Advertising Week: How has it changed, and who is it good for?

Once meant to raise the industry's profile to the general public, Advertising Week has become a sprawling echo chamber accused of insularity and pay-for-play. What keeps100,000 people going?

On September 20, 2004, New Yorkers gathered on Madison Avenue to watch A-list celebrities from the Michelin Man to Mr. Peanut wave from the back seats of convertibles (and in some circumstances, "Nutsmobiles") to kick off the city’s very first Advertising Week.

Twelve years later, the event’s 100,000-plus attendees flooding Times Square aren’t likely to see a single mascot that isn’t staring down from a billboard. (The mascot parade was retired in 2007, barring special anniversaries.) Instead, they will be pushing past off-brand Elmos and saggy Spidermen to see celebrities like Nick Law, global CCO of R/GA, and Maya Draisin, head of marketing at Wired, speak at some of Advertising Week’s 270 panels and seminars, taking place in more than a dozen venues over the course of four days.

Advertising Week has grown exponentially since its conception. In 2004, 60,000 attendees flitted among 100 panels spread across a roomier five days. It has also expanded in scope. Last year, the Wall Street Journal noted that Advertising Week hosted 20 panels on programmatic ads alone, and this year there are 14 different niche seminar tracks. Yet somehow, even as it has grown, it has also become more insular. And some wonder if it has eschewed attention from the outside world in favor of self-devotion.

As the industry once again prepares to brave Times Square for a week, fundamental questions about the purpose of New York’s now-eminent event lack easy answers. In 2016, who, exactly, is Advertising Week’s audience? And what separates it from adland’s many other panel-fests?

The Early Days
According to Matt Scheckner, executive director of Advertising Week and CEO of the private marketing and media consultancy Stillwell Partners, the event emerged from a call in 2002, when the 4A’s Value of Advertising Committee was searching for a way to attract new talent and spotlight the industry’s contributions to New York. 

"Mayor Bloomberg spoke at our opening gala in Gracie Manor, and he made a statement that [we were] an important part of the economy," Scheckner recalled. In fact, as the New York Times reported, Bloomberg even apologized that "it took a while" for his administration to honor the advertising industry’s positive impact on the city.

One ad veteran who has participated in Advertising Week since its conception told Campaign US, "The original intent was also to help clients see the value that advertising and their agencies bring to their business." Then, like now, agencies were tired of clients that would "continuously look for ways to squeeze agencies on their fees" or "view agencies as a vendor with interchangeable parts." 

In theory, Advertising Week would be Madison Avenue’s answer to New York Fashion Week, which provided the city’s designers with an annual moment in the sun. 

"At the very beginning, there was a certain amount that we need to show to the city the value our industry has, and also to celebrate our industry," said 4A’s President and CEO Nancy Hill. "I don’t think anyone envisioned that it would grow to this scale."

The Expansion
In the ensuing years, what started as a single-track event that took place primarily in one venue with two theaters —one seated 200 people, the other 90 — has exploded into a 900-speaker event that focuses not on one specific theme, but anything and everything the industry cares to discuss.

And Advertising Week's mission has gone global. In 2013, Stillwell Partners, which has also  produced the World Championship of Competitive Eating, expanding Advertising Week from its New York flagship to Europe, with an event in London. Furthermore, May marked the first Advertising Week Asia, in Tokyo, and December 2016 will be the inaugural Advertising Week Havana.

Still, "our raison d’être is unchanged," Scheckner said. "What has changed is the number and type of players."

And why shouldn’t that be the case? Scheckner rightly points out that in 2004, Facebook existed only on the Harvard campus. Gmail had just been introduced (and to considerable skepticism at that). And there was no YouTube or iPhone or Hulu at all, much less talk of data-driven creative, media transparency, programmatic buying or influencer marketing. As the industry has expanded, Advertising Week’s scale has grown to cover those niches.

"I think it is very much about paving the way forward," said Scheckner. In his telling, "the absence of a theme and our unyielding commitment to reinventing it every year" is what "really allows us to deliver a platform that is valuable."

But in focusing on what the industry wants to talk to itself about, has the event abandoned its original purpose? Is it enough for adland to regale itself with its own programming? "At this point in time, it is largely people inside the advertising ecosystem," said Hill, noting the various tracks that deep dive into the industry’s favorite topics. 

"I’m not a big lover of parades, so I don't miss [the mascots parade] particularly," said Marianne Stefanowicz, global head of PR for Droga 5, who has been attending the event since 2006. 

"But when you had those things, Advertising Week became a conversation piece for the city of New York." Today, "it is something that has become the industry talking to ourselves — which is ok, but I did like when we had a layer before that had more interest from the outside world."

