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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 night’s dinner at the Grosvenor House.

I should point out that I’m 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 year’s events. This, therefore, is a very individual take on the day’s 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 Times’s 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 delegate’s 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 night’s dinner and delegates arriving for the conference. Could, I thought fleetingly, the UK’s 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 conference’s 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).

Don’t 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 won’t try to articulate some of the factors that may have contributed to a flawed execution. So here’s 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 year’s 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, it’s 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 it’s still an ‘event’ in a world of ‘brand experiences’, but here’s the rub — for this individual it promised to be a ‘brand experience’. Mind the gap!


Simon Williams
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