Ad Trade Group Wants to Rehab Mad Ave's Image

AAF Reinvents for Digital Age With Twitter Feeds, New Venues, Plans Reality TV Show

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BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- At a time when some associations are struggling for relevance, the American Advertising Federation has added new corporate members and is looking to burnish its image with a new reality TV show and a presence on Facebook and Twitter.

James Edmund Datri
James Edmund Datri Credit: AAF
It's all happening under James Edmund Datri, 42, who today spoke to a breakfast meeting and "State of the Industry" luncheon hosted by the Cincinnati Ad Club. Clearly, Mr. Datri isn't your father's AAF chief, even if he is only the third man to be president of the AAF in 40 years; his predecessor, Wally Snyder, held the post 17 years.

The lawyer and former Democratic congressional staffer and lobbyist has had to make changes fast. When he came on board in November, Mr. Datri said the group had a $500,000 budget deficit and about a month of operating expenses in reserve. In response, he said the group reorganized, instituted purchase orders, "made a slight reduction" in staff, cut pay 15% at the VP level and above -- including his own -- and let go of its former contract speechwriter. Mr. Datri is, after all, a speechwriter himself, who crafted addresses made at the 2000 and 2004 Democratic National Conventions.

Reality show
Now, Mr. Datri wants to improve the industry's image. To that end, he said he's in talks (he declined to name with whom) about turning the AAF's National Student Advertising Competition into a reality TV show, to give both students and the general public a better idea of what the industry actually does.

"One of the issues we have when it comes to public policy is that people don't have a very good perception of us," he said. "I want the public to see that advertising is so much more than [Madison Avenue], and I think by showcasing NSAC on a reality TV show, we're going to generate a positive perception of our industry that could really be a game changer."

Despite the recession and revenue reductions for the group because of cuts in corporate sponsorships, Mr. Datri said the AAF has had a net gain in corporate members on his watch, keeping to his goal of adding one new corporate member a month, including JCPenney and the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. so far.

None of that would be possible, he said, without extensive travel on his part, which he used as part of a plea for the industry to support travel and conference spending. He said the AAF resisted the idea, advocated even by some board members, of either canceling or scaling back its national conference June 4-6 in Arlington, Va.

The group is meeting near Washington in part as a show of industry force in the face of what's likely to be a tough time in Congress, where he expects calls for at least a partial reduction in deductibility of ad expenses by next year because of the need to close huge budget deficits. "A formal rollback has not been proposed," he said. "But we know it's on the table."

Tangling with White House
President Barack Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, indicated the issue would come up in a talk to ad industry groups, he said. "The argument that keeps coming back to us is that it's going to be shared sacrifice," Mr. Datri said. "Everyone's going to be asked to give something up, and why should advertising not. ... The argument I've been using on Capitol Hill is that if you touch advertising, you hurt everyone, because advertising is the engine for everyone else to sell their products or services."

Mr. Datri said he would like to organize the New York metro area's congressional delegation around supporting the ad industry, much like Michigan's congressional delegation has rallied for years around the auto industry.

Despite complaints he's heard that the ad industry has too many organizations, Mr. Datri said it actually has far fewer lobbyists than other industries of its size and that the groups coordinate well. The AAF, he said, has four lobbyists, including himself, but one is about to go to another industry group and isn't going to be replaced.

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