There have been very few ad men in popular-culture media. Darrin Stephens on "Bewitched," a goofy overachiever with an unscrupulous boss and a witch for a wife, and Don Draper, an ethically challenged ladies man on "Mad Men" willing to paint way outside of the lines to get the desired outcome, are two that come to mind.
Given these two, it should come as no surprise that the public generally has a negative opinion of the industry. Advertising is one of the least trustworthy professions, according to a Gallup survey.
Meanwhile, thousands of advertising executives, marketing professionals, those in ancillary professions and young people trying to get jobs in the industry, will come together next week for Advertising Week in New York City.
Advertising Week, the country's largest gathering of advertising professionals, was founded seven years ago by the American Association of Advertising Agencies and interested parties to provide thought leadership, reach out to young people considering a career and deal with the industry's most pressing issues.
The stakes are high this year as the industry struggles to shake off the effects of the recession, combat serious challenges from the fast-growing digital sector, deal with nagging charges of racism and lack of diversity and change the lingering image of the self-centered, greedy, two-fisted drinking, blue-blood that has saddled the business of advertising since the '50s.
How do you begin to address the many issues facing the advertising industry? Maybe the question should be: Can you adequately even begin addressing the many issues facing the industry with a mere week at your disposal? Surprisingly, it seems, you can. First, you need a visionary head of the industry's leading trade organization. Nancy Hill, president and CEO of the 4A's, fits the role nicely. Under her leadership, diversity and inclusion are now really on the agenda.
Next you have to have an indefatigable organizer who has a virtually insatiable appetite for relationships and also connects companies the way an an anal-retentive kid connects Legos. Advertising Week's Executive Director Matt Scheckner is that and more. Under his leadership, more than 25 trade organizations contribute to Advertising Week, giving it unimpeachable credibility.
What you get is a deep and wide week-long event with more than 200 seminars and events, with plenty of evening social events and time for networking and a participation list that reads like a double issue of Forbes Magazine with a four-color Billboard magazine insert that has a People magazine gatefold pull-out.
In addition to most of the country's largest advertising agencies, top companies such as Microsoft, NASCAR, NASDAQ, Proctor and Gamble, Yahoo, the NFL, Coca-Cola, American Express, Best Buy, AT&T, Unilever and more participate by both sponsoring discussions and participating in panel discussions.
A sampling of panel participants -- NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Virgin's Sir Richard Branson, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, singer Mary J. Blige and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (that's no typo, the political Chia Pet himself) -- hint at the broad range of topics. John Legend with the Roots and Cirque du Soleil will also perform.
The topics for next week's event range from diversity and inclusion to cause marketing and creativity in the digital age. There will be events focusing on the development of young talent, as well as the inaugural Fast Company Leadership Summit.
Rising 10,000 feet to get above the din of thousands of egocentric admen connecting to each other's LinkedIn sites, how will this week actually begin to deal with the aforementioned issues on the table regarding the industry? That's a fair question, but it is clear looking at the topics and the participants that the industry is giving it a shot.
Diversity at Top of the Agenda
The week begins with a focus on diversity instead of having it on the agenda Friday afternoon when the top brass are on their way out of town. The diversity topic is also being dealt with from a solution perspective with a panel discussion being moderated by Hill, entitled, "The Inside Game: Diversity Strategies That Work." Another discussion, "Making Multicultural Matter," is being hosted by the world's largest advertiser, P&G.
There is a significant focus on cause marketing with seminars such as "Spark a Movement," about igniting cultural movements, and "Marketing Green Without Greenwashing."
The Fast Company Leadership Summit will focus on encouraging innovation and risk-taking despite a challenging economic environment. Other seminars: "Beyond the Glass Ceiling," "Stop Talking and Start Listening" and "New Yorkers Creating Change Through Leadership."
I'm not so naive as to believe that one week will change an industry. I know that much of what people dislike about our industry comes more from facts than fiction.
But I am encouraged that many of the topics that have not been openly discussed are front-and-center this year and there are so many successful voices from outside of our industry being invited to come and weigh in. Here's hoping that a good Advertising Week ushers in a great advertising year.
Larry Woodward is a director on the Advertising Week board and chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' New York Council.