4A’s Conference Confronts ‘Elephant’ in the Room

The 1,100 agency, client and media executives in Orlando for the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ media conference last week brought a renewed energy to the annual gathering.

The event was marked by “a lot more energy than we’ve had in recent years—a sense of optimism that has been lacking,” said Dot DiLorenzo, evp, media director at Los Angeles independent Davis Elen, a veteran of all 11 conferences. Post-9/11, as the industry suffered through recession and conference attendance fell by several hundred, attendees “were calling their offices all day to see if they still had a job,” as one participant put it.

Still, while buoyed by a better business climate, media execs are now challenged by a more consumer-controlled world. While last year’s event focused on the mechanics of the media business, this year, “we’re changing directions and looking outside our business,” said Starcom North America CEO Renetta McCann, chair of the 4A’s media policy committee. The conference was themed “Staying in Touch With the Consumer.”

“For years we’ve been talking about the elephant in the room without addressing it,” said Dennis Donlin, president of Publicis Groupe’s GM Planworks. “Now we’re behind the curve of where the consumer is. They slipped by us while we were talking about what’s going to happen.”

New means of reaching the consumer, notably “opt-in” technologies such as video on demand, broadband and digital video recorders, was a recurrent topic. “Brands that rely too heavily on mainstream media or that are not exploring new technologies and connection points will lose touch,” said keynote speaker Jim Stengel, global marketing officer at Procter & Gamble. He advocated a “holistic marketing” approach, which embraces new and traditional media, and also took up the accountability cry, highlighting “the need for new forms of measurement in this new media environment.”

McCann said results of the 4A’s year-old initiative to address media-verification discrepancies will be announced at the 2005 conference. She said the 4A’s has asked the media trade associations and broadcast networks to develop a mechanism to ensure that the ad time that is bought matches what ultimately runs. McCann also said the 4A’s would soon release guidelines for media audits.

Another perspective on new technology came from the Federal Communications Commission’s Edmond Thomas, chief engineer of its Office of Engineering and Technology, who declared that with convergence accelerating, “the Holy Grail for 20 years is now happening.” The FCC will not regulate devices such as TiVo, he predicted, noting: “It comes down to what the consumer wants. Nobody mandated ad-supported TV; it evolved. There could be other business models if suddenly 50 percent of people in the U.S. have TiVo capabilities.”