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Wasn't Ad Week fab? (But, er, where were the clients?)

01 Apr 2015  |  Bob Wootton 
Wasn't Ad Week fab?  (But, er, where were the clients?)

Ad Week is clearly here to stay - but it won't reach the next level unless it can attract a vital but missing constituency, says ISBA's Bob Wootton. So what does it need to do?

Last week's Ad Week Europe, the third such annual event, really found its stride in many ways. An incredibly busy and diverse programme over four days based around a very central venue in what many consider the greatest city in the world.

ISBA's relationship with the event started off on the wrong foot three years ago when Ad Week first descended on London at rather short notice adjacent to our Annual Conference event, compromising an important revenue source for us.

After that frosty start, bridges were rightly (re-)built and by this time round we were proud to be an 'association partner' to the event, which provided:

- tickets for our members and colleagues which we duly used and peddled as widely as we could

- a speaking slot in which Gawain Owen of Nestle and I set out a new manifesto for what it means to be a premium publisher in the online age. You can see what we had to say here

Speaking in the Newsroom studio, next door to but separated from the main event at BAFTA, felt a bit like we were on the fringe and not in the mainstream. Yet despite our being opposite much bigger draws like Sir Martin Sorrell and Sir Ben Ainslie, the room was still full of some 100 delegates. And if nothing else was achieved, a job of work was done as few of them were even aware of ISBA, let alone what it does.

But in every single conversation with senior industry people, both whilst at the event and subsequently, the same question was raised: Where were the clients, the advertisers? It transpires that many commentators seem to agree on this.

I don't have the stats - organisers are incredibly jealous of their attendees and attendance stats in the online age where anything can be replicated instantaneously - so l only have my and others' impressions. And to be fair, this is an issue that dogs most industry events.

The greatest concentration was probably at the excellent lunch we co-hosted with ESI Media at Fortnum's but I know that many of them had attended a meeting at ISBA in the morning and did not linger afterwards.

Some have observed to me that a number of the event's panel sessions had suffered, with others sometimes speaking up for the clients in their absence.

Ad Week is clearly here to stay - and so it quite rightly should - but it won't reach the next level it needs to unless it can attract this vital but missing constituency. So what does it need to do?

Ever the helpful soul, I thought I'd set out my suggestions publicly so anybody can pick them up, run with them and/or work with us if they wish.

1. Organising Committee: 48 members are listed in the conference magazine but I understand there were actually 55. Nary an advertiser nor ISBA, though, despite our recognised role as the bridge and gateway to this sometimes reclusive constituency. Granted, competition to get senior, influential, experienced and worldly advertisers to sit on 'advisory councils' and the like is fierce - Facebook, Google, IPA to name but three - but that shouldn't and mustn't stop Ad Week.

2. Programme: with 209 events, 113 seminars, 70 workshops over four days, it's arguably too busy, sometimes not entirely relevant and declared too late. Taking each in turn:

Five or six concurrent strands is all very well, a veritable smorgasbord offering wide choice, but...

...a number of events were admittedly interesting but not terribly relevant. For example Katie Price and Professor Brian Cox might be nice to see (and doubtless those organising wanted to meet them and they probably get good press coverage for the event) but in my conversations they didn't really ring a bell for busy clients...

...who need more notice than agency and media owner folk are perhaps used to - like a clear month.

There's clearly a need to strike a careful balance between relevance and entertainment/box office lest the event becomes pure fluff on the one hand or too dull on the other - the key here is to try and strike that balance from the client's perspective and not the industry's.

3. Priority: This means priority booking to all events and fast-track admission to all sessions. "Clients aren't that special", you might say, and you'd be right, they go the bathroom just like everybody else. But the issue here is that you want them to change their behaviour and attend the event and you need to lower any and all barriers to their consideration to achieve that.

I can tell you I wouldn't have queued all the way down BAFTA's stairs and along the street to see the Foo Fighters, let alone anyone at Ad Week.

4. A 'safe lounge': another reason that clients are reluctant to attend is that they don't want to be mobbed or ambushed. You might think that's the whole point of a conference, but if the paying punters aren't coming you need to think again.

The business pressures that most clients face make event attendance difficult, and their locations often exacerbate this. Most can't slip over to a nearby office between sessions or when they get called back.

So give them somewhere safe, away from random and pressured sales pitches on the fly, with a brilliant comms and meeting space so they can work and/or meet with whoever they wish to.

Two final notes. On the bright side, someone told me they'd met quite a few creatives at the event, which is good news considering current industry debate about (dis)integration and their recent reluctance towards industry fora.

But Ad Week Europe? Really? It was largely an event for and by British advertising folk with a smattering of US-based tech sales people. Though to be fair, I did meet a nice Ukrainian lady in a lift.

Outside the box

Linear TV seems to be in rude health. BARB shows healthy, if sometimes volatile, audiences and advertiser demand soared in the first quarter. Costs are on the rise, and when you talk to people you now get the sense that change may be on the way.

TV consumption is fragmenting. Is huddling round the TV to watch your family favourite show slowly sadly losing its appeal? Indicators from US colleagues suggest it might be and reports of young people watching their audiovisual content largely on handheld devices now abound.

Does the march of tech, especially domestic routers and cloud storage, suggest that we could be heading for similar change to that experienced by the music industry where content is streamed, channelled and stored on physical or virtual hubs?

Period dramas seem to be all the rage right now, prompting the thought - 'could channels further segment into specialism by programme genre?'

Would advertisers concerned with protecting their reach, frequency and costs be well-served by universal ad trading systems embracing multiple channels, platforms and devices via a single media buy? Of course, such systems would also have to guarantee brand safety from the hostile environments and fraud currently vexing online display.

With its guaranteed and certain income, the BBC is pretty well cocooned. But the imminent periodic review of its Charter and funding will see renewed and much better-founded calls for overturn of the licence fee. The tech won't be ready enough this time, but next time it will surely at last move to more equitable IP-based delivery enabling charging based on usage, not a clumsy domicile-based tax.

Me, I'm back off into the cloud myself. Until next time...

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