Advertising Week Is an Unruly Teenager

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“Our little Centennial is all growd up”

On a bright September morning in New York City, I found myself as an accidental participant in the first Advertising Week in 2004. I was heading to my office at the agency and was confronted with a bizarre spectacle: a phalanx of NYPD officers standing in front of steel crowd control fences along Madison Avenue while their colleagues randomly searched the undercarriages of cars for explosives with those long mirrors-on-poles often used a military checkpoints. Immediately behind the gates however, were Tony the Tiger, Mr. Clean, and Aunt Jemima in full costume and regalia dancing to an inaudible soundtrack on in the entryway of the massive ad holding company HQ where my agency was located.

Remember this is 2004, only 3 years since the attacks of Sept. 11th and at the beginning of our missions in Iraq and Afghanistan so tensions were high. Also important to the story is that somehow in their wisdom, the planners of Advertising Week had decided that the very best event to counter-program would be the return of the United Nations General Assembly into full session. So being a short distance down East 50th St. from the U.N. and across the street from the famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where many diplomats would stay, the brutalist mid-seventies architecture building that housed the agency essentially became a fortress that a young (ok, not so young) agency fellow had to show two forms of ID just to get to the front door. I have no idea how Tony the Tiger produced a state-issued ID but that’s really not the point.

The impetus for the first Advertising Week was pretty simple: the economy was still recovering from the dot-com implosion, Enron scandal, and general collapse of commerce that occurred in 2002 and it was important to show the brands who fund the advertising business that this sector of the NY economy was alive, vibrant, and important. It’s easy to cut marketing budgets in times of fiscal tightening, and Advertising Week was an inspired and creative way to galvanize the energy and focus of the advertising community to demonstrate it’s still beating heart.

Fast-forward to 2019 and it’s clear that the folks eating at the digital kids table in 2004 have now taken over the kitchen and aren’t likely to serve up the pot roast their mentors subsisted on. Nor for that matter are they interested in steak and scotch with clients since that side of the business has now also transformed into a generation of vegan sober-curious youth in skinny jeans.

Let me say this, Advertising Week is amazing. The opportunity to learn from advertising and marketing industry leaders in specific interest tracks is an unparalleled opportunity. The chance that a CMO from a Fortune 50 company would be at a coffee bar between sessions and available to chat with anyone with a badge is simply incredible. Also the agency people who work darn hard to make brands essential to consumers lives are everywhere and the level of sincerity and earnestness I witnessed this year was invigorating.

And like every column is required to do, here are four take-aways from Advertising Week 2019:

  1. OTT is on everyone’s mind but not everyone’s 2020 media plan. The tension that still exists between “digital” and “TV” planner and buyers is out in the open now, with the digerati bemoaning the lack of cross-device targeting and measurement with the TV folks murmuring about the outright theft of their audiences into SVOD subscription packages.
  2. OTT is cable in 1982. That’s right, back when the big 3 broadcasters had a 90%+ share of the video audience and these new channels started to blossom very few folks saw a future where these cable nets would come to rival the three-letter triumvirate for advertising revenue but here we are. And so it is with the upstart OTT programming providers who are syndicating their content into aggregators like Pluto and Xumo and starting to make real money for themselves and their partners.
  3. Connected TV platforms are playing catch-up and not all are doing it well. Roku has set the bar pretty high for how to build a viable advertising business on top of a low-margin device business. As the TV manufacturers try to figure out how they can control the user experience and therefore the conduit to audiences, it’s clear they are trying everything from display units on screen to true DAI to see if they can’t get in on the gravy train. (Insert Gravy Train 1970s ad:
  4. Ad-tech is killing the media business. Yup, I said it. The house of cards is getting shaky and the complexity of the enterprise will be its downfall. As advertisers learn the magic of supply path optimization and the diminishing returns of data, there’s going to be a massive shake-out of those parts of the value chain that demand a tax but aren’t providing much in the way of additive services. Chances are better than 50/50 that direct negotiation for OTT advertising with the content rights and inventory holders will accelerate mightily as this shake-out occurs.

Ultimately the advertising landscape looks a lot like it did in 2004, with seriously talented people looking for ways to establish brand preferences with consumers through creative messaging. Mediums continue to evolve and improve and the advertising industry seems up to the challenge of making the most of these changes. Clients for their part all seem somewhat content this year, accepting that the FANG is an immovable object that cannot be resisted while they seek to control more of their own destiny through insourcing of technology and putting their budgets up for review with ever greater frequency. New York also feels relatively stable these days, although the amount construction everywhere is genuinely a pain. As Babe Ruth commented upon being asked what he thought of New York: “It will be a nice place when they’re done with it”.

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