Four A's Confab Falls Short on Substance

Report From Naples: Integration the Future, but Little Else to Take Away

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NAPLES, Fla. ( -- Stayed home? You didn't miss much.

In stark contrast to the instructive commentary and provocative speakers at the last Association of National Advertisers annual meeting, the American Association of Advertising Agencies management confab was curiously lacking.
Michael Roth: IPG chief says clients are unimpressed by agencies' claims of 360-degree holistic marketing.
Michael Roth: IPG chief says clients are unimpressed by agencies' claims of 360-degree holistic marketing. Credit: Art Beaulieu

In other words, if you like your ad conferences sun-kissed, entertaining and full of positive reinforcement, it was for you. But if you were looking to fill pages of a conference notebook with substantive insights into how to move forward in this rapidly changing marketing world, you were left wanting.

Although outgoing association CEO O. Burtch Drake, leaving after 14 years, called his opening address "Looking Back, Looking Forward," he offered little guidance for those doing the latter -- other than to announce who the 4A's new officers would be and offer his well-wishes to his successor. (Oddly, Mr. Drake's speech ended abruptly, and he had left the stage before the audience had a chance to give him an ovation for his stewardship of their association.)

Throwing catchphrases
Among the usual catchphrases: Integrate, integrate, integrate. Interpublic Group of Cos. CEO Michael Roth was the first to hit this note hard, saying that agencies have long talked the talk about "holistic, 360-degree marketing," or "fully integrated offerings," but that clients -- based on his own experience as a marketer and a recent Forrester Research study -- remain deeply unimpressed. Agencies, he said, need to make integration a priority.

It may not be coincidence that he was followed onto the podium by one of his agency leaders who has done exactly that. Howard Draft, CEO of DraftFCB, skated quickly and euphemistically over the Wal-Mart debacle without mentioning the marketer by name, and he spent his time at the podium showing how his particular agency was going about achieving integration in practice. He noted, among other things, that his shop's "wheel" process ensures disciplines are at the table simultaneously, which he said was crucial to delivering a coordinated and disciplined agnostic solution to marketers' problems.
Mr. Draft also made much of his agency's focus on accountability, showing off its "smart" walls of TVs that display real-time metrics and demonstrate how the shop's work is impacting its clients' businesses in terms of ROI measures as sales and awareness. (He also said he tells clients that they have to give their agency access to real-time sales data.) "If we don't track it, our clients won't treasure it," Mr. Draft said several times. He also insisted on fearlessness in the face of accountability, noting that measurement should enhance creativity.

Whether or not you thought Mr. Draft was pitching his wares -- and several attendees did -- his and Mr. Roth's speeches probably had more useful takeaway than the bulk of the rest of the speakers. There was a good panel on compensation called "Getting Paid What You Are Worth," although, as usual, you wondered whether the participants are as tough in their demands to get paid for their intellectual capital when they're in negotiations with clients. But, in the main, the speakers were more entertaining than enlightening.

Sweet, but little sustenance
Tom Messner, partner and co-founder of Euro RSCG, brought the house down with a hilarious speech that spanned everything from a sarcastic take-down of a recent Harvard Business Review article that claimed you could create a formula for intent to buy, to a suggestion that the ad industry ought to start hiring Iraqi veterans when they come back from the war. GSD&M CEO Roy Spence gave one of his Clintonesque, joke-laden speeches -- "if a bunch of agency people are in a forest and there's no CMO there, are we still wrong?" -- that was about stressing the need to create a culture of joy within agencies. And DDB Worldwide CEO Chuck Brymer apprised the difference between 20 years ago, when he left the ad agency world, and today, when he's right back in the thick of it. Entertaining? Yes. Enlightening? No.
Howard Draft, CEO of DraftFCB
Howard Draft, CEO of DraftFCB Credit: Art Beaulieu

Mr. Brymer's speech did, as one attendee noted, offer the lesson that the industry then was supposed to be under threat of imminent doom -- the VCR was playing Grim Reaper at the time -- and yet went on to thrive. That must surely have pleased Mr. Drake and 4A's Chairman Tony Hopp, who both used their time at the podium -- and their time among attendees at coffee breaks and in the bars -- to point out what a "great time" it is to be in the ad business. Yet the chatter among other attendees was of trials of procurement and the scarcity of digital talent.

At its largest, the conference hit a relatively low attendance of around 200, a number that thinned over the course of the three days -- an attendance that may speak to the sense that this event has become tired and offers minimal actionable takeaway.
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