After 18 months of virtual everything, Advertising Week kicks off today with in-person festivities and seminars, along with many health safeguards in place. While the industry's annual confab is also hedging its bets with a selection of virtual sessions, a hybrid format isn't likely to be the only difference apparent following a series of crises across a number of fronts that have caused significant disruptions to society and business.
The COVID-19 pandemic along with the race riots following the killing of George Floyd, the Capitol insurrection in January, escalating climate concerns, supply chain disruptions and other developments have spurred significant change in the industry, which Advertising Week's organizers have tried to reflect with an agenda that spans sessions on the opportunities inherent in new ways to collaborate and communicate, the importance of diversity, growth in direct-to-consumer models and a focus on physical and mental health, among other topics.
"We have crammed about 10 years of progress into 10 months," Ruth Mortimer, managing director of global education and development for Advertising Week, said about the early stages of the pandemic.
The packed agenda includes more than 500 speakers covering 21 educational tracks ranging from "Advances in Ad Tech" to "The New Creator Economy."
A new outlook
There is some expectation that discussions this week, both on stage and informally, could reflect a newfound outlook across the industry as it considers its role in society and the importance of outside perspectives following the tumult of the past few years.
"In the past, it wouldn't be wrong to say Advertising Week at times felt like the industry talking to itself, rather than garnering knowledge from the outside world," said John Nardone, president of Mediaocean, who is hosting a virtual session. "There's a lot to learn when you look outside yourself and make those unexpected connections.
"The changes and improvements in your ability to reach everyone in your audience that has taken place in just the last year and a half are extraordinary," he said.
"The changes and improvements in your ability to reach everyone in your audience that has taken place in just the last year and a half are extraordinary."
If nothing else, organizers and attendees say they hope to gain renewed inspiration and empowerment over the coming days, something that could get a boost from Advertising Week's hybrid format. Organizers have tried to give both in-person and online attendees similar experiences. Online audiences will have the same ability to ask questions and make points in real time like live audiences, for instance. However, live attendees will have the benefit of attending networking events that simply aren't practical for virtual audiences.
"I think our transition into remote work has influenced the nature of how information is presented and changed expectations when it comes to measuring the value of time spent in attending," Nardone said. "I certainly think there'll be a fresh, renewed energy."
The business of telling stories
The ability to make or reestablish in-person connections is a real draw of events such as Advertising Week, something that could be more evident this year following an extended period of curtailed business travel.
"We are in a relationship-based business," said Laura Dames, executive vice president of ad sales marketing at WarnerMedia. "[People are] more deeply appreciating those moments where we can connect with one another in person … [This] will be the first work conference many of us have attended in quite some time."
The ability to offer new insights and perspectives in one place is what Advertising Week has traditionally been about, Dames said. Because so many new developments have taken place in socially distant silos over the pandemic, coming together to share and learn is vital.
"We are in the business of telling stories. Advertising Week New York is in the business of collecting stories about our industry and celebrating them," she said. "I think that holds value today, especially in our effort to empower the next generation of rising leaders in our industry."
Being an example
Amid concerns of another COVID-19 surge, some may question whether any in-person event is advisable. However, there was strong industry support for an in-person event, according to Mortimer.
"We did a big survey of our audience about their comfort levels were when we were planning the week," she said. "Based on their responses, we took a cautious approach that about 65% of our attendees would be in-person and 35% would be virtual."
One big change to Advertising Week this year is the venue. The event's move to the Hudson Yards building complex on Manhattan's West Side was at least in part due to the venue's ability to offer both indoor and outdoor areas and enough space for social distancing.
Organizers are also taking precautions to ensure the safety of those attending in person. Attendees had to verify their vaccination status (through an independent online vendor) when they registered for the event, and they will be encouraged to wear masks indoors.
"We're hoping to be the first big event that shows how these [systems] can work," Mortimer said.