At 4A’s, Hopeful Words And Sense Of Fresh Opportunity

The mood was optimistic, attendance was up, and there was a palpable sense of relief that the business is gaining momentum at the 86th annual management conference of the American Association of Advertising Agencies here last week.

Gone, for the most part, were the whining and self-flagellation of the past few years—replaced by a sense that the industry is back on its feet and eager to market itself better, even in the face of nearly constant change.

WPP Group CEO Martin Sorrell set the tone during a global marketplace analysis Thursday, asserting that the industry’s prospects are bright and that growth in the next five years will shatter the highs set in 2000. From a prognosticator known for sober analysis, the remarks clearly resonated. “The point he made is that as the consumer gets more powerful, the industry gets stronger. It’s a great sign for us, and it was a good message,” said Brett Gosper, managing director of McCann Erickson in New York.

Outgoing 4A’s chairman and DDB worldwide CEO Ken Kaess emphasized a point he made often during his two-year 4A’s tenure: “We should never underestimate the importance of self-belief in transforming each of our organizations, reassuring our nervous clients, and changing the future of our business.”

Other themes of the three-day event, which attracted 333 attendees (up 30 percent from last year), were the need to attract new talent and market the industry better. Many pointed to plans for a week-long celebration of advertising in September as a positive sign.

“The level of optimism and positive feelings about the business are much higher,” said Ron Berger, the new chairman of the 4A’s and CEO and chief creative officer of Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners in New York. “Part of that is that people who are the leaders are standing up to the naysayers. People are rallying around Advertising Week and all the good things advertising does for industry.”

In his first speech as chairman on Friday, Berger urged attendees to redouble their efforts to attract and nurture talent in part by touting the “highly charged, creative atmosphere” inside ad agencies. “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to show our pride,” Berger said.

In opening remarks, 4A’s president Burtch Drake said to expect “another challenging year” but focused on promising numbers: a 6.1 percent boost in ad spending last year and a 2004 forecast of 6.9 percent growth.

Saatchi & Saatchi worldwide CEO Kevin Roberts urged shops to “reignite and rebuild our belief, our investment, our confidence in the power of the idea.” Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO of The Kaplan Thaler Group, used clips from films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark to illustrate “the first rule: lose the rules. We all know the game’s all new, the stakes much higher. And anyone who’s looking at history to figure out what to do next, chances are your agency will be history.”

“We’ve beaten ourselves up” of late, added Tom Carroll, president of the Americas at TBWA Worldwide. “We’ve recalibrated our business. OK, let’s start having fun again.”