Ad-Blogging Crank Rants About 'Must-Attend' Marketing Confabs

Bloated Field of Overpriced Events Seems to Be Getting More Irrelevant Than the Ad Biz

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George Parker
George Parker
I just came back from speaking at a new media and future trends conference in London. It was a very different kind of conference -- one that in my opinion eclipsed the many hundreds of conferences I've attended or spoken at over the years.

It was called the Under the Influence conference and was organized by the London headquarters of the Iris Group, a multinational new-media agency with offices in Europe, the U.S. and Asia. And here's what made it different:
  • It was free, including enough food and booze to choke a horse.

  • It was held not in a conference hall but in five pubs in the historic Borough Market area of South London.

  • Speakers spoke concurrently at each of the five pubs in hourly sessions.

  • The content was superb and included speakers from Europe and the U.S.

  • There were no boilerplate presentations by PowerPoint-equipped M.B.A. suits acting merely as shills for their companies.

  • There wasn't a host of co-sponsors; Iris footed the bill for the whole event.

  • More than 1,000 people attended.

  • Everyone had a hell of a good time and vowed to come back next year.
Think about it: Wouldn't it be refreshing to go to a conference and hear content that's worthwhile and substantive while you were actually enjoying yourself?

On the other hand, if you can get your company to cough up a few thousand dollars to send you to a Four A's shindig at the Ritz Carlton, Laguna Niguel, so you can "apr├Ęs session" sit on the terrace sipping vintage Bollinger while you look out over the Pacific and watch the whales head north, good luck to you.

But come on, let's be honest here. The chances of you actually pulling that off and learning something you didn't already know are zip! Because as you really should admit, the vast majority of advertising and marketing conferences you've ever been to were, in reality, a waste of time.

George Parker blogs at, and his latest book is "MadScam -- Kick-Ass Advertising Without the Madison Avenue Price Tag!"
Of course I am referring to the thousands of other conferences that take place year in and year out. That's right, thousands -- all devoted to advertising, marketing, new media, digital, viral, Web 2.0, social networking, you name it. You know -- all the stuff that happens to be currently "cool." And will more than likely be "frigid" this time next year.

Even as I sit here writing these pearls of wisdom, my mailbox is exploding with invitations to pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for the pleasure of attending numerous conferences dealing with stuff I am told is vitally important to me if I want to get up to speed and face the challenges of the new whatever.

And rest assured with the exception of Under the Influence, all of these must-attend conferences are never, ever cheap. At this very moment, I have been invited by someone sporting the semi-erotic name of Laurel, "founder and cyberhostess" to attend the upcoming "Mediabistro Circus, a conference that will help you understand what's happening at the crossroads of digital media and traditional media, why it matters to you, and how it affects the work you do."

All this for just under a thousand dollars! But then again, I read the program and discover that I will learn about such exciting things as blogging, video, social media, mobile and user-experience design. Why do I have the nagging feeling I've heard all this hoo-ha a million times before? Unless, as it's a "circus," the presenters are going to deliver their various presentations while riding horses bareback, sticking their heads in lions' mouths, swallowing swords, or flying around on a trapeze.

Even better, can you imagine listening to someone from Edelman explaining how its Wal-Mart blogging fiasco was in reality a triumph while walking a high wire? That's worth a thousand dollars of anyone's money.

Did you know that the American Marketing Association alone holds more than 50 conferences a year? OK, many of them move around the country, and though they repeat the same boilerplate format, I am sure many of the people who attend in Boise, Idaho, (disclaimer: That's where I live) think these affairs are well worthwhile.

But you know what? You could probably do the whole thing online and get just as much out of it for a 10th of the cost.

Then again, you wouldn't escape from the office for a day or so on the company dime, would you?

And you probably wouldn't get a couple of rounds of golf in either. Because by a strange coincidence, many conferences are held at hotels that just happen to be surrounded by golf courses.

Even better, if you're smart enough to finagle attendance at a conference in Vegas, you get to stay up all night drinking and gambling, show your face at one of the sessions for a couple of hours the next day, then spend the afternoon playing golf.

I sometimes think maybe the conference business is getting bigger and more irrelevant than the ad business. Or is it the other way around? Any way you look at it, they are symbiotic, which is a highfalutin way of saying "chicken and egg!"

So, anyone want to cough up a few grand to attend the "Burning AdScam 2008 Conference" in Boise? Bring your own food and booze, but the fries will be free.

More where that came from

Whether you agree with the merits of George Parker's argument, there's no escaping that there are a lot of conferences and events in the advertising, media and marketing industries. And you probably need to know when and where they're happening. It just so happens has a convenient calendar that gathers all of these events -- including our own Ad Age confabs -- in one place.
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