Last April, former MEC North America CEO Marla Kaplowitz attended the 4A's annual Transformation conference as its incoming president-CEO and said: "The No. 1 priority for me is to ensure that we are delivering value for our membership."
Now, nearly a year into the role, Kaplowitz will stand on stage at the rebranded Accelerate conference on April 8 with lots to say about the future of the advertising agency trade association as well as the industry.
As we sat in the "Mad Men" conference room -- one of the many offices in the 4A's New York building based on advertising-related TV shows and movies – Kaplowitz discussed the upcoming Accelerate conference, sexual harassment in the industry, the organization's relationship with the ANA and much more.
This interview has been lightly edited for flow and readability.
Was there one big problem you were looking to solve in the last year?
I wouldn't say there was one overarching problem or issue as much as the opportunity to come in with fresh eyes and focus on the future and address some of the challenges going on in the industry and get back to reminding the industry and our members of what they do, which is about bringing so much value to clients.
What are those values?
It made us take a step back and spend time with members and hear what's important to them. We recognized that we needed to refocus our positioning. We tell our agencies -- and our signature has always been around leadership, guidance advocacy and community -- and those are all important aspect of any trade association for their members, but it doesn't really talk about what's special and unique about the 4A's and this industry.
Did you nail down what's special about this organization?
The creativity. Not just the creative, but the creativity. We needed to make sure we could continue to help empower agencies in their quest for business and in their relationships with marketers to bring that insightful creativity drives commerce and influences culture. After looking at that, we looked at the key pillars we wanted to focus on. We kept coming back to the value of agencies and making sure that we reinforced that narrative because there is so much pressure in the marketplace and on marketers today and agencies want to partner with them and help bring solutions and ideas. That's one of our pillars.
What are the others?
Another is talent. Talent is critical. You have to have plans on how to attract and retain talent. The 4A's has always been strong in the area of diversity and helping to bring in young talent. We have MAIP, which is our multicultural advertising intern program. It's in its 45th year and we'll have another over 200 MAIP fellows this summer and we have over 3,000 alumni. But what we recognize is that while we've done a good job of bringing in talent at the entry level, we haven't done a good job helping on the inclusion piece and making sure that we're addressing the mid- to senior levels. We're starting to tackle those issues and we're working with agencies to address this.
Is there a third pillar?
The third area is the broader ecosystem of partnering with other trade associations, like the ANA and the IAB and working on industry initiatives.
Before you joined, the 4A's and ANA (the Association of National Advertisers) were at odds. Do your organizations get along now?
Yes. Do you want to see a picture of me and Bob [Liodice, CEO of ANA]? Seriously. What people forget is that 4A's and ANA do so much work together. We actually like each other and we get along. We work together along with IAB on the Coalition for Better Ads, the Digital Advertising Alliance, Trustworthy Accountability Group. We have a joint board meeting with the ANA and IAB.
There are a number of tensions between marketers and agencies right now though.
We need to work together. Bob and I know that there are always going to be places where we agree to disagree, but it starts with being honest and we have been having very honest conversations. He knows that when I took this job, I said we have to make sure we repair our relationship with the ANA and I've been clear with our members about that. A lot of people think of that as more of a network agency issue, but the reality is that the majority of your clients are members of the ANA and we know that this is an ecosystem where you don't work on your own. You work with clients. We need to make sure we're partnering in the right way and identifying opportunities to come together.
How are you helping agencies deal with being squeezed financially by marketers?
We have conversations with the ANA about bringing together committees to talk about compensation and better ways to approach that and making sure that it's not just a procurement conversation and that it's more of a marketing conversation. Those conversations continue and we're always trying to identify that.
How many agencies are 4A's members?
About 750 members and that covers roughly 85 percent of overall ad spend in the U.S. In terms of percentage, it's somewhere in the 2 to 3 percent range in terms of turnover and losing agencies and bringing in agencies.
Some smaller agencies have said they feel neglected as 4A's members.
We are probably always going to hear comments like that and we do our best to address them and make sure we're giving that one-to-one touch. It's about getting out there and having frequent meetings and outreach. I look at this year as what we've been calling as a pivot year as we're identifying the challenges and what we need to be doing and then start positioning ourselves in a different way that really gets members to continue to see the value or see new value in what we bring. There's also a misperception that most revenue comes from large agencies and it's not true. It's actually pretty split, and our focus is split.
Sexual harassment, discrimination, diversity and inclusion. All hot-button industry topics right now. Are you addressing any of them?
