Column: Out There - Meeting Up for Meeting's Sake

  • by May 25, 2005
With Jane Lacher

While consumer context planning (CCP) has gained a respectable foothold in the media industry, we're not ready for our own conference. So, suffering from conference withdrawal I set out to find myself a conference that might appeal to a CCP. I considered the American Association of Advertising Agencies, but it seemed a little too broad and is already adequately covered by my colleagues. Then there were some media research conferences I considered, but they seemed too specific and metrics driven, and frankly, not that interesting.

I was looking for something that would combine the mathematical aspect of advertising and the touchy-feely aspect of emotional connection marketing, so when I heard the topic of this year's Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) conference was "Rethink," I thought I'd found a conference that was just right. For those of you who are not familiar with ARF, it is the advertising industry's leading research organization.

Conferences are the opiate of the business masses. Conferences are very specific events and not to be confused with their more lively cousins, conventions and trade shows. The intent of most conferences is to share new ideas, to educate and to stimulate, and of course, to network with your colleagues. These are lofty goals and many conferences fall short.

Conferences tend to have a pacifying and group-think effect on the attendees, but even these effects can be very illuminating. There's no better way to get an idea of what an industry values than to attend its dedicated conference and, if you listen carefully to the presentations, you can gauge where an industry is within the life cycle of a key change or challenge. The ARF did not disappoint; it revealed that the research community is in a holding pattern and revolution is currently not upon us.

The ARF conference in April challenged attendees to embrace the "power of impossible thinking," and to "rethink." I was jazzed, because being a consumer context planner is all about the "rethink" thing. Unfortunately, after the first couple of hours of the two-day event, it was clear that very little "impossible thinking" would happen.

The rallying cries for "impossible thinking" turned out to be a whisper and for the most part, opiates were distributed at each presentation, which pacified the attendees and reassured them that the status quo would be maintained for the time being. Everyone was definitely on the same page, dutifully mentioning the two-headed monster of a "fragmented marketplace" and "consumer control," but no one seemed ready to take up arms and vanquish the monster.

Alice Sylvester, who outlined the ARF's "rethink" initiative to explore the role of emotions and other unconscious activity in advertising, delivered one bright and less than conventional moment. While this idea isn't new, it is highly significant that a venerable group such as the ARF is in hot pursuit. While I'm sure many people in the audience chuckled at the idea of hooking consumers up to heart-wave monitors, it's exactly these kinds of ideas that spur "impossible thinking," stimulate discussion, and engender new ideas.

So, was the battle cry to "rethink" a genuine challenge, or just good marketing based on research to get people to attend the conference? My guess is that it was a little of both.

Rethinking the way we conduct research and create marketing models is no small challenge. But, if you let your mind wander to the "impossible" you can see how the research community has the ability to lead great change, whether it's mining the consumer unconscious or walking away from imperfect, but familiar models.

Imagine if you woke up tomorrow and Nielsen didn't exist. What would a smart market research person set out to measure? In a world without Nielsen and Mediamark Research Inc., where would insights on consumer control and fragmentation take us?

This is the key to impossible thinking - not what should we do with what we have, but what would we do in its absence?

Jane Lacher is vice president, director of research and consumer context planning, at MediaVest, New York. (

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