Ad Age has been at Advertising Week all week, in the form of editorially moderated panels, roving reporters — and a modest little charging station neatly positioned on the fourth floor next to the Target Media stage. This has actually been prime viewing area from which to see which manifestation Bullseye the Target dog has been taking all week: Monday--real dog. Tuesday--human in a dog costume. Wednesday—Target shopping cart full of stuffed toy dogs.
But as I've been attending, I've also witnessed another trend: More than one advertiser wondering if Advertising Week, and other conferences like it, is proof of the industry simply talking to itself. "It's a big boondoggle," they say (only they use an 11-letter word that starts with "cluster" and rhymes with "firetruck"). It's pay for play, they complain (ok, kinda true). Still. To all of this I say: "Lighten up!"
Conferences are like any other personal or professional experience. Whether it's college or Burning Man or Salesforce Dreamforce, you're going to get out of it what you put into it. Hence these top five conference attendance tips:
You're a programmatic expert? Super. Attend every panel but that one
The inclination to validate your expertise is natural. So fine, pick one. Confirm your point of view, sharpen your existing one, or use the experience to form a new way of thinking altogether. Then promptly attend a series of talks that have absolutely nothing to do with your specialty. Informational serendipity is a key component of this industry. Conferences can deliver that in spades if you can get away from the dots you know to discover and connect the ones you don't.
Meet 10 new people. Then follow. And follow up
Attending alone? Descending with a gaggle of your closest colleagues? Great. Find someone you don't know, say hello and ask questions. In short: network. Chances are it will be awkward. It almost always is. Might as well embrace it, get that card and connect on LinkedIn or whatever platform you prefer. Then follow them on every social media channel they've made public. Take the time to see how people position themselves and the content they take the time to create—at all professional levels. Call it a competitive analysis if it makes you feel better. And, hey, every full moon or so, you can comment, like, heart, emoji, Bitmoji or shoot over an article (preferably an Ad Age one) that might have something to do with their business or interests. It's a small, small world. The odds are decent that you'll end up meeting—or working with or for them—again.
Hate that? Fine. Then practice your exit strategy
If following the above tip leads to your worst nightmare and you end up in a conversation you don't want to be in, this would be an excellent time to perfect your moving-on moves, whether your foil is the restroom, the bar, a phone call or boldly transitioning to other points of interest without apology. I recently shared a cab with a seasoned executive who so masterfully goodbye'd me I almost wept in awe. She literally got out of the car and, as we were entering the venue, she turned around, said "goodbye!" and vanished. I'll be filing that masterclass away for the future.
At least check out the vendor booths
If the pain of panels and networking and exit strategies is still too much to bear and you prefer to move silently through the experience in a Seneca-inspired manner, consider a qualitative experiment. Who's exhibiting? What are they selling? How are they selling---and how much are they spending to do it? Take the time to listen to the marketing pitches and scoop up the freebies (you know, for research). Understanding where brands are willing to set up shop and what they're looking to gain from their investment can be akin to engagement enlightenment. I recently met a consumer brand rep who revealed that one giveaway typically translated into five additional sales. What would that kind of information do for your business or client?
Give someone else the chance to be jaded
At the end of the day, eyerolling in this business is a privilege. It means someone once gave you the opportunity to climb the ranks, represent your company, and shell out $1000+ expense account dollars for you to wrinkle your nose at the rubber chicken dinner and too-long bathroom lines. So, if you're wondering if Advertising Week 2019 is worth your time, maybe the moment has come to pass the torch. Give someone young, hungry and entirely too optimistic the chance to be as over it as you are. They might just surprise you and learn something from it.
Heidi Waldusky is the associate publisher of Ad Age