From Underdog to Superhero

We are living in the experience age. Coffee isn't coffee anymore -- it is a caffeinated interactive experience. A mc-whopper and fries isn't just a meal anymore, it is about to become a movie rental, dead cow, Atkins-friendly experience. Why is AD:TECH successful? It is not just a trade show with informational content, it is an interactive marketing experience.

Susan Bratton, AD:TECH's conference chair, filled us all in on the details Monday morning. Nearly 4,000 attendees, a whopping 30 percent increase over last year's show, proved once again that AD:TECH has staying power.

Trade shows come and go while online marketing trends shape the way we do business. If there is one thing AD:TECH does quite efficiently, it creates a universal online marketing encounter. While I won't try to compete with the AD:TECH blog for play-by-play, I will share with you my AD:TECH experience.

The keynote experience

Unlike last year, when everyone got packed into (and out of) keynote sessions, this JD Events was well-prepared for the crowds with highly wired overflow rooms. Since every day had a keynote, I checked in on both main and overflow rooms and found comfort, convenience and dialed-in audio visual.

Of course, every day had a keynote. Allison Johnson, senior vice president of global brand and communications for Hewlett-Packard delivered Monday's keynote address. She showed us a series of spots and techno grabs depicting HP's quest for "brand love," via creating a series of brand experiences. The problem is, none of these experiences seemed to include online advertising. For example, coffee and technology coming together with music to create an experience? Nice thought, but where's the online ad plan case study? Not to worry though, the AD:TECH audience brought "brand love" back to "online marketing love" with a heavy question and answer session.

Tuesday, on the other hand, found a very well-received and informed keynote from Peter Weedfald, Samsung Electronics America's senior vice president of strategic marketing and new media. It was refreshing to hear from such a big brand that has thoughts like "all media planning starts with the Web." My personal Tuesday lunchtime roundtable discussion (with industry gurus Rob Graham and Leslie Laredo, the IAB's Doron Wesley and Eyeblaster's Masha Geller) agreed that Weedfald delivered his digital Darwinism theme very well. Weedfald's thoughts on leveraging 1.5 billion impressions on more than 365 sites, while maintaining strict buying requirements, were on the list of key takeaways -- along with focusing on strategic partnerships and cross-platform optimization.

Now, if I can only find someone to help program my Samsung wireless phone.

Wednesday's keynote was definitely worth sticking around for. I have said it before and I will say it again: never leave AD:TECH early. Patrick Vogt, Sony Electronics' senior vice president and senior general manager, not only delivered key thoughts on using online marketing tools to help build Sony's diverse business on the Web, the man actually credited the people on his team, by name, for their contributions to Sony's success. Hats off to Patrick, and I have only one question for you: To whom should I address my resume?

One of Patrick's key messages offered an odometer reading on the state of the online universe. In 1991, business was plugging along at 55 mph. By 1999, the industry was moving at 100 mph while high on the boom. Today, the industry is moving at 100 mph, but sober and focused.

The breakout session experience

As stated, trying to catalog the 30-plus sessions is best left to the bloggers. I made my way around all three days and found shiny happy marketers delivering sound advice, and noticed a big improvement in cutting down on sales pitches -- with the possible exception of the sponsored sessions, to which we can only say: You asked for it. Here are some of my favorite experiences from the sessions.

Monday's uninspiring keynote was followed by a spectacular super session on leveraging broadcast and broadband. It was a great tribute to rich media content. Ed Davis from ESPN Motion illustrated a great trend in online/offline publisher brands -- developing unique content for the Web instead of repurposing broadcast content, which is a great way to build a better brand encounter. Of course, AtomShockwave lived up to its name delivering the "It's so disgusting I have to look away experience" with an animated short called The Hangnail.

Highlighting the afternoon sessions and continuing with the rich media theme was a panel on the same topic with Dynamic Logic, Unicast and Eyeblaster. All of the presenters offered great case studies and supportive data. But my favorite quote in the all-too-critical, "How do I fund this?" section of our story came from Unicast's Allie Savarino, who suggested rich media formats serve multiple purposes (awareness, response, etc.) so funding can be drawn from multiple sources. Excellent advice because, in the end, if you can't find the money to fund your initiative, all the case studies in world will not help you.

On Tuesday morning, I found myself listening to the musings of Mike Windsor, chief executive officer of Ogilvy Interactive Worldwide, in a packed panel discussion for agencies on how to make money in interactive. Favorite thought from Windsor on initiating change: "Be persistent, almost to the point of harassment."

Another hot topic of discussion at my Tuesday luncheon roundtable was a morning session on The Taguchi method. Said method alleges a means of "testing thousands of campaigns in just a few experiments." While everyone seemed to grasp the idea, it sounded a bit too similar to a concept we were all intimately familiar with known as "testing creative."

