What advertising's biggest industry events will look like in 2021
There’s no two ways about it: 2020 was a brutal year for live events. An initial couple of months of business as usual soon descended into a hodgepodge of cancellations, mismatched COVID-19 protocols and hastily thrown-together virtual substitutions that left audiences disappointed. But with a year of pandemic experience under their belts, most of the advertising industry’s biggest events are back to redeem themselves. But can they?
One event that might signal what’s to come this year is CES, last month’s tech extravaganza that wasn’t. Touted as a game-changer for virtual events that was developed via a seven-figure collaboration with Microsoft, the annual show proved to be little more than a series of one-way Zoom calls, leaving many attendees yearning for the chaos of Las Vegas. And if the innovation conference couldn’t innovate a way to replicate its in-person atmosphere, what can?
All hope is not yet lost. There are a number of marketers’ favorites on the docket later this year that are slated to run using in-person or hybrid live-virtual formats, including Europe’s Cannes Lions and Mobile World Congress as early as June, and Advertising Week New York, Motor Bella and Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference are returning stateside this fall. From Cannes to the Olympics, there are question marks on to-be-determined agendas, but the current trend seems to be one of optimism that a return to normalcy will come before the end of the year. Below, Ad Age has broken down a handful of adland’s biggest events in 2021—and how their executions might differ from previous iterations.
This time last year, South by Southwest was defiant—publicly, at least—with organizers and the Austin Department of Public Health promising to hold the festival as scheduled into early March. But as coronavirus fears grew and a slew of major brands including Facebook, TikTok and Apple dropped out, SXSW had no choice but to draw the curtain and fall as one of the pandemic’s first major event casualties.
Now billed as SXSW Online, the massive film, music and innovation festival is set to take place virtually from March 16-20 and will not include any in-person component “due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases” in Austin, Texas, its website says. As such, SXSW plans to offer one $249 pass that covers the entire online event, including its film and music festivals, mentorship sessions and keynote speeches featuring Stacey Abrams and Willie Nelson. (If you plan on attending, buy your ticket early, because passes will increase to $399 each beginning in March.)
IAB NewFronts and Upfronts
Gone are the days of rubbing elbows with media executives in a packed New York convention hall—at least until 2022, fingers crossed—as the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s media-focused NewFronts and TV industry’s annual upfronts will again be comprised of entirely virtual presentations.
When it comes to this year’s TV upfronts, which are primarily set for the third week of May, some media companies are opting to take a slightly different approach than in years past. Disney will be implementing a “three-pronged” strategy that includes a technology showcase this week and a development event in March, with NBCUniversal also hosting a pre-upfront developer conference next month. Information is still trickling in from many upfronts regulars, though some preliminary dates have been confirmed: Disney’s “unified” event, which will encompass Hulu, is set for May 18, along with Univison; ViacomCBS and WarnerMedia will hold their upfronts May 19.
Many details of this year’s digital NewFronts are still murky, though we do know the presentations are slated to take place between May 3-7 and will likely include a combination of live and pre-recorded sessions; the IAB’s Podcast Upfront will take place the following week, enabling “marketers to more easily evaluate their omni-channel investments,” the bureau says.
Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity
When many advertising industry folks first caught wind of the news last month, their initial reactions were ones of shock, surprise and confusion. Could Cannes Lions really happen in-person? Well, if the festival’s organizers are to be believed, marketers and creatives will be flocking to the French Riviera this summer to present, judge, drink and schmooze in-person from June 21-25.
Cannes Lions plans to “constantly monitor the situation like last year” and “continue to talk to everyone about how the virus is affecting them,” Lions managing director Simon Cook recently told Ad Age. That attitude is a sharp departure from 2020, when the event was canceled outright instead of transitioning to an online-only soirée, though its planning team is now confident it can mitigate any obstacles associated with hosting a live event in France. (Cannes Lions ‘21 will also have a virtual component for those not interested in attending, which it has done since 2016.)
“We are talking on a daily basis with the city of Cannes, who we have a great relationship with, as well as our customers, on what pressures they might be facing,” said Cook, adding that the Lions’ organizers are fully prepared to make changes on the fly, such as limiting the festival’s capacity. “We will continue to provide frequent updates to make sure we make the right call.”
After their high-profile postponement last year, the Summer Olympics are on for 2021, running in Tokyo from July 23 to Aug. 8. But moving forward with the Games requires some changes and, in all likelihood, the international sporting event will be anything but routine. From slimming down the size of the Torch Relay caravans to possibly barring in-person spectators from the events, the International Olympic Committee has made myriad compromises to “deliver a Games fit for a post-corona world,” Tokyo 2020 Coordination Commission Chairman John Coates said in a statement.
Fans, athletes and advertisers alike must bear in mind that some aspects of upcoming Olympics are still being hammered out—just a few weeks ago, the host city itself seemed to be in doubt, with Florida volunteering to welcome the Games following anecdotal reports that Japan was considering backing out. And while the IOC has done its best to keep the public top of mind amid the year-long delay, many are holding their breath for updates as the opening ceremony draws nearer.
Advertising Week New York
If the schedules for ad land’s major 2021 events are any guide, then the industry is optimistic that the worst of the pandemic and its consequences might be behind us come autumn. While European happenings including Cannes Lions and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona are already being scheduled live for as early as June, the U.S.—which admittedly bungled its early coronavirus response—is setting its sights on September and October for a return to in-person events.
After going completely virtual last year, Advertising Week New York will run from Oct. 18-21 in a “hybrid” format that includes both the virtual components we’ve come to know as well as a to-be-determined live element in Manhattan. (Updates about location, pricing and COVID-19 protocols will come via Advertising Week’s website as the event dates get closer.) Here are details for the industry’s major events this year:
Dates: March 16-20 Format: Virtual ($249-$399)
Dates: April 27-29 Format: Virtual (free)
Dates: May 3-7 Format: Virtual (by invitation only)
Social Media Week
Dates: May 4-7 Format: Virtual ($299-$899)
Advertising Week Europe
Dates: May 10-13 Format: Virtual ($135-$205)
Dates: Third week of May Format: Virtual (by invitation only) Website: None
Ad Age A-List and Creativity Awards
Dates: June Format: Virtual (pricing TBD)
Dates: June 21-25 Format: In person (Cannes, France; pricing TBD)
Mobile World Congress
Dates: June 28-July 1 Format: In person (Barcelona, Spain; pricing TBD)
Dates: July 23-Aug. 8 Format: In person (Tokyo, Japan)
Ad Age Leading Women Conference and Awards
Dates: September Format: Virtual (pricing TBD)
Dates: Sep. 21-26 Format: In person (Pontiac, Michigan; pricing TBD)
ANA Masters of Marketing Conference
Dates: Oct. 5-8 Format: In person (Orlando, Florida; $2,049-$3,049)
Advertising Week New York
Dates: Oct. 18-21 Format: Hybrid (New York City, N.Y.; pricing TBD)