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About that DMA15 / &THEN Conference

Date: October, 2015 --

About that DMA15 / &THEN Conference

In “the old days” the DMA’s Annual conference, and it was always referred to by the direct marketing community as “Annual”, attracted in excess of 14,000 people.  That event had three and a half very solid days of  exhibition hall, major speakers, individual sessions by speakers from every corner of the direct marketing and geographic world, and three evenings of hosted parties, all culminating in the Echo Awards ceremony.  This latter was always an expensive ticketed event, and was usually sold out. 

Unfortunately, times have changed and attendance at the DMA’s iconic event has dwindled dramatically to less than 1/3rd of its old glory. 

Change had to come to Annual, or it would simply shrink to nothing.

And change most certainly came last month in Boston in the beautiful, spacious, and state-of-the-art conference center in Boston, in the form of “&THEN”, the DMA’s new name for the event, intended to proudly announce that the DMA had taken a look at the event, AND THEN made it unrecognizably contemporary.  However, despite all the glitz and shiny newness that came with the rebrand, the 2015 conference only served to continue the downward trend that’s taken place over the last several years.

The only part of the “good old days” still retained by the DMA in its Boston &THEN, was the Echo Awards ceremony, and even this was a compressed and concentrated event. It was still a ticketed event, and it still awarded Gold, Silver, and Bronze “Echos” to direct marketing campaigns from around the world who were judged by the best direct marketers in the world.  But it was held from 5 to 7:30, which enabled attendees to move on to the Goo Goo Dolls concert in the venue’s main Ballroom.  And this was open to all registered conference attendees. 

So let ‘s talk about the bad and the good of &THEN / DMA15…

What Went Wrong?

The new conference format for “Annual” was meant to be shorter, more concentrated, more value for attendees, and a totally redesigned experience. The Sunday format changed from the condensed afternoon opening exhibit hall reception of past years to a longer 11AM to 4PM schedule, although from the almost nonexistent Sunday AM attendance it was clear that either no one bothered to inform the attendees of this change or that most people opted to simply hold off until Monday to come to the conference.

Despite the slick new appearance of the exhibit hall, the decline in the number of exhibitors was immediately apparent to any long-time attendee. Exhibitors were also grouped within the exhibit hall by industry type. A move that left many staring across isles at multiple competitors, a move that angered many exhibitors and caused some to cancel their booth in advance of the event, but there was virtually no signage in the hall to denote this organization.

The area called the Experience Zone, at the back of the hall and designed to bring delegates past the exhibitors, provided space for vendors and agencies to hold seminars, workshops and even fun games. Our experience in walking past this area several times per day was that it was largely vacant of traffic during the majority of the event. 

In the center of the exhibition floor was the “theater in the round”, HUB Stage, surrounded by comfy benches and settees. Six times each day a different speaker would have thirty minutes to address a current topic or present a case study or introduce a new service.  These were carefully programmed to be informative, not sales pitches, and attendance was often multi-row SRO.  Because of its location, “the Stage” quickly became a meeting point for attendees. While the HUB sessions were well attended, it’s front and center location gave attendees going to said sessions no necessity to walk through the exhibit hall in order to reach their destination, and, judging from the hall traffic most of the event, very few did so.

And we’d be remiss if we didn’t touch on the rebrand itself in a conversation around what went wrong with this year’s conference. The simple mention of the name “&THEN” had many reactions the most often of which being, “What the heck does ‘&THEN’ mean?!?!” Let’s be honest, it’s objectively a bad name and not simply a matter of taste. When a conference wants to rebrand in order to attract a digital audience the social media applications of any branding should be considered. Picking a name with an ampersand, a character that cannot be used within a social media hashtag, should be a nonstarter.

What Went Right…

The program and session scheduling were very attendee-friendly. Four “tracks” were outlined and sessions arranged as much as possible to prevent conflict and provide the reader with what she needed to decide:  Strategy & Branding, Engagement & Experience, Integration & Attribution, and Content & Creation.

And the headline speakers really were extraordinary. Their presentations echoed on in conversations among attendees for the following days.

First, Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS, the shoe company that gives away a pair of shoes for every pair sold, shared the story of his own journey through the accidental founding of the business when he was on a well-earned holiday in Argentina. TOMS has given away 35 million pairs of shoes and has expanded to eyewear (same model, buy one give one) and the Toms Roasting Company, which provides safe water.

Second, Kevin Roberts, Executive Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi and Head Coach of Publicis Group, used his sometimes emotional and always compelling Aussie (Kiwi?) accent to issue the blasphemous order to  forget about brands and start striving to create a “Lovemark”, which you create, want to share, where you want to work and who you want to be. The world is an ugly place: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.  The VUCA world is hard to function in. Set as your goal making the VUCA world Vibrant, Unreal, Crazy and Astounding. Showing us several ads that were VUCA, often featuring adorable newborn babies, he gave us a taste of that new world.  

Tuesday brought us Jon Iwata, IBM’s Senior VP of Marketing and Communications, where he has left behind making up data-driven marketing plans and turned to building a data-driven world where police departments use data to predict where and when crimes will be committed today and tomorrow.  Data can drive not just corporate strategies, but our everyday lives. It can control traffic, on the ground and in the air.  He urged us to make that change from marketing planner to acknowledge our role as authors, analysts, artists, creators and disruptors. 

And last but certainly not least came John Legend.  He is an astounding polymath: award-winning singer, songwriter, musician, producer, philanthropist and entrepreneur.  In an interview format, he found similarities between marketers and performers.  He observed that marketers and singers are story-tellers, and both must connect with the audience. And, echoing &THEN’s first speaker, Blake Mycoskie, he reminded the audience that success is not measured by money, but in joy and helping people.   He called on the audience to look to the greater good.  And, he said goodbye with a rendition of “All of Me”, which had everyone standing. 

What’s In Store for the Future?

With this show, the DMA faced a clearly defined challenge: Convincing all those digital-focused marketers and code writers that they should recognize what they do is direct marketing, and where they can best keep current and learn the latest, is the place that has done it for 99 years, the DMA. While the destination is certainly clear, whether the DMA are on the right track to get them there, in an environment where those that attend tradeshows tend to flock to more industry-specific events, remains to be seen.