I'm talking about industry conferences, which I've been attending now for (gulp) a dozen years. Four A's, ANA, MPA and just about every other letter combination. At each of these, people ask one another, starting about an hour after the first day's session kicks off, what they think of the agenda so far. Inevitably, someone, usually a first-timer who shelled out a couple of thousand dollars in search of actual ideas, will rant about what a waste of time it is. ("That wasn't bad," one executive said to me recently after a particularly vacuous panel discussion. "It was worse than that; it was criminal.")
The complaints are generally the same, and essentially accurate. Speakers are too bland and invited based on client connections rather than merit; to keep the mood upbeat, the toughest challenges are sidestepped; panels lack substance because rivals won't share strategies; attendees are more interested in hitting the links than tackling hard issues.
You really can't argue with any of these points. The advertising agency business is struggling through a difficult economic climate and facing increased pressure from clients, competitors and shareholders. And although the tech bubble has burst, agencies still have to figure out how to effectively communicate with consumers in digital environments. Yet at the just concluded American Association of Advertising Agencies' annual management conference (in sun-drenched Naples, Fla.), none of these things were on the agenda in a meaningful way.
What was? Well, Gary Rodkin of Pepsi-Cola gave a speech about how great Pepsi-Cola is. And a group of Conde Nast editors talked about how valuable their magazines are.
There were stronger sessions, including a speech by Publicis Groupe Chairman Maurice Levy that, while self-promotional, smartly challenged the concept and execution of integrated marketing. There was a good speech by DDB Chairman Keith Rein-hard about taste and decency that could have been great if he had risked ticking off attendees by showing examples of work from their agencies (and his) that crossed the line. Instead, he played it safe and presented obscure samples from in-house groups and little known boutiques.
Based on the validity of these complaints, you can question whether associations should drastically restructure or even cancel the meetings. Neither is a viable option. If the conferences aren't held at sunny four-star resorts with decent golf courses and lots of free time, CEOs simply won't show.
Canceling them isn't an option, either. Despite their inherent flaws, the meetings have real value. The value stems in part from the substantive portions of the formal agenda but to a greater degree from the one-on-one conversations that take place. It's over coffee and chalky muffins while avoiding a boring speech, or over Opus One and crab cakes at a chic local restaurant or over cognac and cigars in the hotel bar that the issues of the day are dissected. Attendees analyze trends, dish gossip, share insights, compare notes on crazy bosses, grade the latest acquisition, ponder career choices, predict the next big deal and grumble about idiotic client demands. For journalists, those honest, unfiltered, often politically incorrect conversations make us smarter about the business we cover. That's equally true for executives who toil in the trade.
The best way to approach the agenda for these meetings, then, may be to cut the formal session time by half and replace it with longer coffee breaks. Better yet, break people into groups of 50, put them around tables and have them openly debate the topics of the day. Association chiefs should demand agendas that address the top challenges facing their industry. It's not accentuating the negative; it's dealing with reality.
Or maybe, just maybe, they should bug the coffee urns and barstools and dinner tables, record the private conversations and spend hours each morning playing the tapes before a captivated audience. So long as no one misses tee time.