The truth about industry events: the good, the bad and the ugly

Exhibitions, trades hows, conventions, conferences, panels, roundtables, fireside chats, I’ve done them all. I’ve moderated and hosted at pretty much every conceivable style of get together our industry has.

Some have been more successful than others. The GSM World Congress went from twelve table tops in Nice to the Barcelona behemoth we know today. The Bluetooth World Congress (business cards were banned, you just had to ‘tooth’ your details to others), hosted in San Jose probably deserved its ignominious end.

It’s fun to remember how the sector has developed for the digital world. Back in the NMA era it was commonly accepted that exhibitions such as Adtech, TFMA and Internet World were the way forward and that the market didn’t want conference-style events.

Dmexco was still OMD, Advertising Week was a thing that only happened in New York, Cannes was for creatives only and for some inexplicable reason, people voluntarily stranded themselves on a boat for two days to be sold to by email marketing companies. A standout was The Festival of Media which, in many ways, paved the way for the events market we have today.

Now we see a very different landscape. Cannes (despite the eyewatering costs) is dominated by the digital giants, Dmexco (despite the well-publicised acrimonious split with its founders) is seen as the place to do deals and Advertising Week (despite its awful venue and love of pointless queues) is still a must attend for agencies, publishers and tech vendors alike.

Throw in the Festival of Marketing and new boy on the block Madfest and you can see that marketers have a lot of choices but will need deep pockets. But are these events sufficiently different? Do they matter? Will you hear or see anything to blow you away? Probably not. As ever, there’s a Rory Sutherland quote to fit:

“My problem with the advertising industry is the audience it now seeks to impress is its own peer group. This is not unique or confined to advertising but generally, areas of business where the motivation is to impress each other don’t generally innovate. You create an echo or feedback loop where things become more and more similar.”

I spoke with Sarah Parsonage about how she sees the events sector. Sarah is a seasoned event professional and had run many events before she launched the widely acclaimed One Question in 2016. How does she see the sector?

“The saturation of the event market has meant it has cannibalised itself and by doing so has damaged it is own reputation. The value of any event as an experience in which we learn, in which we build new, sustainable relationships, has been diminished to the extent that in 2017 Publicis, publicly withdrew their support of all industry events.

Some industry-specific events are valuable of course. However, these events don’t need to cost £1000 a ticket and we don’t need to shoehorn a celebrity into the agenda in the hope they can talk about the impact of programmatic advertising.”

The cost point is a very valid one. Sponsorship for some events has packages that total over £200k. A client of ours was recently approached with a package for a niche marketing sector event with an audience of 350 that had a price tag of £250k. How do you even start to justify that?

Some sections of the events market have spiralled into a ludicrous situation. Unable to guarantee delegate revenue in a hugely competitive market, they increase sponsorship prices to try and keep revenues from falling. Sponsors get nervy about the audience and ask for extra elements in the package and often this will lead to a speaking slot. And nothing pleases an event audience more than a sponsored session which is little more than a thinly veiled sales pitch

And thus we end up with a dissatisfied audience, dissatisfied sponsors and beleaguered events organisers. 

So, if we cannot compete, should we encourage events organisers to contrast. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. I was part of The Drum team that tried hard to get the very ambitious Do It Day off the ground. Drum Founder Gordon Young had come up with a great concept but the market couldn’t get its collective head around the idea and it was shuttered in 2018. This was particularly sad as the event had amazing aims and produced some fantastic outcomes. I hope its time comes again. We need more choice and more innovation.

In part two of this article, we’ll hear marketers’ views on the value of industry events.

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