Things I learnt from @advertisingweek #AWEurope

Last week I popped in to a few sessions at Advertising Week Europe. Key themes:

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The master and the tool: A panel of well-known female editors and publishers spoke about how we need to learn to live in harmony with technology without depending on it too much. The Huffington Post’s servers apparently went down during Hurricane Sandy, so they shifted all of their content to Facebook, Twitter and Rebelmouse and they were able to continue posting as if the site was still up. The interesting thing is that because of the social interaction, they got record traffic when the site was back up again. Brands need to think about building communities and not just content and commerce in today’s times. Commercial ends will be served very well by building communities of interest.

Think global always: This was from an Industry Index panel with a Senior Manager working on Growth Companies at PWC and the Chief Data Officer of Mediabrands. The internet has erased almost every boundary, especially for startups and ideas. When a startup launches in a specific market, they need to be thinking internationally from day one because sooner rather than later, if they want to grow, they will need to expand beyond their home market and will need to learn about things like tax implications, automating media plans across markets with similar technology maturity levels, patent trolls and so on.

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Defining value: One of the panels I went to had 5 agency founders who’d all sold their companies chatting about what makes a good acquisition and a good sale. A key point that stuck in my mind was the importance of always adding value to the business to increase its appeal as a brand. This can be done in different ways: clients, employees, the work itself to name a few. Value was also referred to in emotional terms: when the founders sold they sold at an amount they were emotionally comfortable with, which differs for different founders even within the same agency. As with any purchase, the panel also suggested avoiding haggling too much because it takes away from the whole process. They also spoke about having someone keep an eye on the work throughout, because during a sale there are so many things to pay attention to that often the work suffers (inadvertently potentially bringing down the value in some cases). And finally, they spoke about value in terms of partnership and teamwork and suggested getting the best people on board with them during the sale such that they benefit as well. Good karma etc.

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The wisdom of the crowds and identifying patterns: Probably my favourite talk (apart from the PHD one of course!) was the one by Oxford University mathematician Marcus du Sautoy (he has a site built in Flash though, oops!). He drew a parallel between mathematicians as pattern searchers, the basic building block of algorithms.  He showed us sets of numbers and asked us to identify what the pattern was; some were easy enough, like the Fibonacci series, others had no way of being identified as a set unless you really knew the information beforehand: the winning numbers in the Euromillions on September 28 for example. He made the point that people always tend to think in terms of themselves and their universe as opposed to generalised information – they get too close to the content and can’t identify patterns because of their emotional investment in some cases. He also mentioned some really interesting experiments, notably the dead ox experiment by Francis Galton in 1906, which proved that the wisdom of the crowds was actually much closer to the actual answer than one would have thought. However, he said, the wisdom of the crowds only works when the problem in question has been carefully thought about; it’s the reason some projects on Kickstarter are successful incredibly quickly and others struggle. I thought that was very interesting.

The modern CMO’s challenges: Being agency side, I was keen to know what some very senior marketers from a range of brands thought of the challenge of marketing today (William Hill, Pernod Ricard, Britvic, RSA). The first topic of discussion was how the role of the CMO and the Chief Information Officer need to be linked together almost as partners. Technology is such a huge part of marketing that it can’t sit separately anymore. They also spoke about the importance of marketers spending time with technology companies; Diageo took the entire board to Silicon Valley to meet startups there and understand how they were working with many brands.

The relationship of the agency and the client was also discussed in no uncertain terms. In many cases it is a partnership of non-equals which is not at all ideal. Clients want people who work on their accounts to live and breathe the brand and many agencies just put their junior people on it, not that that’s a problem per se but in some cases there are those who don’t really have any affiliation for the brand whatsoever. Interesting anecdote from the William Hill CMO who asked the agency whether the team working on his account betted, and none of them did, chowing a clear lack of interest and therefore likely understanding, of his business. The panel spoke about revenue targets being as much a part of the agency’s KPI’s as the CMO’s could make a difference and make them have more skin in the game, which I thought was interesting – because I don’t think that that’s a popular model in the business yet though it should be. The importance of constantly bringing new ideas to the table was discussed – CMOs might reject them but it has the potential to push the overall brand thinking higher up.

Content marketing took a solid knock as the CMOs said that providing a service to the customer is the key role of marketing and unless content serves that goal, ultimately helping to sell product, it is pointless.

The power of the network was a topic that I haven’t heard too many people at the top talk about. The Marketing Academy was recommended for its role in getting marketers together as it rarely happens in a social situation (two of the people on the panel had gone through the programme). The panel said they need to hang out more together so they learn from each other on an ongoing basis. (On a side note, it’s why we started Ada’s List, to help women get a peer group and network they wouldn’t otherwise have access to).

Someone asked a great question at the end: what the panel’s biggest mistake was. I have always found that the best leaders give really illuminating answers to that question. But at the event that  turned more into a list of things they value (still useful!). In no specific order, these were:

–          The importance of curiosity and always asking what makes your business work as this will change with time and technology

–          The relationship between marketing and procurement – the latter will always be driving costs down but if you have a good relationship with them they will understand why you need to spend on talent for example

–          The importance of diversity for creativity, both gender and ethnic diversity, so that the brand stays in sync with the needs of different people and not just a homogenous set.

I think I picked a good set of sessions to attend overall. Lots of things to think about.

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