At last year’s event, CPB prodigal chief creative Alex Bogusky appeared on a panel remotely, as a mannequin wearing a “Good enough sucks” t-shirt and a TV for a head.
Special Report: Advertising Week Advertising Pique
The return of New York’s annual boondoggle
By Lindsay Rittenhouse Published on September 23, 2019
The 16th iteration of the mega-conference industry folks love to hate—Advertising Week New York—kicks off this week. Established in 2004 after a call from the 4A’s Value of Advertising Committee, the conference’s original mission was to spotlight advertising’s contributions to culture and society and to recognize the agencies behind some of the industry’s most popular campaigns. The first year drew fewer than 5,000 people. Executives, primarily from agencies, gathered to discuss the most pressing issues facing the industry. There was a “Walk of Fame” parade down Madison Avenue that spotlighted favorite brand mascots like Mr. Peanut and Tony the Tiger. And then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hosted an opening gala at Gracie Mansion. “When we did the first one in 2004, I wasn’t sure we would get to 2005,” says Matthew Scheckner, founder of Stillwell Partners and global CEO of Advertising Week. “But it went very well and a lot of it traced back to that very first opening gala that Mike Bloomberg hosted for us. That night created such momentum, I think some of that wind is still at our back.” Since the first conference, those winds have blown in change. The conference has evolved into a massive event in Times Square that spans numerous industries. This year, an estimated 100,000 attendees will descend on New York to find panels on an array of topics including AI, influencer marketing, TV, politics, climate change, sports, entertainment, cannabis and more. Industry leaders including Interpublic Group of Cos.’ Michael Roth, S4 Capital’s Martin Sorrell and Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard will speak. Attendees can hear from a slew of celebrities, if they so desire, including Jesse Eisenberg, Serena Williams, Laverne Cox, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Pitbull (who recently opened a multicultural agency with Horizon Media called 305 Worldwide). The only thing missing? The parade (it was discontinued in 2007). Today, Advertising Week conferences can be found across Latin America, Asia, Africa and Australia. But as it has grown in New York, so have complaints. In the early years, naysayers said it was too sprawling, spread across many venues in Times Square. So in 2018, the organizers concentrated all programming in one place, the AMC Lincoln Square theater complex, then heard complaints about the crowded venue and byzantine flow of foot traffic. Another long-standing knock: too many panels. So the Advertising Week advisory council this year added “tracks” for attendees to navigate and focus on panels and topics that interest them. The event also scaled back on the number of panels, from 400 to about 300.
Who let the dogs out? Pitbull is one of the entertainers at this year's event
“People have been vocal for some years” in their criticisms of Advertising Week, says Marla Kaplowitz, president and CEO of the 4A’s and an Advertising Week advisory council member, noting that the advisory council “really took the time” to assess the feedback and “improve the experience.” Kaplowitz adds: “What I do appreciate about Advertising Week is in the industry coming together to celebrate the positive, the work, the partnerships and where we need to be going in the future.” But some say that it’s not really time for celebration, with the industry under increasing pressure from shrinking budgets, recessionary threats, privacy concerns, eroding trust between shops and clients­—even an investigation by the FBI into media rebates­—and more.
“Advertising Week is in need of a rebrand,” says a creative agency executive who requested anonymity. “Most creative agencies still thriving amid the collapse of the industry are looking to go to [events] beyond advertising. We really need to think about, as an industry, what actually helps us and what is just remnants of an old industry.”

'Changed drastically'

Some detractors also complain about what they perceive as the pay-to-play nature of a conference that is too focused on collecting money and, in turn, giving stage time to sponsors in ad tech and social media. “It’s changed drastically,” says Avi Dan, founder and CEO of search consultant Avidan Strategies and a former executive at agencies including Havas, Berlin Cameron and Saatchi & Saatchi. “In the beginning,” says Dan—who has not attended Advertising Week in several years and will not be at this year’s, either­—“you went to listen to people. You had a lot of people who run agencies speaking. You went to mingle and network. Now I look at it, and it’s much bigger and looks to me like people are just coming in to sell their stuff.” The “selling” complaint is one that gets a lot of airtime. “It’s not that meaningful,” says the creative agency executive. “They need to stop being a profit center.” She says the constant bombardment of ad tech and media vendors trying to solicit attendees at the event is exhausting, adding that the conference would do better to focus less on celebrities. An executive at another agency who also requested anonymity says he will be attending Advertising Week, but agrees that the “value is not there.” He says he prefers smaller conferences tailored to niche groups. “It’s a lot of noise,” he says. “It’s really hard to stand out or get a lot of value out of it.” “A conference like this does a good job in trying to be all things for all people, and a lot of us are used to going to more niche conferences,” Kaplowitz says. “It will be interesting to see what happens.”Scheckner scoffs at criticism that Advertising Week is a pay-to-play event, saying that’s “simply not true.” He says the majority of the 1,216 speakers this year are not sponsors. Sure, he says, if a sponsor proposes an on-stage conversation with a celebrity like Serena Williams, “of course we’d want that ... there has never been a case where we turned down content because of money.” As for the event being overwhelming, Scheckner admits that is “a fair criticism,” but one that he thinks is ultimately positive. “It’s like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet—you have to make choices,” Scheckner says. “I think it’s the right mix of quality and quantity.” Scheckner argues that Advertising Week is the only global conference that manages to bring a healthy mix of both industry bigwigs and celebrities, who he calls the “sparkle” of the event. “Everybody is there for a reason.” And make no mistake: They will be there. With 100,000 attendees, the conference must be doing something right. “You get as much out of it as you’re willing to put into it,” says Richard Black, IPG’s Momentum Worldwide chief growth officer. Due to travel obligations, the New York-based Black will not be attending Advertising Week this year. But he says it’s a good place to send younger talent if for nothing else than to network. And it’s relatively affordable. Passes start at $599, although under-30 attendees and students pay less. Unlike Cannes—where attendees can drop more than $10,000 for a week of Riviera living and access—companies can afford to send a handful of employees to Advertising Week, especially if they are based in New York. “Conferences in general are really an opportunity to take the pulse of what’s going on in the industry,” Black says. “If you’re someone who leads and manages more mid-level to junior talent, it’s a great place to send them for a learning experience.” “I always recommend my teams attend,” adds Jason Harris, co-founder and CEO of San Francisco-based independent creative shop Mekanism. “I enjoy attending because the topics and panels are indicators of bigger themes yet to come—what’s important before it’s trendy.” As long as it drives profits and crowds, Advertising Week won’t be going anywhere. Since 2004, Advertising Week “grew and grew and grew,” Scheckner says, and will continue to do so. “We are maniacally driven to not get stale,” he adds, “so the talent is new every year. The evening venues are new every year. By design, it feels new every time.” See you there? Adage End Bug ~ ~ ~
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Matthew Scheckner as the founder of Advertising Week. He is the current global CEO. Advertising Week was founded and financially underwritten for the first three years by the American Association of Advertising Agencies.
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