Promised Panel Placements Pollute Conferences

The heart of what's wrong with our industry can be found beating at our industry conferences. This is where we stand on stages; beat our chests as self-anointed media pioneers celebrating our own kind, while missing the entire big picture.

The damage is structural -- not in the location or timing of these formal acronymic gatherings, but rather within the structure of the pecking order of whose needs need to be met first, the consumer or the advertiser. In the purest form of the relationship between content, consumers and advertisers, the consumer must sit atop the pedestal -- and that's where these conferences turn its attendees into human mannequins, placed neatly in chairs below the raised stages where the advertiser sits.

The issue is that the sponsors of these industry events are promised placements on the panels, thus shaping the content we pay to hear. It's like paying for a magazine and reading press releases instead of editorial content.

The biased injections from sponsors (and from selected companies asked to send a spokesperson to speak) are not intentional and certainly not all as blatant as a recent session at OMMA, when a couple of brand managers from HP, Virgin Mobile, Nickelodeon, and an executive from the San Francisco-based ad agency AKQA, took over the stage and forced us to watch their commercial reels telling us how great they are. The resentment filled the room like the fog engulfing the Golden Gate Bridge. No, in most cases, sponsor and speaker panel participation feels more like a blog post born with a subtle bias or hidden agenda. Something just doesn't feel right about it.



I attended OMMA and felt the diminished buzz firsthand as both a panel speaker and an audience member. The crowd barely cares anymore, paying little attention to the content they paid to hear and more attention to the work they carry in the palm of their hands. And MIXX was no better from what I heard, so let's stop pretending these conferences are meeting "our needs" beyond our need to ask, "Are you going?" to colleagues and clients during the weeks leading up to these industry events.

Of course there are some benefits being delivered, and some gems of content can be found -- but when it's all said and done, we walk out with that feeling of disappointment as we empty our bags of collateral into the trash once we're out of sight. It's not all bad, but it is poisoned, and we can and should do better. Why can't our industry conferences mimic the web we weave, and act like pure social media events, empowering the participants to drive and control the conversation? Why don't we walk our own talk?

Let's stop the press-release-laced communication and invite a truly open dialogue. We should be better at handling the logistics of this than any other industry. Let's can the canned speeches from our anointed leaders and speak with them, instead of them speaking at us. Let's stop allowing any sponsors to speak to the audience unless the audience addresses them first. I would add one more condition: if you as an invited speaker can't stay at the event beyond your time to speak, you can't speak at all. There is nothing more arrogant than showing up at an industry event just in time for your speaking part and leaving immediately afterwards.

Would this kind of open platform get out of hand? Likely. Would there be a need for some regulations? Of course. Would these industry events be more fun and engaging? The expectations of the herd in attendance are so low right now, how can they not. Will the pioneers of new media change the formats of these conferences in this way? Not a chance.

I suspect those shaping the conferences we attend no longer see why a line between sponsors and content needs to be drawn and defended, because as a medium, we have blurred this line between advertising and content so much we no longer see what we are stepping over.

And the beat goes on.

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