues such as audience measurement and transparency in ad buying, even as marketers are looking for big-picture help: consumer engagement with brands, tapping into consumer word-of-mouth and using new media to distribute marketing messages.
In the conference's boldest statement on where marketing thinking is headed, Procter & Gamble Co.'s Jim Stengel repeated the familiar call that agencies should be embracing consumer control, saying the era of "telling and selling" is over. And Mich Mathews, senior VP at Microsoft, followed suit when she sang the praises of consumer-created ad mash-ups and talked up building communities around customer enthusiasm. She revealed that Microsoft will shift the majority of its budget into digital channels over the next three years in an effort to follow consumers to the web. "Interaction is even more valuable than exposure," she said.
Though the statements weren't exactly groundbreaking, Ms. Mathews and Mr. Stengel's talks did provide a manifesto on developing trust with consumers. Both spent more time on how to amplify ad messages with earned media -- lectures on PR, essentially -- and on how to get consumers to engage with messaging than on traditional media fare.
Mr. Stengel described "value shifts" sweeping P&G that have made dialogue-driven relationships the order of the day. Describing a trust-starved world, Mr. Stengel insisted "generous brands" will be winners and pointed to several marketers who are setting the standard: Starbucks composting its coffee grounds, Amazon giving users other users' reviews and P&G's own Ariel brand creating a "safe, clean place" for the people of Venezuela's Caracas to do their laundry.
All this sounded rather fluffy compared to the media-oriented attendees' debates over commercial ratings and transaction standards, something Mr. Stengel noted. "But think how that sounded to a data-driven organization like P&G," he said. It almost seemed that two different conferences emerged from the Las Vegas confab: one about big ideas, the other obsessed with minutia. The schizophrenic feel suggested that media agencies are still finding their way out of the narrowly defined role of custodian of the media investment-placing ads and delivering audiences -- and into a more strategic role as marketers' guides through an ever-complicated media landscape.
Industry conferences often have the "Groundhog Day" feeling of going round and round on the same problems year after year -- "the same old harangues," as one attendee put it -- and this one was no different. Last year, now-retired Universal McCann executive Jean Pool called for commercial ratings. This year her replacement as chair of the 4A's media policy committee, Group M North America CEO Marc Goldstein, called for -- surprise -- commercial ratings.
"There are many parties involved -- agencies, networks, clients, Nielsen themselves -- and it seems unlikely anyone will get everything they want," Mr. Goldstein said.
Similarly, a panel discussion on an initiative to test an online auction system for selling time on national cable-TV networks was a near-desperate call for participation from media sellers. None have publicly announced a commitment to a program that's seen its share of bashing largely from a sense, particularly among sellers, that it could commoditize their inventory. Said PHD North American CEO Steve Grubbs: "It's just a test, guys."