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Media Draws Focus at 4A’s Event

Mar 2, 2008  •  Post A Comment

The media marketplace, circa March 1994: Times Mirror Magazines, publisher of Outdoor Life and Field & Stream, is seeking partners among the country’s top five cable operators to start a new outlet called the Outdoor Channel.
The media executives at Jordan, McGrath, Case & Taylor are closing in on an unwired network buy on between 80 and 100 TV stations for “Late Night With David Letterman.”
And in a moment perhaps never before seen on TV, a man downs a glass of water scooped out of a toilet just cleaned by Joan Rivers on her new syndicated show “Can We Shop.” The product being hawked is a toilet-bowl cleaner.
It was in this environment that 326 media executives registered for a new conference and trade show to be held that month at the Marriott Sawgrass Resort in Jacksonville, Fla. It was the first media conference held by the American Association of Advertising Agencies.
Of those attending, only 150 were from agencies. At the time the 4A’s had about 650 members. And most of those who trekked down to Florida for the conference were from small to medium-sized shops.
Although it was only 14 years ago, for the most part there were only media departments, not media agencies. In fact, one of the debates going on at the time within those in the media community on the agency side was whether media, as it became unbundled or spun off from the main agencies, should create its own association, separate from the 4A’s.
Certainly O. Burtch Drake, who had recently taken over the reins of the 4A’s from John O’Toole, wanted the media agency executives to stay with his organization. And what better way to indicate that the 4A’s took media seriously than to hold this conference?
As Steve Ellwanger, the editor-in-chief of Inside Media magazine, wrote at the time, “While it’s easy to say that the 4A’s should have held this type of show five or seven or even 10 years ago, you can’t blame the trade group for not doing something that its membership has failed to see the need for all these years.”
Mr. Ellwanger, my boss back then, praised the managers of small and midsized agencies who supported the first conference, as well as the Television Bureau of Advertising, which also supported the gathering. He chastised those who didn’t attend who he thought should have. “The losers,” Mr. Ellwanger wrote, “are big agencies, which sent token representation or none at all, and consumer magazines, newspapers and radio, all three of which barely made the radar screen (with the exception of Interep).”
With magazines “conspicuously and abundantly absent,” the “TVB filled this gap with gusto, as did rep firms like Blair, Katz, MMT and CNI. Even PBS promoted itself, handing out tote bags. On the network side, CBS was well represented, but there was no sign of ABC, NBC or Fox.” Fox later became a big booster of the conference.
Program highlights of that first show, Mr. Ellwanger wrote, included “an update on the so-called information superhighway, with Time Warner’s Karl Kuechenmeister and TVB’s Ave Butensky. This alone would have made it worth the trip for magazine executives.” Another highlight was Mike Lotito “explaining how media is integrated into the entire marketing process at Ammirati & Puris (he refuses to go last in new-business pitches!); and Ayer’s Bonita LaFlore candidly declaring, ‘I feel that I am a buying service,’ while defending her use of time banks to gain a competitive advantage in the AT&T bidding.”
Mr. Ellwanger concluded, “All in all, the show was a respectable starting point for what should become an important annual event.”
Boy, did it ever. As Mr. Drake prepares to retire at the end of this month, top among his legacies is the 4A’s Media Conference. It long ago became the organization’s biggest confab. And no doubt Nancy Hill, who has succeeded Mr. Drake as president and CEO of the 4A’s, will continue to keep the conference smart and fresh as it moves forward.
This year digital media will take a front seat at the conference with discussions about paid search, mobile and other e-business.
I caught up with Mr. Drake and Ms. Hill last week. Mr. Drake reminisced about the beginnings of the conference, and Ms. Hill shared her thoughts about media. Edited transcripts follow.

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