Commentary by Scott Donaton


First Conference in Two Years Faces Heavy Issues

By Published on .

"Ad executives get suntan, little else at dull ANA meet."

That was the headline -- you can't make this stuff up -- on the

Scott Donaton, editor of 'Advertising Age.'

cover of the Dec. 4, 1972, Advertising Age. The story described that year's gathering of the nation's leading ad executives as a disappointment -- "a waste of time," in the words of one attendee. "The speeches," another executive said, "don't reflect what we're really concerned about."

The business
In more recent years, Advertising Age has sometimes questioned the relevance of the Association of National Advertisers' annual conference, particularly when a few years back ANA sold its conference agenda to sponsors. It's not just the ANA, however. Year after year, high-level executives who attend any of a long list of industry conferences have noted (sometimes as criticism, often as praise) that such meetings are more about the game of golf than the business of business.

In defense of the associations, it is next to impossible, after navigating the politics and agendas of member companies, to produce an event that offers much beyond a scattering of insights and some good networking.

That said, there's a sense the ANA this year has an opportunity, a mandate even, to open up real dialogue on real issues. There's awesome power here if it can be harnessed; ANA member companies represent 8,000 brands that spend a combined $100 billion annually on advertising and marketing communications.

Symbolic significance
Several hundred of those companies'

Photo: Ritz-Carlton
The beachfront Ritz-Carlton in Naples.
marketing executives will gather this week at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Fla., for this year's ANA conference. It's been 24 months since the last meeting; ANA canceled the 2001 conference after the 9/11 attacks. That gives added symbolic significance to this year's gathering.

The challenge for attendees will be to turn away from the Gulf breezes and move indoors for discussion and debate on the remarkable changes reshaping the business of brand marketing. The formal agenda shows some promise. There will be a session on U.S. security (especially relevant as the specter of war threatens to disrupt economic recovery). Other speakers include the chief executives of Unilever, Staples and Campbell Soup Co., who will outline their brand strategies. There's also a Wall Street overview.

ANA President-CEO John J. Sarsen Jr. agrees there are incredible challenges facing marketers but believes the role of the meeting isn't necessarily to try to tackle each of those.

Brand-building issues
"At the annual meeting, we try to address the overriding issues of brand-building, particularly in this economic and political environment," Sarsen told me. "That's kind of a broad overview, which really isn't all of the other issues or challenges that face us on a day-to-day basis."

Sarsen said he does expect to work closely with Jim Speros, Ernst & Young's marketing director and the incoming ANA chairman, to identify issues the ANA needs to address in the next year. "There really is a big shift of power from the marketer and media to the consumer," Sarsen said, and new technologies such as personal-video recorders will change the way marketers communicate to consumers. Other hot buttons include consumer privacy and the aging and diversification of the U.S. population.

Although there are no signs yet of an economic turnaround or advertising rebound, Sarsen expects the mood of the meeting to be upbeat. Mostly, he's looking forward to hosting a conference after skipping it in 2001.

"I was very disappointed that we had to cancel last year," Sarsen said. "It was a big void in us connecting with the industry. I'm hoping this is the start of the rebuild."

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