At 4A’s, Speakers Strike a Cautious Note of Optimism

Trading self-pity for a sense of self-determination, speakers at the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ management conference here last week suggested the industry has cleared certain hurdles and must get down to business —straggling economy or no.

“Last year we made all the hard decisions,” said Ron Berger, CEO and chief creative officer at Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners, who was elected to a vice president post on the 4A’s board of directors. “Now our business is where we’d structurally want it to be. If the business stays stable, we’re in a solid position. If the business improves, we’re in a position to do some really strong things.”

If the cry last year was “woe is me,” this year’s gathering felt palpably more optimistic. “There wasn’t one gripe. It’s all about [moving forward],” said Tom Carroll, president of the Americas, TBWA Worldwide.

“As an industry, we’re off the bottom. It’s better than it was a year ago,” said Gotham CEO Stone Roberts.

Speakers offered advice on such fundamental issues as how to make agencies more valuable to clients and drive business. They discussed changes in client-agency dynamics and consumer attitudes. Several said agencies are still masters of what clients say they need most: creative solutions to business problems.

Euro RSCG Worldwide president and COO Bob Schmetterer stressed that idea in a Thursday speech about the “rise of advertising.” GSD&M CEO Roy Spence emphasized that creative solutions come from knowing every element of a client’s business.

Friday’s speakers included Viacom president and COO Mel Karmazin, who fielded questions about the upfront media marketplace, his new contract and his company’s growth strategy. Consultant and author David Maister offered advice to managers, saying they should relate to staffers one-on-one. Management success, he said, has “nothing to do with intellect. … We should be choosing managers at all levels based on their emotional skills.”

In his opening remarks Thursday, 4A’s chairman Ken Kaess recognized the agencies that did well in the past year despite the economy, including Deutsch and Saatchi & Saatchi. The association also honored creative legends Hal Riney and Phil Dusenberry with lifetime-achievement awards that were presented by DDB Worldwide chairman Keith Reinhard.

No one was talking about a full turnaround for the beleaguered industry, but there was an air of confidence and the sense that advertising might be ready to be fun again.

“If you had 50 college kids listening to the talks today and asked them at the end if advertising was an exciting business to come into, the answer would be absolutely yes,” Berger said.