But in his four years as head of the Association of National Advertisers, the biggest trade group for marketers, he has proved to be just those things. He's taken the organization from the cliff of irrelevance -- or worse -- and turned it into an industry focal point, nowhere more so than in its annual conference. (See video coverage.)
In a landscape littered with too many conferences that air too many clichés and yield too little useful dialogue, his organization's yearly confab is an exception. This year's event, which took place last week in the sun-baked Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Arizona Biltmore, sold out for the first time in its history. The ranks of attendees swelled by an A-list group of presenters including newly-crowned Nobel laureate Al Gore and Microsoft Chief Steve Ballmer.
Of the 1,200 registered, more than half were marketers. The rest came from media sellers both large and small and agency executives who turned out in bigger force than ever.
Content and stars
Put simply, the ANA conference -- with a hyper-relevant agenda, star-studded (at least for the marketing world) lineup and have-to-be-be-there feel -- has taken up where organizations such as the American Association of Advertising Agencies and events like Advertising Week have failed.
"This ANA Conference is light years ahead of the 4A's annual conference. The ANA, as evidenced by the presence of Ballmer, Gore and private-equity people as speakers, is not afraid to engage those who impact the marketing spectrum in their own way, vs. the 4A's, which relies on cronyism and chest-beating to enlighten attendees," said a senior agency executive.
Said another, "This is the place to be. Let's just hope that our being here doesn't mean it will go straight downhill."
That'll be unlikely as long as the ANA continues to put strong content forward. It featured a bit of Fortune-50-CEO porn in the form of Mr. Ballmer, a little well-timed celebrity flash in Mr. Gore and a whole lot of serious talk about the disruptions facing the marketing world. Mr. Ballmer laid out his company's vision of a future where the software giant will rely much more on advertising revenue for growth.
Meanwhile, ad-world luminaries such as McDonald's CMO Mary Dillon gave what amounted to case studies in constructing sophisticated, global-meets-local marketing operations. Even Anheuser-Busch's ad chief, Bob Lachky, despite being unable to resist showing a handful of old 30-second spots and taking shots at his newly merged competitors, was prepared to tackle some of today's meatier issues, talking about the shortcomings of Bud.TV, the marketer's much-vaunted venture into branded content.