Ad:tech Goes Bipolar

As I write, ad:tech isn’t quite over yet. The massive industry conference is always a good opportunity to take the pulse of the industry, although as usual the strongest content can be much more readily found in the schmooze than the sessions.

It’s not that the event doesn’t attract the top-notch speakers — it does. Yet the conference focuses on broad — not deep. To really take that pulse, attendees are better served hopping parties, doing lunch and setting up meetings. That’s because ad:tech has become increasingly, well, bipolar, for lack of a better term. In fact, this was a topic of much discussion among the event’s more seasoned attendees.

Bipolar Disorder

The industry’s never been a stranger to schism. Branding or direct? Opt-in or opt-out? Buy ad placements, or roll-your-own media? Small wonder the biggest interactive advertising tradeshow finds itself in an in-between sort of world.

The most obvious evidence of ad:tech’s schism is the seeming disconnect between the trade show and the conference. Four tracks of sessions over four days are resolutely focused on the high-ticket brand end of the business. Speakers hail from the high-end agencies (Organic, AKQA, Ogilvy, AvenueA/Razorfish, BBDO, Universal McCann), major media brands (Oxygen Media, WashingtonPost/Newsweek, McGraw/Hill, Viacom), and major consumer brands (ConAgra Foods, Atari, P&G, Kraft, HP) and the household-word dot-coms (Yahoo, Google, MSN, Edmunds, eBay).

Yet you see very few of the speakers attending sessions other than their own. Ad:tech delegates tend to be junior staffers sent to soak up some experience by their employers. Hence, the content doesn’t tend toward the deep or the substantive.

To the event’s credit, the trade show exhibitors continued to be considerably cleaner than they were in the years when the floor featured a sleazy array of online casinos and known spammers, crammed cheek-to-jowl with legitimate online advertising service providers. That mess is thankfully largely over, yet the overwhelming majority of the exhibitors offer products and services at a far remove from the highly cultivated suit-and-tie image the content side of ad:tech conveys.

Despite a dearth of conference content on these topics, ad:tech exhibitors are overwhelmingly in online lead-generation, affiliate networks, e-mail marketing, and search marketing and optimization. All well and good, and certainly legitimate, but these vendors very much represent online marketing’s other side.

Organic’s Executive Director, Media Rick Corteville told me he sent his staff to the trade show with an assignment: return with the names of three new companies on the exhibit floor the agency could recommend to clients. “It was more of a challenge than we thought it would be,” Rick said. His group was hard-pressed to find three new vendors in a pool of some 290 exhibitors.

And therein lies ad:tech’s challenge. All talk of “integrated solutions” aside, the two faces of interactive advertising are meeting uneasily in San Francisco — if at all. Organic at least sent a few scouts over to the trade floor. The executive creative director of another major shop in town, who’s been speaking on panels over the past two days, just confided he hadn’t been over to the trade show, and likely wouldn’t find the time.

Meanwhile, the side that’s underrepresented, content-wise, is stewing and brooding (particularly the search engine marketers who represent, after all, nearly half of online advertising spending). Conference Chair Drew Ianni found himself the object of fairly aggressive pitching and lobbying by those trying to get, if not their own then at least their industry vertical’s, foot into ad:tech’s content door.

Good, Bad, or Indifferent?

Is bipolarity a bad thing for the biggest industry tradeshow?

Well, if you’re one of the many vendors in the expo hall who are essentially shut out of the conference, you’d likely answer in the affirmative. But interactive advertising is no longer a vertical — it’s an umbrella covering a multitude of disciplines. These underrepresented companies have their own industry bodies and trade shows, from DMA and affiliate marketing boondoggles to Search Engine Strategies (owned by this publication’s corporate parent) where they can say their piece, and delve deeper into their own industry sector.

Ad:tech? Well, its mission is to be a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people. To attract them, it’s necessary to sex up the roster with brand-name brands and marquee names.

Like I said, it’s wide, but not at all deep. But it is a great schmooze.

Meet Rebecca in New York on May 2 at ClickZ Specifics: Web Metrics, and in San Francisco on May 14 at ClickZ Specifics: E-mail Marketing.

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