Arizona Brings Out Honest, Heated Industry Debates

A joie de vivre gradually returning to the 4A’s Management Conference in recent years was in full force last week, culminating in a tone of candor and, at times, defiance, which many said had been absent for too long.

Most speakers celebrated the industry’s leadership in mastering evolving technologies, which they agreed was spawning a greater broadening of creative ideas. Others spoke their minds about what they felt could improve the industry.

Outgoing 4A’s chairman Ron Berger set the tone with a blunt, feisty speech Thursday morning that ranked among the most talked-about at the conference.

The chief creative officer of the New York and San Francisco offices of Euro RSCG said the industry would be better off if there were more holding company chiefs like Omnicom Group CEO John Wren and fewer like WPP Group CEO Martin Sorrell, whom he chastised as more interested in shareholders than his own agencies. Berger also denounced Publicis Groupe Media chairman Jack Klues for referring to calls for rebundling media and creative as “going back to the ’80s” at the 4A’s media conference last month; Association of National Advertisers chief Bob Liodice for criticizing the idea of agency consolidation; and the trade press for having a shallow understanding of the industry.

“Everyone who has come up to me has said that these were things that needed to be said,” Berger said Friday. “Saying what you believe isn’t necessarily angry.”

Said TBWA Worldwide vice chairman Tom Carroll: “I think Ron was just being confident.”

The theme of the 88th annual conference was ROI: return on investment, return on ideas and return on involvement.

Compared to years past, “there was a lot of energy with a lot of positive outlook for the industry,” said Manny Vidal, CEO of The Vidal Partnership in New York, who has attended a half-dozen times. “With some of the speeches, there was a lot of lighting of fire under people’s behinds. Everybody who spoke was pretty honest and said things that needed to be said.”

Vidal also attended the new agency compensation model presentation on Thursday in which executives from McKinney, Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Leo Burnett suggested alternative forms of client payment—from stock options and barter to contracts that compensate agencies for ideas they create even after splitting with a client. “You put your model against other people’s to see how they’re doing it,” said Vidal. “What can be tried and what people have gotten away with.”

Incoming 4A’s chairman Tony Hopp called for consensus and an end to “whining,” while others used humor to deliver messages on how to better engage consumers in the digital age.

BBDO Worldwide CEO Andrew Robertson, in a well-received speech using monkey props, talked about the evolution of consumer engagement and why agency size is irrelevant. “What’s scarce is attention, and it’s getting scarcer every day,” Robertson said. “And the way to engage [consumers] is through creativity, because you earn the engagement of consumers, you don’t buy it. That’s the big opportunity.”

At least one executive detected a familiar undertone of self-criticism in the air.

“We’re still a little schizophrenic as an industry,” observed Tonise Paul, CEO of Energy BBDO in Chicago. “We still don’t know whether to beat ourselves up or to celebrate.”