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The verdict is in. And contrary to opinions in Advertising Age, the Association of National Advertisers' 1997 annual conference was our most successful ever, as verified by the overly positive evaluation forms filled out by our members.

So why is this meeting-which was expressly crafted for the benefit of ANA members-being criticized by a few of our media guests ,notably the reporters and editorialists of Ad Age (AA, Oct. 27). To understand the situation, here's some background.

Three years ago, our board, executive committee and staff created a blueprint for the modern ANA. Endorsed by the full membership, its central objective is to make the ANA one of our members' most valuable brand-building resources. To that end, we have focused many of the association's resources on new brand-building initiatives. Our benchmarking effort, Web site and resource center are a few examples.

We have also re-designed many of our seminars and conferences to focus in detail on different brand-building dimensions.

Last year, we introduced "Brand champions" as the theme of the ANA's signature event, our annual conference. And this year we took that theme a step further with the forward-looking theme "Branding the future." Our mission was to provide our members with vital insights and perspectives on brand building in the coming years.

We secured an extraordinary lineup of speakers and panelists-perhaps the most impressive group of brand experts ever assembled at one conference. Included were such leaders as Irvine Hockaday, CEO of Hallmark Cards; Robert Herbold, chief operating officer of Microsoft Corp.; Carl Pascarella, U.S. president of Visa; Charlotte Beers, chairman emeritus of Ogilvy & Mather; Scott Bedbury, VP-marketing of Starbucks Coffee Co.; and Ann Lewnes, director of worldwide advertising of Intel Corp.

Also included were the presidents of three broadcast TV networks-ABC's Preston Padden, CBS' Leslie Moonves and Fox's Peter Chernin-each of whom is engaged in an aggressive brand-building campaign.

So what's to criticize?

Well, in an effort to add professionalism, rich content and high production value to the meeting-without increasing the registration fees to our members or guests-we developed an entirely new meeting format. We planned each general session as if it were a live TV broadcast. And we designed and technically outfitted our meeting room to resemble a working network TV studio, complete with set, graphics and special effects.

To help us bring this live TV format to life for our audience, we asked the major TV networks to partner with us in producing "network-quality" general sessions. They could each host a general session in return for partially underwriting the cost of producing our high-caliber meeting.

"Sponsorship" included providing a network news person to host the session and interview speakers and panelists. We also asked each sponsor to have its president address the audience on our theme, "Branding the future," explaining how the network itself was creating brand differentiation in the highly competitive TV marketplace.

The format worked beautifully. By having three network general session hosts, one after the other, we benefited from the intense competition among these media companies. All of them invested considerable resources-beyond their sponsorship fees-to make their sessions meaningful and memorable for the ANA membership.

The result was an extraordinary conference. In the words of one ANA board member, "It was the best business meeting I ever attended."

So again, what's to criticize?

Well, some of our guests from the magazine and newspaper professions felt the meeting was too "TV-oriented." And others (notably from Ad Age) contended that the network presidents were "too commercial" in their presentations.

That's debatable, but such criticisms miss the point. This meeting was about brand building, and that subject came through loud and clear in every presentation. More importantly, our members, the people for whom we designed this meeting, have been uniformly enthusiastic about its substance and style. In fact, they're suggesting that our biggest problem may be topping the impact of this year's event next year.

For us, it's all quite amusing. No one knows better than our members what "sponsorship" means. It's a business that we, not to mention the media, event organizers and advertising agencies, all participate in-with mutual benefit-every day. We simply applied the concept of sponsorship (very effectively, we feel) to our own meeting.

In the final analysis, the ANA's mission is not about one medium over another, or about sponsorship fees in return for exposure. It's about branding, and about bringing value added brand-building support to our members. To that end, we encourage anyone from the marketing community with a great idea, one that will help our members build brand value, to sit down and talk with us. We'll be listening!

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