A Shadow of its Former Self, @D:Tech LA Closes

LOS ANGELES — The bulk of the @d:Tech Conference and Exposition now behind us, attendees reflect and find it sorely lacking in impact.

For most of the attendees, the show became an opportunity to chew the fat with old acquaintances, commiserate with rivals about the leader in their particular niche, and for a handful of companies, to mark their debut — or, as in the case of Engage , their attempt at re-emergence.

But this year’s Left Coast incarnation of @d:Tech, billed perennially as the online advertising industry’s most important trade show, has devolved into less of a place where real deals are made and news is announced. Instead, it’s where survivors from the sector’s fallout gather to remind each other that “we’ve definitely reached the bottom; the only place it can go from here is up.”

Though many on the floor, in panels and behind closed doors talked about the need for new examples of industry leadership — for example, in developing guidelines for paid placement search links, for better measurement standards, and greater support for the medium from adventurous buyers — the show’s attendance was largely devoid of top brass from the IAB, DMA and AIM, with the exception of the OPA’s Michael Zimbalist, who was on hand for a time as a fill-in for a Tuesday panel.

The exhibit hall saw fewer than half the number of booths as last year, though a number were new faces. Some of the first-time exhibitors appeared not quite ready for primetime — if primetime means competing for anything other than local business — while others had a clearer idea of where they were going, even if that meant entering a cramped field like rich media email or paid search.

While the emergence of a new crop of players seems a good thing on the surface, for many of the newer firms manning booths or pressing the flesh between sessions, legitimate value differentiators appeared disconcertingly absent. That’s troubling because the industry is supposed to be getting smarter by providing new, needed solutions to clients’ marketing problems. New competition without bringing anything new to the table would seem to solve little, and hearkens back to an earlier time we now generally regard as misguided.

It’s additionally ironic considering that speaker after speaker encouraged businesses to explore innovative new strategies as a hedge against the perils of commodification, and a market devolving into an industry-debilitating pricing war.

While compelling, @d:Tech’s keynote presenters spoke persuasively on subjects that your average media-seller would be hard-pressed to figure out how to implement. That’s a shame, because “sales-types” comprised the majority of the attendees. On the other hand, top-level executives and agency representatives — the ones best suited to implement or encourage the development of the high-level strategic projects described by the speakers — were in very short supply at the show.

Tim Sanders, chief solutions officer at Yahoo gave some of the most useful information for the present audience, urging organizations to develop methodologies for selling a valuable consumer “experience,” to simplify product offerings, and to establish rapport with employees and clients by selflessly sharing information.

Yet most of the speakers — and indeed, most of the show’s content — had been intended for the kind of audience that wasn’t there: multi-channel marketing executives.

Stan Rapp, for instance, suggested enterprises develop huge databases and take up CRM. Kathleen Riordan of Kraft discussed how the consumer packaged goods giant derived benefits from experiments in online marketing. (In large part, her victories, commendable as they are, came as a result of leveraging two advantages still rare among clients: a large online marketing budget, and management buy-in.)

That isn’t to say that the mood at @d:Tech is altogether dour, if it is a little disappointed. And there were some bright spots: the crowd grew slightly from last year. Susan Bratton, former Excite@Home marketing chief (and longtime Gator user) kept the main sessions running at a cheerfully impassioned pitch. And some attendees were genuinely upbeat about prospects emerging from meetings at the show.

One representative of an email marketing firm said of the show that “while it’s been smaller, we’ve definitely been meeting with the kind of people that we need to.”

Others disagreed, however. A handful of salespeople exiting a session on Tuesday said they look forward to fall’s event in New York to connect with what one described as “actual clients,” while writing off @d:Tech LA as an opportunity spent meeting and greeting similarly-embattled peers.

“I’ve spent most of my time just saying ‘Hi’ and reconnecting to people I used to sort of know, swapping war stories,” said a rep from a paid-placement search engine. “I’m not seeing a lot of the people who would normally end up in my Rolodex as prospectives.”

While the dealmaking may not have been as brisk as in previous years, the show has always been something more than an AIM “Dinner and a Deal.” It’s supposed to be the industry’s seminal event brand, with high-level dialogue and vision supplementing all the card-sharing and behind-the-scenes negotiations. Instead, @d:Tech LA has proven a relatively sober, low-level affair.

Taking time out to refocus on the nuts and bolts of the space might not necessarily be the worst thing for an industry that’s still trying to find itself, but it’s not exactly what many attendees expected from @d:Tech LA, especially given the history of leadership and innovation that has marked the shows in the past.

And with so many in the online advertising space attesting to the industry’s need for standardization and advocacy initiatives to be instituted at the highest level, this week in some respects represents an opportunity missed.

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