Free thinking on hold
Simon Williams was looking for a 'Brand Experience' at this year's Marketing Society Conference. Sadly, he felt it was just an event.
The Marketing Society held its annual conference, The Summit — What will matter most, at The Royal Opera House last November. I attended both the conference and the previous nights dinner at the Grosvenor House.
I should point out that Im not a member of the Marketing Society, nor have I attended either event in previous years, so I have no benchmark data with which to compare the relative quality of this years events. This, therefore, is a very individual take on the days events.
These had been preceded with talk of a discipline in crisis, loss of identity, losing influence at the top table and of the desire to create a marketing manifesto.
Indeed, the day before the conference the Financial Timess Creative Business supplement ran exclusive extracts of CEO research carried out jointly by the Society and McKinsey aimed at understanding the real and perceived stock of the 21st century marketing director.
So far, so good.
The expectation had been created in this delegates mind that we were all set for a rigorous no holds barred debate around some of these parameters with a reasonable level of interactivity.
As we arrived and took morning coffee I was struck by how little overlap there seemed between attendees at the previous nights dinner and delegates arriving for the conference. Could, I thought fleetingly, the UKs marketing community be segmented into liggers (at the dinner) and practitioners (during the day)?
At 8.45am, with great expectation and my free thinking head on, I took my seat. By 5pm I was feeling somewhat disappointed.
We were treated, in the main, to a standard conference/event management format. The venue was decent, and a collection of good speakers presented their own perspectives on the future (Eric Salama and Nicholas Negroponte were very good).
These were all accomplished presenters, but the event needed a common thread linking them back to the conferences central theme: i.e. what will matter most to customers? and what will matter most in understanding them?.
It was hard to believe that we were hearing anything bespoke for the day (with the exception of the CEO research, which was relegated to five minutes before lunch).
Dont get me wrong. As a day out it worked well, ran smoothly and mostly held my interest. As a platform for debate and change, or even as a platform for new thinking and insights, though, I felt it came up short of its initial promise. There is nothing worse than a critic who wont try to articulate some of the factors that may have contributed to a flawed execution. So heres my view. We heard from several of the presenters that consumers expectations have never been higher, that choice has never been greater; and that value for time is an emergent theme. We learnt that true innovation rather than endless line extensions are the way to compel consumers, and that to be in the middle is to be nowhere.
The delegates who attended the conference in their professional capacity are the self-same consumers who are subject to these forces and dynamics in the expectations they set and choices they make in their private lives. Their individual expectation levels, exposure to choice, perception of value for time and internal benchmarks for good innovation will, I believe, have shifted dramatically in the last five years, and they are likely to judge the conference not against last years event, as the organisers will do, but against brand promise and delivery in other areas of their lives.
If some delegates had also read the FT article, I wonder if they too felt the event was in line with their expectations. And I wonder, too, how much the conference format and content has really changed over the last five years. The conference should be the ultimate annual brand-building vehicle for The Marketing Society. Its format and content should, in my view, stand in front of The Marketing Society brand, not hide behind it (easier said than done). It should be setting agendas, not overly regurgitating secondhand content.
Of course, its very easy for me to say all this when the people who put together The Summit did so voluntarily and through tremendous effort, essentially in their own spare time.
In reality, I believe its still an event in a world of brand experiences, but heres the rub — for this individual it promised to be a brand experience. Mind the gap!
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, January 2005
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2005