Five years ago, in my first column for Ad Age, I wrote about "Five Key Things to Know about CES." Five dozen columns and five Consumer Electronics Shows later, how much has changed?
In the opening paragraph of the 2012 byline, I wrote, "There are two things that don't matter at CES: the consumer electronics, and the show." In hindsight, it's one of those lines that seems perfect for Twitter, but was disingenuous then and remains so today. There are too many facets of the show to dismiss it outright, so to the organizers of CES, I belatedly apologize.
Here are the five keys mentioned in 2012, with updated commentary to reflect the situation for marketers at CES this year.
"The Convention Center is for pure technological sensory overload." This was too dismissive. Some of the best information I've come across at CES is during tours of the convention center. For marketers who attend regularly, hitting the floor every other year makes more sense, as many of the updates from year to year are incremental. The floor itself provides a visceral impact. It's one thing to read about how automotive manufacturers are turning CES into the year's first major car show; it's another to see how much space car companies occupy in the North Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. The best part about walking the floor is asking questions of the exhibitors. Breaking the ice with questions like, "Why is your company at CES?" and "What's new this year that you weren't showcasing in the past?" can be an effective approach to market research.
"Nothing truly groundbreaking debuts at CES." That's true, as far as product announcements go. In 2012, I cited the way Microsoft's Kinect, Amazon's Kindle and all of Apple's products were announced elsewhere. This remains true for any important hardware announcement the past five years from those companies, along with Google, Facebook's Oculus, Tesla and others. While HTC will debut new experiences for its Vive virtual reality hardware at CES, it will not debut the next generation of its headset there. Some companies do use CES for their biggest announcements, but those are typically manufacturers such as Qualcomm, Intel and Nvidia that largely power other brands' devices.
"Keynotes are self-promotional performances with little to no impact." This advice gets an A or an F, depending on which kinds of keynotes are referenced. On one hand, there were train wrecks like the Qualcomm 2013 address, which scarred enough attendees that Googling "Big Bird keynote" brings up a slew of references to a keynote that The Verge called "cringeworthy" and "insane." But when there are keynotes specifically about marketing, such as MediaLink's annual C Space conversations, they're often candid, insightful, and inspiring. The best of those sessions make the whole CES trip feel worthwhile.
"Meetings matter more than products." This remains true. Client, prospect and partner meetings remain a major draw. There's the shadow show where business gets done, and that's how agencies and media companies justify the cost of booking several floors of the best Vegas hotels. A company like Facebook or Google may not publicly debut a new ad product at CES, but in private meetings, they may tease their next wave of offerings and lock in which brands will get early access to them.
"Follow-up meetings matter even more." Sometimes, enough business does get done by marketers holed up in conference rooms that follow-up meetings aren't needed. The importance of follow-up meetings is particularly for earlier stage companies. Yet the necessity of follow-up meetings is true for any kind of conference, not just CES, so I wasted too much time stating the obvious.
Looking back at several other articles written before or after subsequent CES conferences, a take from 2015 stood out. While the title, "The Future of CES Belongs to Marketers," reeks of self-serving hyperbole, this passage holds up better:
CES, at its core, isn't a show about electronics. It's a show about time. Products unveiled there reflect bets on how people will spend their time… Marketers understand time. In the age of radio and TV, it's what they bought, and marketers are all the more obsessed with understanding how people spend time across various media.… Whatever marketers are buying, the electronics are often the gateway to the consumer, and there's one show that celebrates that.
There's your reason to keep attending CES. That's why I'm attending for my eleventh straight year. It's about time.