Jumpstart your creatives’ energy and ideas, through conferences!

Conferences have frequently been perceived as a playground by management, unaware of the quality education that can often be found there. Ergo, these days it’s harder and harder to get permission to attend a conference—and this is a shame, because if you choose your sessions right, it can provide education that no university could ever give you:  rubber-on-the-road experience by successful purveyors and mentors.

For a brief moment in time it actually looked like the conference format was dead in the water. They were taking one hit after another—first with 9/11 (the DMA was empty in October, following that terrible event), followed by the dot com bust. Now with our current recession, companies are dramatically limiting who can go to shows, what they must accomplish, and how many they’ll participate in over the course of the year.

We watched Comdex go from being so massive, booths overflowed into the convention center parking lot…to being simply a memory. The real shocker this year was in seeing Apple pull out of MacWorld.

Like the phoenix, rising from the ashes…

I’ve been attending DMA conferences since 1986 and speaking at them since ’89, and it’s been interesting to see the DMA regroup and continue to work at making the shows relevant to a very rapidly changing marketplace. So it’s been even more compelling for me to participate in the programming committee for the conference of Fall 2010 and 2011.

I’ve been incredibly impressed with the committee I’ve been working with on this task—deeply experienced marketers on both the client side and vendor side who are donating days and days worth of time to try to make this DMA the best ever. Not only are we dedicated to the highest quality education available, but we’re also committed to eliminating all sessions that would potentially turn into a sales pitch. After awhile we’re able to spot ‘em—the people who are telling a story that only they can tell, because it involves some system that only they sell. So, no “tell ‘n sell” has been an important goal.

So, what does this have to do with creative?

Well, years ago I headed up the first DMA Creative Conference with my colleague Melinda Risolo—the DMA hoped that with special programming, creatives would show up and attend not only their own special sessions, but other sessions on marketing, to broaden their education. Educated creatives are typically more attuned to the challenge of selling, and excited about all the ways they can sell your products and services.

Alas, with about five creative conferences under its belt, the DMA ceased trying to make it fly. Why could they not make a creative conference strong enough to stand on its own? The answer is:  creatives weren’t coming!

Three reasons:
1. Creatives are treated as ‘worker bees’ and are rarely given the freedom to leave the office for events such as this. Their time is never planned well enough for them to leave. Going to a conference requires some substantial planning on the part of attendees and their managers.

2. Perception that sending creatives will be a waste. When budgeting for conferences, it’s imagined that creatives will be the ones frittering their time away by the pool or the bar, and not attending conference sessions… a bad investment. But in contrast to that, when I had my own studio I always offered my art director the chance to go to a conference, knowing that when she went she’d be attending session after session, absorbing all she could to bring back to the office. It was a great investment.

3. Creatives don’t request to do a conference or even take course work… More often than not I’ve found staff creatives seem disinterested in the idea of becoming better educated. In fact, many of today’s creatives can’t imagine what they could learn, and so they don’t make the effort to go. Sometimes they even resent the idea that they may not have the best creative solutions.

It’s surprising but true: the years of creative strategy sessions I taught at San Jose State and UCLA were never attended by art directors or designers—and only one writer ever attended my course. My attendees were project managers who were trying to figure out how to manage their creatives and provide them direction.

Our creative strategy post-conference intensive at the DMA is a class filled with international attendees who are creative…plus project managers from U.S. companies, and a few writers. I’m still waiting for an art director or designer to show up. And people wonder what the factors are that make so many Echo awards go to international entries. One is that the international crowd sees value in sending their creatives to the DMA conferences.

Creatives and their managers don’t realize that some of the most interesting and useful sessions at conferences are not even the creative ones! Years ago I attended a fantastic merchandising session that was run by Bill Nicolai—now a LENSER senior partner, but at the time with Good Catalog Co.—that provided me knowledge I’ve used again and again. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing some of the most noted speakers in marketing over the years—from down-in-the-trenches folks to visionaries like Stan Rapp and true mentors like Herschell Gordon Lewis. The generosity of their teaching is unforgettable.

Consider fighting to get to more than one conference this year, for the sake of education and the future of your business. Anyone who says they already know this stuff is in trouble—the programming is more relevant than ever as these organizations like the DMA strive to provide outstanding value.

And, consider inviting a creative from your team to join you. Work with them to plan days filled with sessions that will give them a broader view of your business. Toss in some great fun and networking, and enjoy their new knowledge as it contributes to your success.

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