Advertising Week at 15: Looking back on the origins of the global event

Matt Sheckner in 2004 during the second Advertising Week

Sometimes the future takes root in the mundane. For Matt Scheckner it was a random phone call in July of 2002. Abby Hirschhorn, DDB Worldwide CMO, was looking for a big idea in support of an effort led by 4A’s Chairman Ken Kaess and CEO O. Burtch Drake to attract young talent, boost the image and morale of the industry, and reaffirm New York as a global advertising hub.

A producer in his bones, Scheckner seemed a natural choice. He made a name for himself as the founding Executive Director of the New York Sports Commission at just age 23 after pitching Mayor Koch that New York City needed to recognize sport for what it was: a gateway to further economic development. Over 8 years he re-established New York as a centre for big-time Olympic level competition after drafting winning bids for the 1993 Olympic Congress, and the 1998 Goodwill Games. For the latter he spent the summer of ’94 in St Petersburg with luminaries like Ted Turner, Boris Yeltsin and Governor Mario Cuomo.

The first-ever meeting about Advertising Week offered a preview of the future. A thought leadership foundation, environment and experience were all established as key anchors of the game plan. And so, it was an October afternoon in 2002 in the Roxy Suite at Radio City Music Hall where it all began. Planning began in earnest in May of 2003 after it was agreed that the first-ever Advertising Week would take place in September of 2004. With long-time business partner Lance Pillersdorf and a small team, Advertising Week opened its doors for the first time with such venues as NASDAQ, the Museum of Television & Radio and a memorable first Opening Gala at Gracie Mansion hosted by Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

It all began with a phone call and a simple question, “Would you consider doing something for the advertising and marketing industry?”

The journey which expanded beyond New York City to London, Tokyo, Mexico City, Sydney and looking ahead to 2019, Johannesburg, took moxie, and a strong sense in what is possible by simply pushing the envelope and asking, “Why not?” and some luck. The core fundamentals have always been the same - engage, educate, enlighten, entertain and give everyone - from the C- Suite to the entry level - a real experience. And make it accessible to everyone, not just the top of the pyramid.

As it has evolved in New York City and everywhere else, Advertising Week has become a mirror of our industry and of the broader arena of business and popular culture. It has also become the place where the agenda is set for the year and where the most difficult and challenging issues facing our business – and often broader society - are tackled head on. Navigating change really sums it all up, and so much has changed from September of 2004.

On September 27, 2004 when Advertising Week kicked off, Mark Zuckerberg was still on the Harvard campus. The iPhone was two years away and YouTube was three years away. Without exception, none of the tech-driven innovations which have re-shaped consumer behaviour and our industry were on the radar, or existed in any form, in 2004.

Throughout unprecedented tech-driven turbulence and economic ups and downs, Advertising Week’s formula continues to be anchored in thought leadership by day and an incredible array of entertainment by night. Starting in 2005 with Jon Stewart and Curb Your Enthusiasm star, Susie Essman, at Jazz at Lincoln Center and Gnarls Barkley at the old Nokia Theater in 2006, Advertising Week has presented an all-star roster of artists. Bruno Mars, Outkast, LCD Soundsystem, Alessia Cara, Pharrell Williams, Dua Lipa, Mark Ronson, Wyclef Jean, Ziggy Marley, Rita Ora, Sting, Nas, John Legend, The Roots, Snoop Dogg, Amy Schumer, Jimmy Fallon, Lewis Black, J. B. Smoove, Pete Holmes, Trevor Noah, Jeff Ross, and so many more. All have graced the Advertising Week stage.

In the years since The Week began, the smartphone has marched forth and become the standard. Anyone with access to a laptop and Internet connection is able to understand, reach and engage potential consumers. Brands can have real-time conversations with their customers whilst they interact with websites, mobile apps and platforms. Indeed, today’s advertising and marketing skill set looks nothing like 2004’s.

The traditional, creative side of the discipline – using powerful narratives to tap into people’s wishes and aspirations – has been blended with the technical side of data, digital engineering and analytics. These two areas do not always sit easily together - something we will continue to explore - but navigating the choppy waters and educating people about these truths has become Advertising Week’s Raison D'être.

To illustrate the scale of change, look back to 2009. $117bn was spent on all U.S. advertising according to Nielsen. 57% of that went to Television, making it the largest medium for advertisers. Print media earned approximately 28% of ad dollars, while Internet earned just 7%.

Jumping ahead to 2018, in many ways the industry is unrecognizably contrasted with 2004. New players have emerged as kings and queens, others have disappeared, and the flow of ad dollars has rapidly shifted from traditional to emerging platforms. But what has not changed is the power of big ideas, good old-fashioned creativity, the influence of disruptors and innovators and our fundamental need as people to be inspired.

Looking ahead, no one can say how the future will play out, but as the future unfolds, Advertising Week will be there every step of the way. And with our learning platform just around the corner, AWLearn will provide year-round engagement. It’s never been a more exciting time.

Here’s to the next 15 years.

Jack Hershman, leads Digital Content Production at Stillwell Partners in Europe & APAC.

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