28/07/14

The Problem With Conferences

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By Alex Smith, planning director

 

I’ve always been intrigued by something I call the “chain of sycophancy” – a complex algorithm linking all businesses involved with marketing, which defines who has to suck up to whom to gain an advantage.

The most simple articulation of this chain would be retailer-trumps-brand-trumps-agency-trumps-supplier (nobody, customer included, trumps the retailer). When things get interesting, however, is when one party in the chain has a very particular skill. This can throw the whole order of nature wildly out of whack.

For example, if, say, an agency is working with a supplier who manages Instagram talent – a very particular thing they can’t easily find elsewhere – then let’s face it, the supplier can write their own ticket, because who else are you going to call?

The same thing may apply with an agency that is perceived to be particularly innovative or creative, and as such represents a sort of coup for the client to have represent them.  These agencies can happily treat a client mean and keep a client keen, because, once again, they’re bringing something pretty unique to the table.

Companies that organise conferences don’t get this.

When looking for content and speakers, they automatically look up the chain of sycophancy and try and get contributors from the very top – brands, and if you’re lucky, retailers (amongst which I’d include the likes of Google, Twitter, Facebook, et al, given that they are effectively information retailers).

And, behold, the outcome is boring.

Image result for boring conference

You pay £850 for a day’s conference ticket, only to get dazed by a stream of brand managers taking you through their latest case study. The thing is, if I wanted case studies, I’d just check out a Slideshare review of Cannes or something. They’d be free, quick and, ultimately, better. What I want from a conference is to learn something; something that will make me better at my job from that day on.  If I’m brand manager for Cap’n Crunch then maybe – and I mean *maybe* – I can learn something from that Coco Pops Facebook app. For the rest of us, however, it’s going to be like mining for pennies.

That’s why speakers at conferences should be agencies and suppliers. Remember those guys I mentioned who invert the chain? They do so because they have something interesting to say, and because they’re agencies, they’re totally holistic. The principles and ideas they stand for can probably apply equally to any other organisation.  It is they who should be invited to talk.

Sadly, we’ve all heard of brands, but have only a piecemeal knowledge of agencies, and as such a keynote speaker from some boutique thought-shop is never going to have the box office appeal of James from Tesco – so this problem probably shall remain.

However, if anyone wants to try out something different, I can guarantee you’ll have sold one ticket.

28/07/14

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