Still, Stefanowicz sees value in the jam-packed event. "My team clears our schedules for the week, and our recruiters also clear their schedules and try to go to as much as possible, because it is a big opportunity," Stephanowicz said. "Recruitment is one big reason why a lot of people attend, getting your people in front of the right audience. You find that a lot of the people who are there are there to learn."

"Other people try to divide and conquer a little bit," she continued. "We may take clients with us, go to see what the competition is up to."

Others are more critical. One industry insider who had frequented the event for decades told us that they "actively steer clients away from Advertising Week," echoing the comments of other agency executives interviewed for this article. Although the event brings everyone to town, "It’s too busy to meet with people, and it’s not a great place to get noticed." The source asked not to be named to avoid running afoul of Advertising Week organizers.

Multiple other industry executives raised concerns that the panel selection process is problematic. Many claimed that hosting a panel is "pay for play," meaning that there is an expectation to buy ads for the event’s program, or in some cases, buy a certain number of tickets to the festivities.

"Typically you have to buy an ad, so that sucks," said the Advertising Week veteran who no longer encourages clients to attend. Not only does this practice put smaller agencies at a disadvantage, the source said, it also threatens to compromise the quality of the programming.

"The worst part of it is there’s no real editorial authority to the show," the source said. "Once you get the panel, you can put together what you want, so there’s no quality control, and things can get pretty self-promotional. Cannes has also been accused of being a shit-show, but at least if you are on stage in the Grand Palais, it’s because they picked you, are checking in on you and are putting their stamp" of approval on the content you’re providing.

Scheckner, however, said that the accusation of pay-to-play is "categorically untrue" — there is never a call for submissions, and he said that the panels are picked based on content alone.

"What we do ask, absolutely, is for everyone with a seminar to buy an ad in the guide," he continued. "Of course we do."

A full-page ad costs $11,000 for early birds and $12,000 for later buyers. Scheckner said that the money goes toward the millions that the organizers spend on things like venue rental space, AV equipment and union fees for the 200-some people employed by Stillwell Partners to keep the event running.

But Scheckner emphasized that purchasing ads for the event’s program isn’t required to get a panel approved. "There are people who say they can’t afford it," he said. "Ninety-nine out of 100 people say yes because it is a good idea to promote what you are doing. But we do not make everyone do it."

For example, Scheckner said that Awesomeness TV came to him with a panel idea late in the game, past the point when it could get a budget for an ad in the program. Because Scheckner thought the content of Awesomeness TV’s proposed Technology vs. Strategy panel added value, it was approved despite not buying any advertising.

Furthermore, Scheckner argues that the overall cost of Advertising Week pales in comparison to its industry event rivals, like Cannes.

"If you go on the cheap, it’s a high four figures to go to Cannes, and that’s sitting in the back of a plane that isn’t even direct," he said. And that's not even including the money people will shell out to rent yachts to impress other adfolks. "People can come to Advertising Week who [can only afford] a boat that fits in their bathtub." 

Delegate passes for Advertising Week range from $449 to $1699, and student tickets go for $99. Delegate passed for Cannes, by comparison, range from $1000 for students (and professionals under 30) to more than $4200 for VIP tickets.

Here To Stay?
Despite the criticism, Advertising Week has become a solid institution that pulls more than 100,000 people throughout the advertising ecosystem to New York City. 

In fact, such is Advertising Week’s gravity that other organizations have begun throwing unaffiliated programming at the same time. Facebook is holding multiple New York City events this week; the IAB is throwing its annual Mixx conference and the 4A’s is hosting its Talent 2030 Conference. And that’s only a sampling.

"There’s such a lot of content and different streams of things happening that week, and a lot of people piggy back onto it," said Stefanowicz. "Part of it being in New York means that it’s accessible to the industry, with a lot of us being based out here. There are fewer distractions. When you’re in Cannes it’s also about the parties and events. Everything in Advertising Week tends to have a more educational focus."

While some see the heat moving to Cannes, SXSW, and CES, Hill — who is leading the 4A’s overlapping conference — thinks Advertising Week NY is still the event to beat. "It has become one of the tent-pole, must-attend events," she said. 

As for the event’s original purpose, Scheckner doesn’t dispute that it’s changed. For example, rather than focus just on creativity, Advertising Week—like advertising itself—now leans heavily toward technology. But sometimes those extensions only reaffirm the show’s roots, as evidenced by the Havana event, which is intended to show a whole new culture the value of advertising.  

Still, "at end of day it is a B2B event, not a B2C event," Scheckner said. "We have always tried to have a bridge to pop culture, and that's a conscious decision. But as the industry evolves, we evolve with it."

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