Torn on the Bayou

Concern meets camaraderie at the 4A’s media conference

Walking down Bourbon Street, I heard squishy sounds coming up from beneath my boots, but I refused to look down. This was the night after Mardi Gras. The last thing I wanted to know was what was under my feet. Or where it had been.

Still, the Wednesday evening after Fat Tuesday is my favorite night to be in New Orleans. The annual Ode to Excess is over, and all the revelers, haggard and hungover, have dropped into plane seats and departed. Meanwhile, a wet, gray fog slides through the French Quarter, hiding most of the detritus, except for the odd purple, gold or green beaded necklace lying like a drunkard in the gutter.

Mardi Gras is Frat Night at hyperspeed. The day after, the French Quarter of Anne Rice returns: opaque, humid, tickling your hindbrain with feelings of inchoate strangeness. Even Bourbon Street, while still neon-lit, is misted and vaguely foreboding. Here and there I spotted shapes, vaguely human, gliding like ghosts in and out of bars, strip joints and stores with names like Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo.

I recognized many of these apparitions, even without their name tags. I’d spent the whole day with them. They were media agency executives, doing the Big Easy at the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ media conference at the Hilton Riverside.

The annual confab alternates between New Orleans and Orlando (a profound, if unintentional, commentary on life in advertising). It occurred to me that the 4A’s couldn’t have picked a better year to be in New Orleans. This shrouded purgatory I traversed in search of alcohol and Zydeco music was the perfect metaphor for what I was seeing and hearing at the Hilton.

Advertising, like the rest of the world, is in a foggy limbo. A period of prolonged anxiety and uncertainty. The unsettled times gave the conference a bipolar feel. There was the usual bravado, but also unusual candor. Competitiveness, but also an almost touching camaraderie: The convention drew close to 1,000 people, considerably more than anyone expected. Safety in numbers, perhaps.

In fact, this year’s conference was Fat Tuesday and the morning after combined.

There was the Frat Night media conference: a $9 billion upfront! Steve Forbes! Spending is going up, folks, up! And then there was the Anne Rice media conference: dire discussions of bogeymen like TiVo (one speaker said there are more outhouses than PVRs in the U.S.), the involvement of client purchasing departments in reviews (they’re mostly interested in cost—shocking, no?) and the specter of branded entertainment (we don’t know how it works or how to measure it, but it sure is important). Worries about war. And, whispered in the hallways and bars, this grim consensus: Forget the cheerleading, things are going to stay lousy for at least another year.

But this was also my favorite of the four media conferences I’ve attended. There was a “nothing to lose” attitude that produced some interesting dialogue. Like a panel I moderated with a group of creatives who discussed their favorite media ideas (mine was Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s “buy” of a cover story in a tabloid newspaper about a mutant bat boy’s theft of a Mini). And a hilariously passive-aggressive panel on search consultants, which prompted questions like, “Why does it take 20 people to tell a story to three clients?” and declarations like, “Even on the creative side, agencies are beginning to all look and sound alike.”

Most people I talked to said they really enjoyed this year’s conference because of the little twists like the ones described above. So let’s forgive the schizoid nature of the 2003 gathering. It was a good time to be in New Orleans. As long as you didn’t look down to check out that squishy sound.