NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It often takes a risk to transform something steeped in history and tradition. And it doesn't always work out -- at least on the first attempt.
Such was the case with last week's 4A's Transformation conference in San Francisco. The revamped event, which for the first time brought together the previously separate creative-agency-focused leadership confab and the annual media-agency-focused media conference, came after a year of real changes within the 4A's that have made it more relevant and aggressive on substantive issues.
But many attendees came away saying the content didn't deliver on the organization's recent progress. In marketing the conference, the 4A's promised to get managers, creatives, media, digital and production "into the same room at the same time to discuss the pressing matters of the day." When it came time for the event, though, many of those pressing matters for an agency community struggling to emerge from the economic storm -- like dealing with procurement, agency-review processes and grasping emerging marketing channels like mobile -- went untouched. Other important subjects, like talent, diversity and agency compensation felt like afterthoughts.
The event's billing was compelling enough to draw impressive numbers: Total registration was 1,075, and 990 people wound up attending. That's a spike from the 750 attendees the 4A's drew last year for both the leadership and media conferences combined.
But the conference missed an opportunity to host a "forward-looking and innovative discussion" about the future of the industry, said Scott Neslund, CEO of Red Bricks Media. "There were moments of that but I didn't see it carrying from one presentation to the next consistently. They worked hard to make this a stellar conference but I think it still falls a bit behind the ANA. Their conference always seems to be a bit more of a thought-provoking conference and for some reason the 4A's hasn't hit that level yet."
'Just keeping pace'
Patrick Sarkissian, founder-CEO of digital and design agency Sarkissian Mason, said that at a time when the industry truly needed transformative ideas, the confab "was just keeping pace with small steps," adding, "I think the industry is still shell-shocked from the recession, so forums like this need to be more radical analysis of people creating change."
Others said what was meant to be the union of two separate events felt a bit more like a cannibalization rather than a venue addressing the issues facing both media and creative agencies on equal footing, and providing actionable ways on how the two can collaborate.
The agenda and speakers felt more media-led than management-focused, with absences among senior executives from large creative shops, a group to whom the management conference has long laid claim.
Louis Jones, North American CEO of WPP's Maxus, called it an admirable attempt, but a lost opportunity to bring key creative and media agency executives together to discuss big issues. "It could have dug deeper on all topics," he said. "Compensation could be its own conference. There should have been more focus on successful integrations."
There was one panel discussion that addressed compensation, featuring Procter & Gamble and a pair of its agency partners. But few execs heard the discussion, as it was at the tail end of the conference when most attendees had already left.
Nancy Hill, the 4A's president-CEO, defended the conferences' bold promise and said the inaugural effort was a success. The feedback she received was "extraordinarily positive," she told Ad Age. And she dismissed notions that the attendee mix lacked many creative-agency execs, saying that "creatives have never had strong attendance."
"More importantly," she said, "we had a depth of leadership, like account management and account planning." With regard to mobile marketing's absence from the agenda, Ms. Hill said a discussion led by Wired Editor in Chief Chris Anderson on whether tablets are the future of media covered where mobile is headed.
Many offered their advice for improving the conference next year. Lisa Donohue, U.S. CEO of Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA, said she would like to see more participation from other industries. "This becomes too insular and then it's just the industry talking to itself," she said.
And Maxus' Mr. Jones said if the marketing industry is going to try and create change on the agency and client sides, there has to be a stronger presence from marketers. "There has to be a client perspective on all of these discussions," he said, recommending that a partnership between the 4A's and the Association of National Advertisers could result in a stronger presence from brands.