A Shadow of its Former Self, @D:Tech LA Closes

LOS ANGELES — The bulk of the @d:Tech Conference and Exposition now behind us, attendees reflect and find

it sorely lacking in impact.

For most of the attendees, the show became an opportunity to chew the fat with old

acquaintances, commiserate with rivals about the leader in their particular niche, and for a handful of

companies, to mark their debut — or, as in the case of Engage , their attempt at

re-emergence.

But this year’s Left Coast incarnation of @d:Tech, billed perennially as the online advertising

industry’s most important trade show, has devolved into less of a place where real deals are made and news

is announced. Instead, it’s where survivors from the sector’s fallout gather to remind each other that

“we’ve definitely reached the bottom; the only place it can go from here is up.”

Though many on the floor, in panels and behind closed doors talked about the need for new examples of

industry leadership — for example, in developing guidelines for paid placement search links, for better

measurement standards, and greater support for the medium from adventurous buyers — the show’s attendance

was largely devoid of top brass from the IAB, DMA and AIM, with the exception of the OPA’s Michael

Zimbalist, who was on hand for a time as a fill-in for a Tuesday panel.

The exhibit hall saw fewer than half the number of booths as last year, though a number were new faces.

Some of the first-time exhibitors appeared not quite ready for primetime — if primetime means competing

for anything other than local business — while others had a clearer idea of where they were going, even if

that meant entering a cramped field like rich media e-mail or paid search.

While the emergence of a new crop of players seems a good thing on the surface, for many of the newer

firms manning booths or pressing the flesh between sessions, legitimate value differentiators appeared

disconcertingly absent. That’s troubling because the industry is supposed to be getting smarter by

providing new, needed solutions to clients’ marketing problems. New competition without bringing anything

new to the table would seem to solve little, and hearkens back to an earlier time we now generally regard

as misguided.

It’s additionally ironic considering that speaker after speaker encouraged businesses to explore

innovative new strategies as a hedge against the perils of commodification, and a market devolving into an

industry-debilitating pricing war.

While compelling, @d:Tech’s keynote presenters spoke persuasively on subjects that your average

media-seller would be hard-pressed to figure out how to implement. That’s a shame, because “sales-types”

comprised the majority of the attendees. On the other hand, top-level executives and agency

representatives — the ones best suited to implement or encourage the development of the high-level

strategic projects described by the speakers — were in very short supply at the show.

Tim Sanders, chief solutions officer at Yahoo! gave some of the most useful

information for the present audience, urging organizations to develop methodologies for selling a valuable

consumer “experience,” to simplify product offerings, and to establish rapport with employees and clients

by selflessly sharing information.

Yet most of the speakers — and indeed, most of the show’s content — had been intended for the kind of

audience that wasn’t there: multi-channel marketing executives.

Stan Rapp, for instance, suggested enterprises develop huge databases and take up CRM. Kathleen Riordan

of Kraft discussed how the consumer packaged goods giant derived benefits from experiments

in online marketing. (In large part, her victories, commendable as they are, came as a result of

leveraging two advantages still rare among clients: a large online marketing budget, and management

buy-in.)

That isn’t to say that the mood at @d:Tech is altogether dour, if it is a little disappointed. And

there were some bright spots: the crowd grew slightly from last year. Susan Bratton, former [email protected]

marketing chief (and longtime Gator user) kept the main sessions running at a cheerfully impassioned pitch.

And some attendees were genuinely upbeat about prospects emerging from meetings at the show.

One representative of an e-mail marketing firm said of the show that “while it’s been smaller, we’ve

definitely been meeting with the kind of people that we need to.”

Others disagreed, however. A handful of salespeople exiting a session on Tuesday said they look forward

to fall’s event in New York to connect with what one described as “actual clients,” while writing off

@d:Tech LA as an opportunity spent meeting and greeting similarly-embattled peers.

“I’ve spent most of my time just saying ‘Hi’ and reconnecting to people I used to sort of know, swapping

war stories,” said a rep from a paid-placement search engine. “I’m not seeing a lot of the people who

would normally end up in my Rolodex as prospectives.”

While the dealmaking may not have been as brisk as in previous years, the show has always been something

more than an AIM “Dinner and a Deal.” It’s supposed to be the industry’s seminal event brand, with

high-level dialogue and vision supplementing all the card-sharing and behind-the-scenes negotiations.

Instead, @d:Tech LA has proven a relatively sober, low-level affair.

Taking time out to refocus on the nuts and bolts of the space might not necessarily be the worst thing

for an industry that’s still trying to find itself, but it’s not exactly what many attendees expected from

@d:Tech LA, especially given the history of leadership and innovation that has marked the shows in the

past.

And with so many in the online advertising space attesting to the industry’s need for standardization

and advocacy initiatives to be instituted at the highest level, this week in some respects represents an

opportunity missed.

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