Ad:tech Revisits 1999, But Stays Balanced

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Marketing executives who slept through the Clinton presidency's second term missed nothing if they visited last week's ad:tech New York.


The Nov. 7-9 event at the Hilton in midtown New York was packed with the nation's leading interactive marketing, media and technology executives. An estimated 8,300 people registered, hobnobbing with peers, customers and prospects at 250-plus booths or listening to 230 speakers in 60 sessions.


"It was like 1999 all over again," said Mark Josephson, chief marketing officer of search engine firm Kanoodle, New York. "This time most people have great businesses. People were doing business. We signed publishers, we signed advertisers and we grew our business."


Attendees represented companies serving all ends of the interactive business: ad serving, e-mail, search, affiliate marketing, research, Web design and development, database, content management, agency services, analytics, e-commerce solutions, CRM and publishing.


Hype or organic growth? What of the show's texture? The dress was casual, talk serious and buzz in the air obvious. Lunch tables were identified by subject to pre-qualify diners. Overall, optimism was thick in the air.


"We're just happy, that's all," said Dana Todd, senior vice president of interactive agency SiteLab International, San Diego. "Happy that those of us who believed in the power and potential of the Internet to create a whole new way of communicating with customers, and marketing creatively to them, were right. No, not every company is going to rise to the top like Google, nor is every technology appropriate for a broad market, but this second generation of innovation is definitely worth exploring more closely."


Todd is on top of online trends in her other role: president of Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, the top industry lobby for search firms. As a speaker and exhibitor at ad:tech New York, she saw more investment than speculation.


"Money is money," she said. "We spent a lot of money in 1999 doing a lot less. This time 'round, we're not buying foosball tables -- we're sinking it into brains and innovation. Yes, there are probably some dogs out there, but investors are a lot smarter now and ask the right questions. There seems to be a new level of honesty in the discussions I have with colleagues. There's less puffery and more earnest dialogue about making real change in the way things are done."


Balanced program. The final of three ad:techs nationwide this year, ad:tech New York certainly lived up to the series' theme: "The Age of Engagement." After hours, delegates networked at parties thrown by Tribal Fusion, WhenU, Miva and DM News. The ad:tech awards ceremony, however, flopped for lack of attendance.


This year's agenda focused on managing customer touch points across all marketing tactics, online brand reputation, mobile marketing, RSS, branded entertainment, rich media and broadband, the evolution of television advertising, publishing issues and word-of-mouth marketing.


"Thematically, ad:tech had been heavily focused on search three years back, contextual the year after and behavioral just last year," said Adam Glantz, director of product marketing for Web publishing at Vendare Media, New York.


Search, and certainly e-mail, failed to dominate the show. Instead, the focus on online strategy, tactics and vehicles was more balanced.


Ad:tech reflects the interactive industry as a whole and all its factions such as creatives, analysts and technologists, Todd said. She thinks the crucial dialogues are beginning to occur and the silos breaking down between departments and initiatives.


"We're all on a mission for the Holy Grail: outstanding creative experiences that drive emotional reactions from targeted audiences, a full-circle data loop that lets us measure and refine in real time across many channels and new media opportunities to reach the largest audience of interested customers," she said.


Ad:tech New York is the largest in the event's franchise, typically covering all topics and trends. It is also held in the nation's media capital. The San Francisco ad:tech is more tech-focused and the Chicago edition skewed to interactively marketing mass brands.


The one much-discussed topic was blogging. A question from an audience member challenging Google's AdWords generated a comment from a fellow attendee: "You must blog this." Indeed, many delegates tapped away on their laptops while sessions were on. Some were responding to e-mails, others blogging to their respective fan clubs.


"People think of blogs as a new e-mail," said Renee Edelman, ad:tech New York attendee and vice president of corporate and public affairs at public relations firm Edelman, New York. "Everybody has e-mail. Everybody has a blog. In this new era, blogs seem to be representative of consumers taking control."


Feedback is crucial, be it via blog posts or in person at the show. Session speakers clearly were prepped to yield the floor to questions for at least 15 minutes in many cases. Issues raised from the audience were as compelling as those from the dais.


"As these conferences evolve, the more opportunities you give people in the audience to ask their questions and allow feedback, the stronger the conference you'll have," said Ellen Siminoff, CEO of search agency Efficient Frontier, Mountain View, CA.


Branding potential untapped. One concern with interactive shows like ad:tech is the lack of metrics, attention and information on branding online. At least that was the opinion of Young-Bean Song, a speaker at the show and director of analytics and Atlas Institute at aQuantive-owned interactive technology firm Atlas, Seattle.


"Ninety percent of the content right now for online marketing is for direct response," Song said. "And that for me is a big gap in what the industry needs to really go after for a whole new set of budgets. Just like direct response has ROI metrics, what will the metrics be for branding? For brand advertisers, unless you can show them success or how to measure success online, there's no need for them to go there."


He suggested a measure like cost per second or whatever the time element. But few, if any, will defend the banner ad in this search-driven environment until rich media lives up to its promise with universal broadband penetration.


Location, location, location. Is there room for improvement with ad:tech New York? Yes. For all the wheeling and dealing on the two exhibit hall floors among suppliers, a stronger marketer-side presence would be welcome. And feedback cards should be circulated more widely to rate speakers after each session.


But perhaps the biggest criticism is that the show became a victim of its success. The space crunch in the exhibit halls was obvious. Even exhibitors like online ad management firm Accipiter that were thrilled took issue with the narrow aisles and crowded common areas.


"My biggest suggestion for ad:tech, from an exhibitor perspective, would be to expand the venue space," said Lynn Vitello, vice president of marketing at Accipiter, Raleigh, NC. "There were too many people for the amount of space. Everything from the registration area to the exhibit hall was overcrowded. It was very difficult navigating around the event. I would suggest they consider using part of the Javits Convention Center in the future if the show continues to draw over 8,000 attendees."


However, moving to New York's largest, but remote, convention center is not happening. Ad:tech New York next year will spread exhibitors on three floors at Hilton New York.


"Location is very important [and] not always size," ad:tech vice president Don Knox said. "Otherwise, ad:tech New York would be in the Javits Center, and everyone in our market knows that moving our event there would be disastrous. Any venue has to have a feel about it -- good traffic flow, immediate resources on hand, talented and professional service staff. Price should always reflect the service, but that can be tough to accomplish."


Mickey Alam Khan covers Internet marketing campaigns and e-commerce, agency news as well as circulation for DM News and DMNews.com. To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters


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