Want your ad agency’s employees to be smarter? Stop sending them to industry conferences.
Stephen Strong–Global Director of Interactive at Alberto Culver, connoisseur of fine beers, noted bon vivant, poster boy for all that is good and right in America and a reasonably good amigo of mine–has a post on his Platforms Optional blog called “The Ad:Tech Analysis That The Man Doesn’t Want You To Read!” Rather than quoting anything from it, I think I can best sum it up by sharing a Tweet that Stephen sent me from the floor of Ad:Tech in Chicago:
“This thing [i.e., Ad:Tech] could use a couple bloody lips.”
Let’s be frank about advertising industry conferences. At best they are delightful boondoggles (I’m looking at you, Cannes). At worst, they’re a waste of time. I grant that there is a possibility, albeit remote, that someone somewhere has learned something of value from a speech at Ad:Tech (I say this as a former speaker at the conference). Let us be generous. Maybe even a handful of people have. But in these tough economic times, agencies should be demanding a higher intellectual ROI than conferences deliver. Add up the registration fees, airfares, hotels and meals and you can get into some fairly serious money pretty quickly. This would be OK if not for the fact that most presenters are conferences are ill-prepared, ill-informed, insipid and/or uninteresting. I should note that this is not always their fault. Conference organizers have a bizarre habit of assigning topics to presenters, regardless of whether the topic matches their area of expertise. By way of example, last year at Cannes I was put on a panel about socially responsible advertising–something I was capable of expounding on after putting in a little study, but definitely not in my wheelhouse. (By the way, there is a special place in hell for the organizer of panel discussions–perhaps the greatest time-waste conceived since the weekly status meeting.)
I am proposing a radical alternative that I guarantee will build infinitely more intellectual capital for every agency that adopts it, while costing a tiny fraction of what they are now spending to send people to conferences all over North America and the world. And it’s stunningly simple. Build a reading room at your agency–comfy leather chairs, good lighting, no computers or iPhones allowed, lots of signs that say “no talking.” Once you’ve done this, require every single employee to spend at least eight hours per year in it reading books assigned by his or her supervisor. The reading room must be treated as inviolable. Neither client calls nor nastygrams from accounting about incomplete time sheets may be allowed to breach its threshold. Do this and the people who emerge from the room will in every single case be more valuable than the ones who went in.
Funny thing–the people who actually have something worthwhile to say eventually get around to writing it down. The mere act of writing something down almost invariably means it is more thought-out, better argued, and more complete than the alternative we get in spoken form. Proclaiming this is heresy, of course, in the age of the image and presentation. Yet I am not about to argue that image and presentation are unimportant. What I will argue, however, is that the people who have spent time reading, absorbing and learning the wisdom contained in the great books written about advertising over a period of hours (rather than being exposed to lesser thoughts for a matter of minutes) will in every case be better prepared to leverage what they know in their work and share what they know in their own presentations.
So if your objective is merely to reward your people, keep sending them to conferences in Vegas, Austin or Dubai. But if your objective is to make them better and more valuable, tell them to sit down, shut up and read.