Winding down the afternoon sessions was the always enlightening and entertaining Geoff Ramsey, delivering a S.W.O.T. analysis of media types. One attendee said, "Ramsey can take you through 90 slides of information, and you don't feel like you are being dragged through it." I agree. Geoff pointed out that while ad spending increased more than 15 percent in cable and more than twice that in online last year, broad reach areas like broadcast spending remained flat or decreased slightly. Key takeaway: Targeted media spending is on the rise.

Wednesday was search day at AD:TECH. Jupiter's Gary Stein led the first morning panel on search, and set the discussion table with data indicating search initiatives with large numbers of keywords were on the rise. Scott Skurnick, Circuit City's manager of search and affiliate marketing delivered a one-two punch with the smartest approach to brand and response keyword bucketing I have seen to date.

The last panel of the show spot was a search roundtable featuring yours truly, Frederick Marckini, iProspect's chief executive and technology officer, Kevin Lee,'s chief executive and David Karnstedt, Overture's senior vice president and general manger of direct business -- all expertly moderated by our virtual parent figure, Barbara Cole, the Web Mamma. We discussed brand measurement and impact, but I have to say the high point of the discussion was a heated debate between Frederick and I on the effect that control (or lack thereof) of affiliate keyword bidding can have on your brand. We'll come back to this debate later, count on it.

The trade show experience

Clearly, AD:TECH has outgrown the Palace Hotel, and Bratton promised a bigger, better venue next year. Just like last year, wading through the trade show floor was like trying to find matching pillow cases at a Macy's white sale. I tried to fight my way through at least five times over the course of two days, and each time only made it though half way.

Of course, I am more than a little bit peeved the people passed on the big comfy leather couches this year. While they were quite accommodating with director's chairs and great conversation, I missed my mid-afternoon naps on the sofa. Then again, the hard working, all business, no sitting, folks did not even bring chairs. You go guys.

The competition for trinkets and trash (aka shwag) along with gimmicks was hot. Sure, there were pens, retractable network cords and mints, but I have to offer my vote to the good people at Enhance for bringing a radio-controlled Enhance-branded Humvee give-away to the show. There is just no substitute for a well placed Hummer. Enhance also got my award for booth design with a complicated erector set- minimalist-industrial display architecture. AD:TECH bloggers voted's flip flops as the winner, but they didn't have my size -- which just goes to show you, no one weeps for the big-footed man.

The gathering experience

AD:TECH parties are now famous, and there is a heated competition at each event to one-up the next guy's party. I have arrived at the final -- and yet unsettling conclusion -- that I am now officially too old to battle daily bouts of cocktail flu, and I have an idea for next year's shwag parade to include some kind of Ginkgo-Advil concoction. Just a thought.

Monday was the light night for my group. We checked out a smartly-done ValueClick bash, then visited the DoubleClick folks, and later I forgave the group for leaving out the big leather. Tuesday saw the bulk of the party action, as we went from loud, crowded venue (AtomShockwave) to peaceful discussion venue (Yahoo!), and later to hip, fly, train wreck venue.

Although I may never get invited to another Blue Lithium event, I'd like to offer some advice. All of the other parties we attended had a few things in common -- beverages on the house, polite staffing and, in some cases, short (as they are entitled) sales pitches. While I understand the gathering may have been well intentioned, I, along with my faithful companions, had little tolerance for sucking up to paid-by-the-hour velvet rope guardians in order to gain access to a cash bar and failed sales pitch. That is to say, stopping the party to attempt PowerPoint delivery may not have been the best delivery model for creating positive brand perception at that point. Just a suggestion.

The wrap-up experience

As the event came to a close, a few of the morning panelists, along with Susan Bratton, headed down for bite to eat before we went our respective ways. I polled the group of speakers and industry personalities for post mortem (agency after-campaign expression) takeaways and "what's next for us" thoughts. While we pondered the happy return of venture capitalists to our scene, potential growth opportunities in behavioral inventory management, emerging technologies, and audiences beyond red, white and blue borders, our waiter approached with a provocative thought.

"Are you guys with the trade show that just left?" he asked.

"We certainly are" someone in our group replied.

"I just wanted to let you know, your attendees were the most polite group we have seen all year."

In an instant, someone else in the group said what we were all thinking, "That's because we are all in a medium of underdogs. It's part of the training when you are vying to stay in the game."

Moments later it occurred to me. While there are a lot of growth areas, the underlying theme of the week's activities didn't have much to do with who was buying what or new ways to serve ads. We are still the little guys in the advertising universe, but maybe our AD:TECH experience reminded us that we are one step closer to moving away from underdog and a step closer to superhero status.

With that in mind, I'll send you off in the great Stan Lee, hero creator tradition. We are not going to be the underdogs for long true believers, the sky is blue, profits are up, costs are down and Web ad slinging is on its way up. Excelsior!

iMedia search columnist Kevin Ryan's current and former client roster reads like a "who's who" in big brands: Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. In his off-iMedia time, Kevin is director, market development at Wahlstrom Interactive. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations.