Advertising conferences: Let me sell you a story

Advertising conferences: Let me sell you a story
The ticket you just bought to the next big ad conference might have just paid for a very big ad.

Doesn’t matter if it’s Cannes (about three grand), Spikes Asia (about a grand), or even SXSW (about seven hundred and fifty bucks), it requires a certain financial commitment to go to the big tech, marketing and creativity conferences. And that’s even before we squeeze travel and accommodation into the budget.

The real cost, though comes in the form of time. It takes about a week to attend these things, and that’s often the hardest part to justify – especially to your manager. And conference organisers are not making it any easier for you to convince your boss, as they continue to allow the ‘presenters’ to deliver thinly-disguised ads for the agencies that pay for the speaking slots.

The skills to pay the bills

That’s right – many conferences charge agencies for the keynote slots. Then they also charge the audience (that’s me and you) to come and listen. It’s like the MCG charging both the football teams AND the fans to attend the Grand Final. A pretty sweet deal if you can arrange it.

The agencies, having forked over the cash for the slot, immediately ignore the advice they’d normally sell to their clients (i.e. don’t talk only about yourself), and promptly use the opportunity to talk relentlessly about themselves.

In some cases, modesty prevails: they call in (and pay for), a special guest star celebrity speaker. But even then the agencies can’t help but get in on the act, often appointing themselves as interviewer or moderator, despite having no actual interviewing skills or moderating experience.

Enough about me, let’s talk about what you think of me

Sometimes, agencies will bring together a panel of experts for a debate or discussion on a particular topic, which feels like it should produce more genuine opinion and insight, right? Wrong. In most cases, these experts are all clients or partners of the agency and in violent agreement with each other. Which makes for some desperately dull viewing.

If these presentations were merely dull, that would be crime enough. But these talks are dull and expensive. There’s no news (we’ve seen the case studies all before) and there’s usually no insight (common sense dressed in new jargon doesn’t count).

It’s advertising, plain and simple, for the agencies that purchase the speaking slots and for the ‘celebrity’ keynotes hired to speak on their behalf. As the number of clients attending these events (Cannes, for example, has seen a massive surge in this regard in just the last few years), it will be almost impossible for agencies to resist the temptation to shill for new business every time they hit the stage.

It’s not too late to curate

What these talkfests need is a damn good editor, someone who holds the quality bar up to a level that smacks these self-referencing blowhards in the forehead. It works with music and arts festivals: a high-profile and relatively independent ‘Artistic Director’ generally sets the theme, attracts quality acts, and curates the final lineup. They become personally responsible for the overall ‘quality’ of the event.

Or you could invoke the wisdom of the crowd. SXSW for example, uses popular voting as a potential filter for low-quality presentations, while the board of festival directors makes the final decisions.

Whatever method is employed, a little QC is sorely needed. If these events continue to devolve, we’ll be left with a combination of scam-infested awards ceremonies and unsufferably smug credentials decks. The only reason to attend (preferably on someone else’s dime), will be the after-parties.

Just don’t tell your boss.


We’ve developed this handy translation guide to help you determine whether that conference you have penciled in your calendar will be worth attending.

When the title in the program says:
“Four Transformations that are impacting marketing”
You’ll be hearing: “Four of our agency’s case studies, as videos.”

When the title in the program says:
“Game Change: The Future of Work is Play”
You’ll be hearing: “One really detailed case study from our agency, in Powerpoint.”

When the title in the program says:
“How the rules of relationships relate to advertising”
You’ll be hearing: “Our agency showreel, updated for this conference.”

When the title in the program says:
“How to have more fun than anyone”
You’ll be hearing: “My personal showreel, dusted off for this conference.”

When the title in the program says:
“Building Worlds with Technology and Stories”
You’ll be hearing: “An awkward, fawning interview with my personal idol.”

When the title in the program says:
“A healthy disregard for the impossible”
You’ll be hearing: “A meandering humblebrag about our most recent products.”

When the title in the program says:
“Users, Brands and Creativity”
You’ll be hearing: “A brutal onslaught of our new product range.”

When the title in the program says:
“Women, media and creativity”
You’ll be hearing: “Please watch my upcoming TV series.”

When the title in the program says:
“The myths of Creativity”
You’ll be hearing: “Please buy my book, now in paperback edition.”

More reading: 

Powerful innovation for agencies – do it, or die!
Brands + Newsrooms: a recipe for narcissism?
Your brand is not the story. Your brand is IN the story.


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Award-winning Australian recruitment agency, Firebrand Talent, ignites the careers of digital, marketing, creative, communications, advertising, & media talent. If you are looking for your next career move, check out the jobs we currently have on in Sydney & Melbourne.


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