Ad:tech BYOB

Remember the glittering parties in elegant hotels? The passed hors d’oeuvres? The flowing drinks? The lavish schwag? The fancy lighting, the entertainment, and complimentary shuttles to get you from Here to There?

No more. Ad:tech San Francisco this week was decidedly recessionary in tone. The crowds were smaller, the exhibit hall thinned out (Where’s Yahoo? What happened to Microsoft?). And the endless procession of parties? Sure, there were parties. But you were more likely to find yourself walking down the wrong end of Market Street to a slightly seedy bar where you were expected to pony up for your own drinks (no nibbles), shoulder to shoulder with the regular clientele along with members of the industry.

In that sense, one of online advertising’s biggest events of the year resembled more a massive meet-up than the self-congratulatory and definitively tony conferences of the past. Unlike previous years, when agencies in New York all but closed up shop to make the pilgrimage out to the West Coast for the event, San Francisco was local in tone this year. The out-of-towners were more likely to be from LA or San Diego than Chicago, New York, and Washington. Budgets are tight and personnel rolls have been slashed. It’s hard to get out of the office these days.


But for those who did show up (reportedly, 12,000 of us), there was something affirming about the conference. Times are tough, but we’re here, we’re working and somehow making it. There’s a sense of survival out there, and even a sense of relief and of bonding. San Francisco may have been one of the most collegial ad:techs ever. Conversation was deep and real, without scanning the room at the same time to see if someone more important had perhaps come in, or trash-talking competitors. Competitors are seeking avenues of cooperation. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, rivalries and jealousies were put aside this year in favor of a sense of community and unity.

Online advertising has been hit by hard times before, but also before the channel had achieved the firm foothold it’s achieved in the marketing and advertising landscape. Both CBS Interactive President Neil Ashe and Jeff Berman, MySpace’s president of sales and marketing, emphasized the digital channel is now the one driving innovation, promotion, advertising, and product development across the major media companies they work for (in MySpace’s case that would be Fox, of course). We may be down, but we’re still in the lead.

Carol Kruse, Coca-Cola’s VP of global interactive marketing, said she’s telling her agencies, “Don’t bring us a core creative idea that’s a storyboard. That goes straight to TV.” Instead, Coke wants ideas that can be translated into other media and other channels.

But not necessarily advertising channels. As with other recent talkfests, all indications point to the fact that the industry is moving away from advertising in the classic sense. Paid search is hardly waning, but media buys are in favor of social, social, and more social messaging (only Barack Obama has more online “friends” than Coke does).

That social media are growing is hardly headline news. Close on its heels seems to be mobile marketing, however, but this time may be for real. And maybe social is what’s finally going to get this channel into the fore. MySpace alone has seen a fivefold increase in mobile traffic over the past year.

Sure, this could pique advertiser interest in mobile display ads. But what they probably should be thinking more about is combining social and utilitarian functionality into mobile marketing campaigns. Somebody should just come right out and say it: no one wants or needs ads on their handheld devices. But brand models, sponsorship models, and applications that allow them to connect with brands and products in meaningful and timely ways have a great deal of potential — this is something we’ll be seeing more of in the coming year.

Hopefully, the other thing we can look forward to in the coming year, in addition to economic recovery, is innovation and advancement on both the creative and the technological sides of the interactive advertising spectrum. The road ahead is challenging, to be sure, but full of potential — unlike plenty of other economic sectors.

Just ask the former interactive advertising veteran who left the industry a couple years ago to go into real estate. This week, he was roving the halls at ad:tech, looking for a way back into the game.

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