We've created a program called the Enlightened Workplace Certification – the EWC program. This started back when we first heard about Harvey Weinstein and we realized we didn't have a program for our members and we had to do something. We recognized that while we're experts in many areas as it relates to agency management and we have talent experts here, we also needed to ensure that we had third-party experts and an authentic voice from the outside.
Who did you team up with?
We partnered with ANSI – the American National Standards Institute. They're a 101-year-old Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. They do accreditations in various categories, including training and certifications. We didn't want it to be that we're giving a "4A's Certification." We want to make sure that it's thoroughly vetted and that we're working with reputable partners, so we're also partnering with AARP, GLAAD, and Glenn Singleton from Pacific Education Group, consultant Barbara Tint, and Professor Natasha Bowman, who is a former lawyer and lecturer and talks a lot about discrimination in the workplace and diversity.
Has there been interest?
We have a lot of interest. Members have been asking through the fall. People are still asking for a lot of details and we're just finalizing it now as we get ready to go to pilot in another month. We want to make sure that it's comprehensive, thorough and that it will help change the dynamics within agencies. You hear that training isn't enough, so we're being very clear that you have to have a set of benchmarks and an understanding of where you are today and your goals, in addition to the training and learning.
How much is it?
It's incremental cost on top of what they're already paying, but it's completely up to them if they're looking to seek this out. Many are trying to find ways to help employees address education and learning. People don't know what's even safe anymore. And the definition of sexual harassment -- some people are confusing misogyny with sexual harassment, which is also different than bro culture. We need to be clear with these terms and actions. This is a comprehensive program meant to address racism, bullying, intimidation and retaliation across areas including race, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, age, religion and even regionality.
How long is the process?
We expect it to be two to three months.
Do you have any agencies signed up yet?
We do. We're just not releasing their names publicly. We have 50 agencies that have reached out with interest. I would say at least half are very strong commitments and are asking us for the price and that's what we're working through now. We want to make sure that it's something that if you're a network agency and you just want your team to do it, then you can do that. For independent and smaller agencies, we want to be able to aggregate them together and make it more affordable.
Can they fail?
Yes, they can.
What happens then?
They will need to go back. This is not an automatic pass just because you do it. You have to make sure that you have the right standards in place.
How is this different then The 3% Movement's Certification Program?
4A's is a founding partner of The 3% Conference. The 3% Movement is very focused on gender and they're analyzing the creative. They're a for-profit entity. They have a different approach to it and people have asked us this because they know the price point for 3% and we're trying to explain to people that this program is much broader and it's not just about gender. It's about the intersectionality of everything from race to age to religion to sexuality.
4A's Accelerate is coming up. Any big changes?
We'll continue to have day one of our management practitioner forum, which is closed to the press and is for members only. It typically attracts our independent agencies and it's real hands-on and practical approaches to running your business. Then we typically have two and a half more days. But we have gotten rid of that last day, which we called the "hangover day," and we're no longer separating out a media day and creative day. We believe that it's more broadly about the industry coming together. That doesn't mean there won't be topics and conversations that are more specific around creative or media, but we realized that we changed the name and the theme is around creativity, commerce and culture, which is also our new positioning. We wanted to really address the interactivity that hasn't been taking place at Transformation [the former name of the Accelerate conference] and have more dialogue.
How will it be more interactive?
You'll see more in terms of the ability to do Q&As and interaction, but also the addition of learning tracks and workshops in the afternoon on both days. And then bringing in new partnerships. I mentioned our EWC program, so we'll talk about that, and we have a new partnership with Upright Citizens Brigade where they are actually working with agencies on improv and presentation skills and building confidence. We'll also be bringing in Cirque Du Soleil to get people to think differently. And we'll have a number of different tracks, depending on your interest, like brand safety and ad assurance, marketing effectiveness and A.I.
I see that actor John Leguizamo is speaking.
He's going to talk about his new content company and the emphasis on multicultural and I think that's very relevant for today. And Marc Pritchard is coming to talk about the value that he gets with his agencies and new models and ways of working and the way they've reinvented in the last year.
What keeps you up at night?
Making sure we're moving fast enough. I get very excited about change and moving things quickly and I have to take a step back. We have to make sure that everyone is coming along with you and there are people who have to say goodbye to the past and get comfortable with the pace of change and that's happening.
Some people feel like the ad industry is all doom and gloom right now. What do you think?
I'm not a doom and gloom person. I'm an optimistic person and tend to focus on the positive. I will always look at what we could be doing more and what is going wrong, but I see all the possibilities and that's what gets me excited. I still really believe this is an amazing industry and I've been part of it for 30 years. It's changing, but that's not a bad thing and we have to make sure that our members are evolving with it in the right way and that we're supporting and championing them.