False Prophets Convention

Multi-Conferencing in Austin

Within the span of one mercurial week — a week that included earthquakes, tsunamis, financial market extremes, stateside tornadoes (and that’s just one guy, Charlie Sheen) — Austin, Texas hosted two of the most anticipated industry conferences of the year: the 4A’s Management Conference and South By Southwest. Last week, more false prophets descended upon the Land of the Longhorn than can be found in the entire Koran. Good thing they have all those bars downtown.

The big spin coming out of the 4A’s event (dubbed “Transformation 2011”) is the advertising industry is “coming back”. The New York Times headline chronicling the event heralded “Marketers Celebrate Glimmers of Recovery”. We are an industry known for celebrating glimmers. The statistics supporting said glimmers include increased budgets for the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards and at P&G and Kraft. Pardon my lack of participation in the celebration. This news could not be less relevant to the majority of 4A’s member agencies.

The American Association of Advertising Agencies consists of hundreds of small and mid-sized regional agencies. Its existence and survival relies upon a constituency of maverick, entrepreneurial local companies that we used to call ad agencies. Most of these firms will never get near Cincinnati (P&G) or Chicago (Kraft) no less produce a Super Bowl or Oscars spot. Like our society, the rich may get richer — those global, multi-national agencies fortunate enough to be on P&G’s roster — but the little guy will have to wait for the rest of the economy to recover. You’ll get nothing yet, and you’ll like it.

Conference attendees were assured that “what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger”. It figures that when all else fails, we resort to Nietszche, Existentialism and ultimately, Nihilism. I remember hearing this backwards battle cry when I worked at BBDO (often collaborating with 4A’s CEO Nancy Hill, not-so-ironically). But, I never understood it. It was our way of reconciling a lost new business pitch. I always thought that what makes us stronger is what makes us stronger; silly me. Neither Coca-Cola nor orange juice kills us. I’m betting only one actually makes us stronger. Don’t get me wrong, I like Nancy Hill a lot — once placed her with TBWA back in the day. If anyone can breathe some life into the 4A’s, it’s probably her.

When I first read the NY Times article on the conference, I was with a CEO at his agency which he founded in 1987 (with roots in the 50’s). They were 4A’s members for 20+ years and they recently withdrew their membership. Why? There was no tangible benefit to the agency. Once a database and research center , the 4A’s intelligence offerings drag behind newer, less-expensive alternatives. They encourage agencies to adopt newer technologies, yet embrace few themselves. Other than access to some proprietary research readily available or created elsewhere, why would a 20-person shop join the 4A’s — to be discovered by Procter & Gamble?

I always get a kick out of the perfunctory lip-service acknowledging the dearth of original budding talent in the industry. This year, the 3 Blowhards: Sorrell, Wren and Roth held a panel discussion on the ghastly vacuous black hole of talent coming up through industry ranks. In 2008, I sent a series of essays to the 4a’s to be considered as a “Best Practices” offering on Recruiting, Nurturing and Retaining agency talent. They were rejected on contact. And maybe they should have been because they were overly optimistic. The introduction to those essays is here: https://mikepalma.wordpress.com/2010/04/01/the-agency-recruiting-primer-for-2010-beyond/

Aside from having to suffer through cliche-ridden pep talks laced with aging and deceptive buzzwords such as “nimble” (glaciers move faster than WPP, IPG and Omnicom), “robust” (mid-sized agencies are down 30% pretty much across the board) and “agnostic” (code word: “inexpensive”) — member attendees got to throw back some Shiners and be posers at the conference and blues bars on 6th Street.

Speaking of 6th Street, one day after the agency honcho (brand-new-purchase-at-Allens) cowboy bootheels went a’wanderin’ out of town; and the next, a mass infestation of music industry hangers and hangers-on converges upon Austin like locusts. Sheesh. How much false optimism can one city deliver? It is somewhat fitting that two industries in the toilet would descend upon a cow town for salvation. When was the last time somebody white made any money in the music industry? That’s a tribute to true entrepreneurialism, not a racially biased observation.

Once upon a time, when rock and roll was actually relevant, South By Southwest was a place where young recording artists could get a record deal. It teemed with A&R types that could “discover” exciting new songwriters and swing a label deal and a publishing contract. The internet changed all that. iTunes changed all that. Technology changed all that. Ironically, the technology types have swooped in to “save” the very carcasses they created. Sadly, SXSW (what would it be without a tweetable acronym?) is now a technology marketing event. There are more marketing leeches in town than artists; and rock and roll remains an endangered genre. More hash tags came out of Austin last week than out of Haight-Asbury in the ’60’s. Problem is, like most of technology communications, there ain’t much money in it. At least for white folks.

As an aside, I recently heard a Chuck Berry interview from the early 60’s on WMLB AM. He was railing on Brian Wilson for blatantly lifting “Sweet Little Sixteen” and turning it into a “surfing soundtrack” for White America (note for note, “Surfin’ USA”). He eventually won his lawsuit. It’s poetic justice to see that kind of creative liberty come full circle, with the Brothas lifting riffs from Whiteys like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Aerosmith to mash-up rap hits. They make money. Why doesn’t anyone at SXSW?

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