While there are hundreds of talks happening across Advertising Week, there are some common threads during the industry’s massive annual gathering.
According to Mari Kim Novak, Advertising Week’s president, brands are playing a more prominent role in setting the agenda, both through their agencies and their technical partners. She said the conference never has a theme, choosing instead to curate talks based on the current needs of the industry.
“I think you’re going to see a really healthy cross section of our industry coming together,” she said. “We’re seeing this in probably most of the industry right now—where there’s so much change and a lot of disruption—that you’re really seeing the brands take the center stage.”
Novak, who early on in her career in ad tech began audience measurement for Microsoft and spent 10 years in charge of the marketing for the company’s advertising business—from banner ads to social for the Windows phone. She moved on to Rubicon Project, getting another perspective of ad tech that’s become simultaneously increasingly popular and complex.
Novak highlighted these important themes playing out across the event’s Times Square venues.
Having diverse panels has been a problem in the past, including a 2015 panel entirely comprised of white people to discuss diversity in advertising. However, this year, diversity of race and thought seems to be at least somewhat more prominent.
According to Novak, the executive team of the conference has sought diversity among its panelists, achieving a nearly balanced gender ratio of speakers this year. Panels have also made a more concerted effort to include more discussions about race and LGBT issues.
The week kicked off with a conversation between media mogul Arianna Huffington and Francis Frei, Harvard’s “gender warrior” that recently joined Uber as its new svp of leadership and strategy. On Tuesday, a talk entitled “Woke, Lit & Ready: A Perspective on Black Twitter and the Ad Industry” focused on how the social network is home to discussions about racial diversity and what agencies and media companies can learn from it.
“We don’t want to just sit around and talk about gender equality or work life balance with six women sitting on stage,” Novak said. “We’re really advancing the conversation in the sense of why is diversity important, how does that change our culture, and how does it change your decision making in a corporate setting.”
As more agencies begin to experiment and invest in emerging technology such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality, Advertising Week is facilitating more discussions around innovation. An entire track of talks at Playstation Theater on Monday devoted to the topic of AI, with more planned through the rest of the week.
To showcase what some startups around the U.S. are doing, Novak said the conference has created a “playground,” called TechX, “for our industry partners and attendees to come and be introduced to these technologies, to feel them and try them—not to be in a trade show environment where they get pitched and sold to.”
Included in this year’s selection is Vntana, which creates interactive holograms for brands like Lexus. There’s also Envrmnt, an AR/VR/360 video startup that’s that’s working to compress files to make it easier to stream and download data-heavy experiences. On the AI front, there’s IV.AI, a startup that’s working on everything from chatbots to other uses of AI.
Nearly a year after Donald Trump became president, brands are still figuring out whether they should weign in on the topic.
Today’s Brand America session brought together top public relations consultants to discuss whether the advertising industry should be concerned with the national brand of the United States. (Novak pointed out the speakers didn’t take one stance, but chose instead to look at it from all political spectrums.)
“Maybe there is a call of action that needs to occur to help build the brand, for America to be stronger or to be seen in a different light,” she said. “We’re really proud of that that platform to be able to have these types of conversations.”
It’s no surprise that data is on the mind of every marketer, with some calling it the “fuel” of the new economy.
Novak said the CMO’s job has changed to become a technical role—with data playing right in the middle of it. She said there is one group that collects data, but another that doesn’t understand what was collected. That’s one of the reasons she took the role at Advertising Week: to help decrease the knowledge gap between the people who build the tech and the marketers and other executives who use it.
“What’s great about data is that data doesn’t lie,” Novak said. “You might not understand it, but once you do understand it, it’s factual.”