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Matt Williams: how to get the most out of the bewildering circus of events and awards

I’ve got a new job. It’s moved me a whole one floor down from the central Engine team to Partners Andrews Aldridge, the group’s customer engagement specialists.

But you don’t care about that, so I won’t bore you with it.

What it has meant though is that the timing of the move has prevented me from getting caught up in any SXSW (below) excitement this year.

Some may say that’s a good thing. For every person obsessing over the latest tech trends and tweeting about tacos, you have somebody questioning the value of the extraordinary ticket and hotel prices and mocking the egos, dreamers and stunning lack of self-awareness on display in Austin.

Indeed, the debate over the merits of all these conferences and festivals that now seem to litter the industry schedule is one I find fascinating.

If you miss SXSW this week, you’ve always got Advertising Week in London next week. Then there are various conferences put on by industry bodies to attend, from the IPA’s 44 Club events to ISBA’s Annual Conference. Oh, and the ones put on by publishers like Haymarket, The Drum and PSFK. Throw in the WIRED event, countless Social Media Forums held in strange Shoreditch warehouses, and any other obscurely named panel sessions that somewhere in the brochure contain the phrases ‘communication,’ ‘media’ and ‘innovation,’ and you really can spend an entire year bouncing from event to event, without the need to ever actually needing to visit your own office.

So you can see why some are sceptical. And there have been plenty of times when I have been too. Mainly when you realise that you’ve taken some time out of the office at great expense to listen to a person you’ve never heard of from a company you’ve never heard of use a conference platform to blatantly sell a product that you’ll never use.

But, if you pick and choose wisely, and realise that “you only get out of these conferences what you put in,” then I honestly believe that some can not only prove value for money, but can genuinely be business enhancing. Don’t turn into that planner in Matt Beaumont’s e2, where every single email to her is greeted by an Out Of Office explaining she’s at some random conference, but there’s no use turning into one of these bitchy cynics either, who thinks that anyone who isn’t glued to their desk is taking the piss out of company resource.

Now I know what I’m about to do is a bit Buzzfeed, but to conclude, here’s a couple of quick observations I’ve picked up from attending these various conferences over the years (both as a journalists and working at an agency) and some thoughts on how to get the best out of them.

Have a single focus.

Know what you’re going for and how you’re going to approach it. Different conferences are tailored for different people. If you’re a new business type, then Cannes trumps SXSW, even if a trip to Texas sounds more enticing than a Riviera wankfest. If your role is to get the agency talked about in the press, then your presence at the media-savvy Advertising Week (below, last year) is more important than attending a strange-but-cool social media panel held in some trendy digital agency’s basement. And don’t be jealous if your head of tech is escaping to CES in Las Vegas. It could be the difference when you’re pitching for that large retail account.

Don’t go to hear stuff you already know about.

If you spend every day slavishly consuming blogs and books covering what’s going on in your field, then chances are you’ll be disappointed when you turn up to a conference relating to your area of interest and feel cheated when you haven’t learnt anything new. Frequently at the larger mainstream events like SXSW, topics covering your area of expertise will be a broad brushstroke, not the nitty-gritty that you crave. Don’t be surprised by this. Challenge yourself instead to listen to experts in fields that align themselves to what you do, but less obviously fit into your day-to-day work. These will provide the useful learnings that’ll revolutionise the way you think. That’ll excite and inspire you, and help you identify those new opportunities that can break from the norm and genuinely add value to what you do.

But don’t go too off radar.

So you’ve taken the above advice, and are now giving “why social media is important” a miss. Well done. But there’s still a big difference between ‘broadening your horizons’ and ‘wasting your time.’ I’ve seen countless people sit through sessions where they literally don’t understand a single word. That’s pointless. I’ve also seen people spend an hour watching something that’s fairly entertaining but has absolutely nothing to do with their work (and never will do). That’s not beneficial, that’s a holiday.

Document it. All of it.

You’re the lucky one who’s been given the company’s ticket to one of these events. But that doesn’t mean your fellow colleagues can’t benefit. Every agency talks nowadays about having a collaborative culture. Well you should be sharing your findings too. Document what you see, what you’ve learnt and share that with the agency afterwards. It might just improve the work of the entire creative department. And it might make them hate you less for being the one who initially blagged the ticket to go in the first place.

Look beyond the big names.

Sometimes the big names don’t disappoint. If they give a shit about the audience, they’ll give a shit about the content they’re providing. That’s why few industry events can delight as much as having the likes of a John Hegarty, Dan Wieden, Dave Trott or Rory Sutherland on stage. But just because the festival organisers or its partners have managed to secure a TV personality or sporting star doesn’t make it a must-see. If anything, it usually makes it a ‘must-avoid.’

Do you really need to hear Thierry Henry’s point of view on advertising? Will you really benefit from listening to Dermot O’Leary speak about brand loyalty? Don’t get me wrong, hearing Kanye West claim that “The world as a whole is fucking ugly, and the internet is fucking ugly. But I am not in the construction business,” is as hilarious as it is baffling. But I’m not sure that the Cannes Lions is going for hilarious. And after putting up with a few of these types of sessions, you won’t either.

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