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What’s Keeping Marketers Up at Night: Observations from Advertising’s Largest Event

October 3, 2019

Varied perspectives on marketing challenges and strategies is the reason so many of us register, pack and travel to places like Advertising Week in New York City each year. Hearing first-hand what works and what doesn’t in today’s complex, dynamic marketplace makes these events incredibly valuable.

And, the 16th annual AWNY last week was no exception. Over four days in late September, its nearly 100,000 attendees could choose from a plethora of thought-provoking presentations.

They ranged from the expected – how to engage choice-rich, attention-poor consumers, advertising in the increasingly complex TV ecosystem, the current state of artificial intelligence in marketing – to the unexpected: advertising data and content standard lessons from the food industry and transforming the disability narrative in the creative community.

The expected global agency leaders, celebrities and sports figures alongside the unexpected: Motley Crue founder Nikki Sixx moderated a panel with U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams about how the advertising community can help change the stigma associated with addiction and the opioid crisis.

The number of presentations and the sea of information available was deep. But a few key themes surfaced.

1. The future of retail is direct.

The direct-to-consumer or D2C topic was everywhere. Many sessions focused on the challenges D2C brands face after their initial growth spurt. Presenters suggested strategies to accelerate customer acquisition at a lower cost. There was lots of talk around using the proper mix of online and more traditional offline outreach. Several suggested that the recipe for accelerated growth involved expansion into innovative brick and mortar retail (e.g., pop-up stores, kiosks) and even out-of-home advertising with its increasing addressability. Some, like dtx company head Tim Armstrong, described alternatives to the “walled gardens” offered by Google, Facebook and Amazon. Armstrong proposed like-minded brands establish their own ecosystem for collaborative market penetration.

2. Walled gardens concern everyone.

Many panelists focused on the dominance of the Google, Facebook and Amazon e-commerce platforms. Not only does each control its own platform, collectively they are shaping the future direction of selling. Almost every consumer brand represented at the conference had a story to tell about how they were affected. Discussions of data privacy, increasing customer acquisition costs and alternative models followed. There were different viewpoints on whether these platforms should continue to exist in their current state or be broken up, and about what the next hot commerce garden would be. But everyone agreed that the platforms were having a major impact on marketing.

3. The creative role is evolving.

Data-first marketing, powered by the available gigabytes of consumer information , seems to have pushed the creative process to the side. But Advertising Week offered a counter-narrative. Many panelists spoke about the critical role creative storytelling plays in the development of truly connected marketing experiences. Several speakers related how advanced data analytics can actually lead to creative breakthroughs in hyper-personalization – if done right. Other sessions focused on how to integrate online and offline creative outreach so each amplifies the other. Liz Ross, CEO of Quad’s Periscope agency services, described how the best creative teams understand that the most effective campaigns engage multiple senses to forge powerful emotional connections.

4. Women are taking center stage.

An official theme of last week’s conference was “the future is female.” As in many industries, women have been thin on the ground in advertising’s senior leadership. This year’s conference showed how that was changing, and in the process changing the dialog about how to sell. Putting women in bikinis to sell beer no longer dominates. Impressive female brand and agency executives led panels that highlighted the many significant contributions women are making to advance marketing. Celebrities from the sports and entertainment worlds such as Serena Williams, Gwyneth Paltrow and Katie Couric spoke at a variety of sessions. They weren’t there to promote their celebrity but to represent a point of view as purveyors and consumers of content.


Female leadership is just one aspect of major changes in the advertising industry. Decades old agency models, retail structures and creative methodologies are giving way. Advanced data analytics and in-control consumers are driving new approaches. Everything is on the table.

In a complex world of media consumption driven by consumers who demand that brands connect in meaningful ways, it’s likely that leading organizations will be those who don’t simply embrace data. They will mix art with science to create powerful experiences that build consumer preference.