The virgin diaries: Our first Advertising Week

Two junior PHD staffers attempt to cut through the jargon to find five relevant takeaways from the industry conference

In an attempt to avoid what can usually happen at a week-long advertising conference –utilization of those pricey passes shows a sharp drop as the week goes on and work demands override good intentions—this year PHD decided to take a more (cost) efficient and (learning) effective approach to Advertising Week, naming two delegates to attend and report on the week’s events. It was determined that the two delegates would be two junior staffers who had never before attended the event. The mission: sift through dozens of presentations, promotions and pundits to find insights gold.

With an operational approach of attend as much as physically possible, our experience over five days, dozens of events, and countless times risking our lives trying to cross 42nd street between Liberty Theater and B.B. Kings ultimately could be summed up in a single phrase:

We came. We saw. We conquered.

And by that last point we mean that we were able to cut through all the jargon and the generalizations, the contradictions and the competitions to come up with what we believe were the five most relevant insights for our clients and colleagues.

30 seconds of attention is a privilege, not a right. One of the recurring themes of the week was contextual relevance, and the need to adapt creative to abbreviated engagement environments. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg explained it best in speaking about the idea of "thumb-stopping creative" that enables engagement in as little as two seconds. The idea isn’t that you can deliver the same message in two seconds that you can in thirty, but if you can capture attention and get someone to engage, it opens the door to deepening that relationship with longer-form content. So true, and so obvious, but rarely seen.

Insights can be child’s play. We lost count of the number of times marketing executives referenced their own kids when trying to explain consumer behavior. Maya Draisin, head of marketing at Wired, explained that her 4-year-old has legitimate meltdowns when a commercial comes on (seriously, think about this compared to your Saturday morning cartoon viewing as a kid). Jeff Rossi, global director of business marketing at Spotify, talked about his child hovering over the "Skip Ad" button, paying attention solely to the countdown clock and certainly not hearing a word of any brand message. Impatience, if not downright rejection, for disruptive advertising will grow up with this generation, so it’s a challenge to marketers everywhere to figure out a way to breakthrough, without causing any tears.

Data discussion needs to go beyond the "water is wet" stage. If anything surprised us, it was that the conversation around data—at least in the sessions that we attended—seems to be stalled at a rather rudimentary level. We’re still talking about analysis paralysis? Really? And we’re still being told that insight is the key component to data-driven audience segmentation? Valid observations, but topline and bordering old news. The event could benefit from deeper exploration of successful applications of data in messaging based on context, as well as where consumers are in the purchase funnel.

Measurement? We’re working on it. We went into Advertising Week hoping to learn more about measurement: who is doing it right, and what can we learn from them to take back to our agency and clients. We came out of it still hoping. On the upside, there seemed to be a collective recognition that as an industry our ability to activate has surpassed our ability to measure, which is prodding the measurement giants to continue to pursue the combined Holy Grail of cross-channel attribution and online to offline sales impact.

Failure is the true mark of success. The sessions we found most inspiring were the stories that came from the founders of companies like Casper, Kickstarter, PopSugar, and Mashable. There are a lot of adages about failure—how many times have we all heard that you only need to be right once—but it was great to hear CEOs talking about the value of building something that may not be going anywhere; publicly embrace failure as a philosophy in their corporate culture; and advise that challenging the status quo must start with self-disruption. At the end of the week, that was our biggest and most valuable takeaway.

Emily Malone is associate media director at PHD NY and Stephanie Walker is account supervisor at PHD Chicago.

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