Each October, marketers and the agencies and vendors vying for their spending descend upon Orlando, Florida, for a few days of meetings and merriment.
This year, they’ll have to settle for staring at mostly prerecorded speeches on a computer screen.
The Association of National Advertisers’ Masters of Marketing conference has morphed into a three-day online event (Oct. 21-23) due to the coronavirus pandemic. Those who buy tickets—and hundreds are doing so, despite months of virtual-event fatigue—will see prepared speeches, followed by live time for questions from the audience.
ANA CEO Bob Liodice, who finalized the lineup of speakers while working from his home in Garden City, New York, knows this year’s conference will feel quite different. The association kicked off 2020 with three in-person events before the pandemic took hold but, since then, all of its events have been virtual.
“We’re getting used to it, but the Masters is my favorite conference,” says Liodice, who has been with the association for 25 years. “That face-to-face experience is just so precious. You don’t really appreciate it ‘til it’s gone.”
The virtual Masters of Marketing, with its down-to-the-minute online schedule, represents a “very efficient” approach, says Liodice. But even he acknowledges this year’s event won't offer the benefits of in-person experiences.
“You don’t have the ability to connect with your audience, whether it’s on stage, whether it’s in the hallways or the meeting rooms or the meal rooms,” says Liodice. “That’s a huge difference.”
For the fully virtual event, attendance is expected to rise by about a third, since people don’t have to pay for travel, and tickets cost a lot less than usual. Last year, tickets to the event were $2,049 to $3,049 per person and $4,099 to $4,499 for corporate packages, before factoring in costs such as flights and hotel rooms.
Attendance expected to swell
This year, the ticket fees would have been the same if the event was held in person. Instead, tickets now range from $99 to $299 per person and $1,000 to $1,750 for corporate packages. In each year, the highest rates are for attendees who are not ANA members.
The ANA expects to have about 4,000 attendees, up from roughly 3,000 in 2019.
Like past events, the ANA has a theme tied to purpose and will showcase chief marketing officers who have success stories to share. This year, the theme is “Force for Good. Force for Growth.”
The lineup reads much like it would if attendees were sitting in conference rooms at the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel, where the event is typically held. The ANA was able to negotiate "a very satisfactory agreement with the hotel regarding the contract," a representative told Ad Age, adding that it fully intends to give Rosen Shingle Creek return business.
There are plenty of chief marketing officers presenting case studies on recent success stories, recorded in their homes or offices. Some are newer to their roles, including Michelle St Jacques, who joined Molson Coors in February 2019, and Deborah Wahl, who took on her role as General Motors' global CMO in September 2019.
There’s the potential for a bit more of a reality check from speakers, albeit highly scripted reality checks, since CMOs can't go off-script in recorded presentations. Still, it’s one thing for a company to be chosen to present at Masters when it’s a standout in an up market. It’s another thing to have a positive story to tell during a time of difficulty. And, according to the conference agenda, some presenters plan to address the hot topics of 2020, including COVID-19.
Delta Air Lines—whose chief marketing and communications officer, Tim Mapes, will present on Oct. 23—posted a nearly $6.9 billion pre-tax quarterly loss as airline travel continues to remain under pressure. The lineup also includes Jeremy Tucker, the relatively new CMO of Planet Fitness, which shifted to digital workouts when forced to shut physical locations.
Racial justice is also expected to be addressed.
Rachel Ferdinando, CMO at Frito-Lay North America, says she plans to attend. One session she’s particularly looking forward to “given the continued importance of learning from each other on race and diversity” is a speech by Esi Eggleston Bracey, chief operating officer of beauty and personal care at Unilever North America. Bracey is set to discuss the Dove Men+Care brand’s partnership with the National Basketball Players Association. That partnership will attempt to change how Black men are seen and treated, and focuses on issues of importance to NBA players, who have been vocal about the Black Lives Matter movement, voting and other topics. And Ivan Pollard, global CMO at General Mills, is expected to discuss how brands can express “doing good,” months after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, where the food marketer is based.
Facebook 'fireside chat'
Yin Woon Rani, CEO of MilkPEP, the marketing organization for milk processors, says she looks forward to the annual event and plans to watch the virtual version this year. Rani is eager to hear from Procter & Gamble Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard, who as the ANA’s chairman will be one of the first speakers on Oct. 21, with a speech tied to the “force for good and a force for growth” theme.
Rani is also looking forward to presentations from Lego, LVMH, Unilever and IBM. One of the sponsors’ sessions also caught her eye. Rani says it “will be fascinating to see the fireside chat with Carolyn Everson at Facebook, given a complicated year and environment for them.”
Everson’s conversation with Liodice is on Oct. 22, hours after another sponsor session from a brand in the spotlight: The U.S. Postal Service is hosting a morning coffee session (bring your own this year) about brand trust.
There are more than a dozen sponsor sessions peppered into the Oct. 21 to 23 agenda, most about 10 minutes long and some a little longer. While ANA doesn’t necessarily preview the material sponsors plan to present, they are encouraged to use the time to hold the audience’s attention with something instructive, and “they know that the only thing that they mustn't do is sell,” says Liodice.
Rather than multiple dinners and performances sponsored by media companies, this year’s agenda features only one singer. Melissa Etheridge is scheduled to take the virtual stage at 5:07 p.m. on Oct. 22 in a set sponsored by iHeartMedia. And she’s not just set to sing. Her performance will follow a conversation with Gayle Troberman, the company’s president and CMO, about marketing programs, including a Can’t Cancel Pride campaign that ran during the pandemic.
Sponsorships this year "were understandably less than they would be for an in-person conference," an ANA representative told Ad Age, declining to comment on specifics.
There are a few other scheduling differences. Unlike the in-person event, there are no Saturday morning presentations for dedicated conference-goers who stick around long after many attendees have flown home on Friday. And while the ANA had “second stage” simultaneous sessions in smaller rooms in 2018 and 2019, this year’s agenda is a single track.
That second lineup will be back when the event returns to an in-person format, which could be as soon as 2021. When the association’s in-person events resume, it does plan to offer the option to watch without being in person, says Liodice. He expects an appetite for actual attendance.
“I think that there is a true craving for the industry to get back to at least some of that,” says Liodice.
With the explosion of online events this year, it has become important to pick and choose when to block off a schedule to watch events from home or the office. Rani says some of the events she’s enjoyed so far in 2020 include the Mobile Marketing Associations Growth Frameworks series and The Female Quotient’s content around inclusive leadership.
The industry’s conference rush—perhaps crush is a better word—has been hectic in the weeks leading up to Masters. The ANA held its Advertising Financial Management Conference Oct. 6 and 7, soon after the ANA Media Conference on Sept. 23 and 24. The ANA’s financial management event overlapped with Advertising Week as well as the Brandemonium event. And Masters will overlap with the second edition of Cannes Lions Live, which runs from Oct. 19 to 23.
Liodice is undeterred: “I think that this is a far more level playing field and people have to choose very discriminately as to where in fact they want to place their listening bets.”