“Return On Investment” is the theme of the 48th annual Promax & BDA conference starting this week in Los Angeles, a promise of practical seminars emphasizing bottom-line results. It’s a topic that’s certainly of interest to stations that have faced biting economic downdrafts in recent years, but the theme is also apropos of the organization itself as it struggles to retain its luster as a valuable networking Mecca.
Returning members will find, in the words of Promax spokesman Jeff Pryor, a “leaner and meaner” show. The exhibition floor? Gone. The cavernous convention space? Forget it. The week-long schedule? Not quite. There’s not even an official keynote address.
Instead, the three-day congress at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel-billed as the world’s largest gathering of promotion, marketing and design professionals-is a return to the conference’s pre-dot-com scale but with a post-dot-com fiscal sensibility.
“We’re trying to be right-sized for the marketplace,” said Promax CEO Jim Chabin, who recently returned to helm the organization after a three-year absence. “And although we’re not as big as we were in 1999, we’re still twice as big as we were in 1992.”
Promax attendance peaked at 6,800 in 1999, then sank to a reported 3,000 in 2002, and this week organizers are expecting about 2,300.
But Mr. Chabin stresses the bigger picture, arguing that Promax attendance hasn’t gone down so much as diffused. In 2002, the group created the “Ratings Roadshow” tour, which is back again and partnering with Radio-Television News Directors Association for upcoming dates in Seattle and Denver, in addition to last year’s roster of Dallas, Atlanta, New York and Chicago. In recent years Promax has added more international shows as well, and now has conferences in Asia, Australia, Latin America, Europe and the United Kingdom. In November, Promax will launch a new touring roadshow in Europe.
“If you really look at the total number of people who attend Promax conferences worldwide, it’s got to be north of 5,000 people,” Mr. Chabin said. “We will probably have more attendees at Promax events worldwide this year than we’ve ever had in our history.”
The Los Angeles conference is still, however, the heart of the organization, and Mr. Chabin has chosen a lineup that emphasizes practical ideas and marketing education-from motivational such as Nike “Katalyst” Kevin Carroll and best-selling business author Harry Beckwith to experienced industry marketers such as NBC’s Vince Manze and Fox’s Roberta Mell.
Two seminars promise access to exclusive new data. The first is a sneak peek at some upcoming promotional campaigns by major advertisers such as Lincoln Mercury and AT&T Wireless and presented by Karen Tobin, VP of national promotions at Fox. The second will release the results of a Frank N. Magid Associates study on the effectiveness of off-air news promotion.
The goal is to have fewer speakers who are giving thinly veiled sales pitches and more who provide members with valuable strategies. Or, as one conference insider bluntly put it: “We want to turn the perception around that Promax is just a party for its members.”
Never one to understate the value of Promax attendance, Mr. Chabin said that ingesting his seminar content can be a precursor to ratings success.
“The attendance at Promax has increasingly become cable,” Mr. Chabin said. “And it tracks very closely with the erosion of the broadcast television audience.”
It’s a chicken-and-egg argument of whether successful members attend Promax or going to Promax creates successful members or a bit of both. Either way, Mr. Chabin noted, attendance tends to be dominated by representatives from the most successful stations and networks.
Case in point: NBC stations will have their affiliates meeting at the conference, including an address by Jeff Zucker.
“We have historically had an affiliates meeting at Promax up until a couple years ago, when the business climate brought our attendance figures down,” said John Miller, head of advertising and promotion for NBC. “But we’re a believer in the organization, and we’re a believer in having face-to-face contact with our affiliates.”
Distributors King World Productions and Paramount Domestic Television will also hold meetings to discuss upcoming promotional strategies as they host open hospitality suites throughout the conference. Warner Bros., which will launch talk shows hosted by Ellen DeGeneres and Sharon Osborne, also is among distributors planning hospitality suites. Some Promax supporters said that using the suites is superior to trying to conduct business on a bustling exhibition floor.
“This is that one time of year you get to see all the other people who do what you do in one place,” said Michael Mischler, executive VP of marketing for Paramount and a Promax board member. “And the way the conference is structured, unlike the other trade organizations, you can actually go and learn. I’ve never gone to a Promax where I haven’t been able to take something away from it.”
More attendees will literally take something away from this year’s conference, with the establishment of the Television Century Awards, which honor achievement in marketing and promotion. The recipients are industry veterans Sandy Grushow, chairman of Fox Television Entertainment Group; Stanley Hubbard, CEO of Hubbard Broadcasting; and Anne Sweeney, president of ABC Cable Networks.
The awards will be presented just before Frida director Julie Taymor’s seminar Friday. The regular Promax Awards will be held Thursday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where Micki Byrnes, Director of Marketing and Promotion at Gannett’s WKYC-TV in Cleveland, will receive the Pinnacle Award.
One award winner this year is Marshall Hites, head of marketing for KCBS-TV and KCAL-TV in Los Angeles. Although Mr. Hites is the only marketing representative from his stations who will attend the conference, he said the content is still valuable.
“[Promax is] still a vital opportunity for learning and observing how winners think,” Mr. Hites said. “And in an industry that’s in such a state of change, the more you can do to learn and just stay vital with how the business is evolving is very important.”