In a video that opened the second day of the Association of National Advertisers' Masters of Marketing conference on Friday, an attendee identified ad blockers as a challenge of particular interest. "That's why I'm at this conference: to figure out the best thing to do for our company," he said.
If he hoped for guidance on the subject from the official program, though, he got little.
Marketers at the ANA's biggest annual conference, which drew nearly 2,800 people this year to the Orlando World Center Marriott, instead got what the group's president and CEO, Bob Liodice, recently promised: a procession of inspirational stories focused on what's going right. Ad fraud, ad blocking and alleged secret payments to ad agencies each earned ballroom mentions ranging from "a few" on down to zero.
Despite a private board meeting on Wednesday that covered those supposed undisclosed agency rebates, Mr. Liodice didn't even allude to the subject when he kicked off the main conference Thursday morning. He did spend several minutes on other issues, some of which were making headlines leading up to the conference. "Although our industry is working on legal and technical recommendations," he said, for example, "we must swallow our pride and recognize that ad blocking represents consumer outrage over a diminished user experience."
But the Interactive Advertising Bureau made the same point in more detail just before Mr. Liodice spoke, and released suggestions to help.
"We messed up," said Scott Cunningham, senior VP-technology and ad operations at the IAB, in a statement Thursday morning. "As technologists, tasked with delivering content and services to users, we lost track of the user experience."
To remedy that, the IAB recommended making ads smaller for faster loading, better protecting user privacy and security, letting people opt out of tracking, reducing the number of ads on web pages, making targeted ads a little less relentless in their urgings and calling them off entirely once someone makes the purchase.
"If we are so good at reach and scale, we can be just as good, if not better, at moderation," Mr. Cunningham wrote.
In Orlando, Mr. Liodice moved quickly off ad blocking, as well as brief mentions of ad fraud, ad viewability problems and a "degenerative and destructive" proposal in Congress to reduce the tax deduction for ad spending. "With as many challenges as our industry has," he said, "we have a growing abundance of opportunities."
Speakers from major marketers echoed that theme. Progressive Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Charney told the crowd that Don Draper is dead, because the world of the traditional "ad guy" is over. "You've got to be a full-service marketer," Mr. Charney said.
Don Draper's creative spirit will nonetheless "always live on," he added. In both Don Draper's time and ours, "you better out-create" because "you are never going to outspend," he said.
To that end, Mr. Charney said he runs Progressive's marketing department like a TV network, using brand mascot Flo as the star and surrounding her with supporting actors and spin-offs. "Fresh content works," she said.
On the subject of flashier, faster-growing companies such as Airbnb, Facebook and Uber, Mondelez Senior VP-CMO Dana Anderson said she wished them well, more or less. "I'm happy for these guys," she said. "But they are the turd in my packaged-goods punch bowl."
So to capture some of that energy for Mondelez, Ms. Anderson said her team often looks to startups for inspiration.
Google Director of Performance Ads Marketing Matt Lawson said Unilever had realized 97% of hair-care how-to videos on YouTube were being created by video bloggers instead of brands, taking up a lot of the oxygen that the marketer needs to pitch its products. So Unilever worked with Razorfish and bloggers to aggregate the videos on an "All Things Hair" YouTube channel, establishing a role in the conversation for itself.
"Within six weeks, it became the No. 1 hair-care channel on YouTube," Mr. Lawson said.
Arby's Brand President and CMO Robert Lynch even described how the chain tried to make the most of a very particular challenge: constant ridicule from Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show." The chain sent "The Daily Show" staff a free Arby's lunch every time it was attacked on the air, he said. And it ultimately bought ads in Mr. Stewart's show during its final week on the air, one set to the song "Thank You for Being a Friend."
In between sessions and over drinks at night, conversation drifted more often toward agency practices and whether advertisers really would pull back on the tactics now blamed for encouraging ad blockers.
But on stage, Pegasystems CMO Robert Tas was one of the few to spend a little time on ad blocking, briefly explaining as part of a Saturday-morning session how Sprint handles digital advertising in a cluttered environment.
And Bradley Jakeman, president-global beverage group at PepsiCo, delivered the chief exception to the upbeat presentations, criticizing the industry on every front from outdated measurement methods to diversity. "I am sick and tired as a client of sitting in agency meetings with a whole bunch of white straight males talking to me about how we are going to sell our brands that are bought 85% by women," he said. "Innovation and disruption does not come from homogeneous groups of people."
Agencies are meanwhile watching clients become more promiscuous, working with more shops on a project basis more often, without adapting their businesses, he said. "I am really worried that this model is not going to bend -- it's going to break if we don't really think about how to innovate," he told the crowd.
"My particular peeve is pre-roll," Mr. Jakeman said at another point. "I hate it. What is even worse is that I know the people who are making it know that I'm going to hate it. Why do I know that? Because they tell me how long I am going to have to endure it -- 30 seconds, 20 seconds, 15 seconds. You only have to watch this crap for another 10 seconds and then you are going to get to the content that you really wanted to see. That is a model of polluting content that is not sustainable."
Mr. Jakeman even suggested that advertising's name had been ruined. "Can we stop using the term 'advertising,' which is based on this model of polluting?" he said.
Many of the speakers might have agreed with General Electric CMO Linda Boff, however, who suggested that the answer to some of the industry's top challenges was as simple as creativity. "Ad blocking, viewability, none of it matters without great work," she said.