Advertising Week Offers A Lineup Of New Voices

Advertising Week is trying again to find its voice. The inaugural event in 2004, which had exhibits at Grand Central Terminal and panel discussions that were open to all, sought, but failed, to fully engage the general public. Last year, the focus turned inward, with discussions targeted toward agencies. In retrospect, said the event’s chairman Ron Berger, it was just too much of the industry talking to itself.

This year, Berger said, changes have once again been made. For one, feedback that there have been too many featured events has been addressed. One organizer said Advertising Week-related keynotes and panels alone are down to about 30 compared to 60 in 2005. (Still, there were upwards of 70 overall events listed on the schedule at press time.)

More important, while the industry will once again be the target audience, organizers have attempted to bring in outside voices in hopes of energizing the discussions with new points of view. Speakers include NBA commissioner David Stern, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban—both on a panel about the challenges of breaking through to fans in a cluttered media landscape—Martha Stewart, who kicked off today’s leadership breakfast, and Harvey Weinstein.

“We put together content that would make it a you-had-to-come experience,” said Berger, a partner at Havas’ Euro RSCG.

One agency exec said while it’s “still not clear what the intent of Advertising Week is, these speakers are definitely a step toward getting beyond the usual agency talking heads.”

Regardless of the event’s content, however, one theme could loom large: the lack of diversity among agency staffs.

In the past three weeks, 16 New York shops—including four Omnicom Group agencies that had been last-minute holdouts—avoided having to testify in front of the New York City Human Rights Commission this week by signing agreements in which the HRC holds them to a three-year timetable to meet certain diversity goals. Failure to hit targets could result in fines. Talk of the agreements is expected to infilitrate both organized and informal talks.

Adding fodder to the discussion: a letter sent out Aug. 28 by the American Association of Advertising Agencies. The letter, asking for agency donations to a diversity initiative the organization launched over a year ago—GenerationNext, which recruits from the New York-area minority talent pool—offered dozens of tickets for donations of $5,000-10,000 for tonight’s AOL Amp’d Up concert featuring Gnarls Barkley and Thursday night’s closing bash at Tribeca Cinemas. That the appeal came on the heels of the much-publicized HRC/agency showdown has left some wondering if they were being strong-armed. Adding to the feeling, they said, is that it came a month after a 4A’s letter asking for a donation of $25,000 for its Operation JumpStart national diversity program (the money is to be allocated over five years).

“How many diversity programs does the 4A’s have?” groused one exec, who said he had been happy to donate the original $25,000.

Another exec said, “If these programs delivered more, people would be happy to be involved. I would be much more interested in sponsoring the marketing class of Howard University, or being a mentor. In a lot of ways my time is more valuable than my money.”

O. Burtch Drake, president of the 4A’s and CEO of Advertising Week, countered that the various initiatives, some of which have been in effect for years, produce notable results. He cited 4A’s research that showed increased percentages of minorities on staffs of the top 25 New York agencies from 14 percent 10 years ago to 20 percent as of last year. He also expressed surprise that there were complaints about donations for GenerationNext, saying he has received no calls about the letter.

Aaron Reitkopf, chairman of the 4A’s New York Council, who signed the Aug. 28 letter with Drake, added, “It’s just unfortunate that hearings [were] going on so people think it’s tied to that.” He added that 29 agencies have so far contributed to GenerationNext.

Drake also noted that Advertising Week, which costs about $1.5 million, is financially solvent for the first time. He estimated that attendance to events under the Advertising Week umbrella would attract 25,000, up from last year’s 20,000.