Attendees gather at luxury coastal resorts. They drink fine wine, eat good food and are entertained by well-known singers and comedians. For the first few hours of each day, they sit through a handful of general session speeches and panels. Later breakout sessions are sparsely attended. Their timing unfortunately coincides with the scheduled departure of buses -- don't forget your box lunch -- for the golf course.
That's not to say there's no value in such conferences; they represent an opportunity for industry executives to connect with their peers. Every once in a while, an honest viewpoint emerges, a breakthrough idea is presented, conventional wisdom challenged.
But, for the most part, these gatherings are simply middle- and upper-management perks. (In the interest of full disclosure, I've metabolized my fair share of wine and rich food at Ritz Carlton conferences on both coasts as a member of the press. But I don't golf.)
The just-completed American Association of Advertising Agencies Media Conference is, surprisingly, neither a schmoozefest nor a boondoggle. It is a working conference. There are no sports tournaments, no celebrity speakers. There's not even a luxury hotel; this year's conference was held at a homely Hilton in New Orleans.
What is abundant on the agenda is substance, and substance sells. After just six years, the media conference is the association's largest and most profitable. Its success mirrors the rise of media's role in the marketing landscape. Media experts have gone from mid-level managers who toiled in relative obscurity to CEOs of their own branded businesses. They compete for consolidated global accounts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. They have fancy new tools such as optimizers to aid in the efficient location and capture of fragmented audiences. It's an exhilarating but also a challenging time, which makes an opportunity to sit down with others in the business to chew over issues rather appealing.
A record 950 people attended this year's media conference, up from 725 last year. And they came out in force for general sessions and breakouts. During the first morning's opening session, hotel workers scrambled to set out an extra 100 chairs. Breakout sessions drew standing-room-only crowds.
The media conference is the brainchild of Four A's President Burtch Drake, who set it and several other new conferences up as a way to increase non-dues revenue. (The Association of National Advertisers chose a more controversial way to do this: It sold the agenda of its annual conference to sponsors, which sharply reduced its value to attendees).
"It was not an easy sale," Mr. Drake says of the media conference. The Four A's media committee at first dismissed the idea. "In part," he says, "it was the arrogance of the big agencies: 'What are we going to learn?' " The first year it was held, 1994, the conference drew 200 attendees. At next year's conference, in Orlando, attendance is expected to top 1,000.
"The meeting is very substantive," Mr. Drake says. Added an attendee: "Media people see themselves as the hardest working people at agencies, and I think they've created a conference that confirms that view."
There's truth in that statement. Of the other vertical Four A's conferences, only the account planning meeting has seen similar success; it now draws some 700 people a year. A conference for agency creatives has met with such cool support that it will now be held only every other year.
The main, golf-soaked Four A's annual meeting, Mr. Drake says, still "has its place on the calendar." It draws 400-plus top executives and big-name speakers, and gets the most media attention. Mr. Drake still believes it would be a good idea to combine the Four A's and ANA meetings: "We would have parallel tracks and come together for general sessions." But ANA nixed the idea and has yet to back down from its plan to add agencies as members (though it has also yet to move forward with it).
The media conference's success proves that, in this era of accountability, industry executives don't like to waste time. Luxury hotels and celebrity keynotes are fine. But a substantive agenda that tackles real issues and challenges is ultimately the best draw.
How can ad industry meetings and conventions be made better? What works? What