4A's Conference

4A's Transformation: Takeaways and Reporters' Notebook

Ad Fraud, Shiny New Tech Toys and a Call to Relax About Client Conflicts

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4A's President-CEO Nancy Hill at the 4A's Transformation conference in Austin.
4A's President-CEO Nancy Hill at the 4A's Transformation conference in Austin. Credit: Photos by Stephen Henderson, The Habit Of Seeing

Agencies, media partners and marketers continued to emphasize partnership and collaboration at the annual 4As Transformation conference, which returned to Austin, Texas, this year.

"There isn't enough trust and respect within the client-agencies relationships," Jonathan Mildenhall, the new CMO of Airbnb, proclaimed as he sat on stage next to his agency partner, Starcom. John Osborn, president and CEO of BBDO New York, drove home the point on the last day: "If you don't know how to partner, you might as well get out of the way," he said. "Because partnership is everything in this business today."

But attendees also made plenty of time for topics that the best minds in the industry are grappling with, such as ad tech in TV and online ad fraud.

Digital doesn't mean shorter content
Just because the world is moving more towards digital content doesn't meant people want shorter pieces of content, said Ben Jones, creative director at Google's agency team. In fact, people want long-form content, he added, using examples like the "Game of Thrones" books to illustrate that people want "choice plus immersion." What consumers want is to choose select pieces of content, "then immerse very deeply in those things," he said. The challenge brands face is "to avoid being tuned out."

With tech, don't forget creativity
As the industry rushes to embrace new forms of tech, don't leave behind creativity. Conversations on stage centered ensuring that effective, high-quality storytelling remains at the center of all advertising. The conference opened with Robert Rodriguez, the idiosyncratic director between films like "Sin City" and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," who implored advertisers to take risks. AOL's Tim Armstrong flatly claimed that the agencies that fail are those that keep technology and creativity in separate silos.

Don't throw out decades of wisdom
Adland also needs to take care not to forget or throw away best practices in storytelling that have evolved and developed over decades just because some new thing comes along and looks like it's going to change everything. "There's so much change out there. Each new platform may seem like it's game-changing," Mark Renshaw, global chief platforms and partnership officer, Leo Burnett/Arc Worldwide, said during a panel on content marketing. His biggest concern is that, as marketers chase each platform, they abandon proven strategies.

Project work and conflict policies collide
Not all marketers will move to a project basis for their agencies, but ones that do, take heed: Agencies want them to relax their restrictions on client conflicts. During a panel discussion with senior agency executives, BSSP executive creative director John Butler said agencies can find themselves in a bind if they've handled projects for one client, only to find a potential new client from the same category views that project as a conflict. "If the project world is going to continue, then the whole conflict thing has to go away," he said. "That's what we have to figure out as an industry."

Trade groups build task force for ad fraud
The marketing industry is sick of ad fraud and other criminal activity sapping marketers' money. Major trade-group chiefs said TAG, their fledgling Trustworthy Accountability Group, would become a standard accreditation in digital ad sales. They also want TAG to be ready for criminals' next innovation. "We have to put the organization in a position to stay ahead of this," said Nancy Hill, president-CEO at the 4As, "because believe me even if you stop them now they're not going to just go away."

On drones and hyper-location software
As in previous years, innovation was the focus on the final day, with disruption being the focus. A series of speakers highlighted the collision of technology across every portion of business. Ben Gaddis, chief innovation officer for local agency T3, argued marketers need to be working with companies building hyper-location software, wearables and drones. Salim Ismail, an entrepreneur, who capped off the conference, plowed through scores of industries being dramatically overhauled by newcomers: transit, healthcare, energy and food, to name a few. "Competition from all of your clients will not come from big companies. It will come from companies like this," he said.

Odds and Ends:

"We appreciate it" -- Non-millennial Randall Lane from Forbes to millennial entrepreneur Shama Hyder when she said she doesn't only employ people her age but Gen Xers too.

"Leo Burnett. Publicis. Butler Shine" -- Deutsch's Mike Sheldon, to laughter, on where his best people come from, during a panel with Leo Burnett, Publicis Hawkeye and BSSP.

"We used to be that guy with the camera" -- Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL, opening Day Two with an analogy of hikers trying to outpace a bear (the joke is that you don't have to beat the bear, just your first companion to fall). His company is no longer the first to fall, he said. Although he copped that the media and ad-tech firm has struggled to spell out its strengths in the market. "There's a lot of assets at AOL that we probably haven't done a good job of marketing, frankly," he said later. The company changed its CMO in November.

"Here's the insight about people: They couldn't give a shit about that." -- Ann Mukherjee, president, snacks and global PepsiCo Insights, PepsiCo, on the branding of Lay's chips, during a panel on strategic partnerships with Omnicom Media Group and Facebook. "They care about their lives, about their conversations. They care about it on Facebook."

CAA Marketing Co-Chief Creative Officer Jesse Coulter spoke on a panel the morning of March 23 with client Chipotle Chief Creative Officer Mark Crumpacker and and fellow agency GSD&M. Shortly after the panel, he announced that he's leaving the company.

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