Steve Aldridge of Partners: seven ways to make sure an industry festival is worth the hype

Another year, another Advertising Week. With Cannes on the horizon and SXSW just behind us, ‘tis the season of advertising festivals. Meaning all the same faces in all the same places saying the same things, with a trendy buzzword thrown in for good measure.

But what happens when you commit to a whole week of talks, panels, and performances – shunning the lunches (well, most of them) to try and actually get the most out of your ticket? That’s what I did with Ad Week this year. Would it be a wasted week of vacant soundbites or would I return a changed man?

As it turns out, industry festivals can be more than us cynics give them credit for. They’re as much as you make of them – providing organisers, speakers and delegates remember a few important rules…

The app can’t save you now

There’s no point turning up to a jam-packed festival if you don’t know where you’re going or what you’re doing. It’s one thing being prepared by bookmarking some must-sees, but it’s all too easy to leave huge gaps in between talks if you’ve only got a few in mind. Too often I spoke to someone who turned up under-prepared or just with the intention of ‘seeing what’s going on,’ and ended up with little of worth to show for it. Just because the ticket might have been paid for by an agency expense account, doesn’t diminish its value.

Embrace the promotions – they won’t bite

Stepping over the threshold of an advertising event so often means stepping into a barrage of promotional devices, and I’ve grown hardened to it. But despite my initial resistance to the Yahoo-branded queue-jumpers, it soon eased off when I got my own to save a space in line for the big events under my name.

As an industry we’re more cynical than most about these offerings, but for me this brilliant promotional idea meant back to back talks, and for Yahoo – in my opinion – they completely hijacked the event.

We’re all friends here

Like any big industry event, Ad Week is all about who you know and what you know. And it’s true, there’s huge value in connecting with people at a festival. But don’t limit that to your usual tribe of industry luvvies. It should include the event organisers, the security guards..basically anyone running around with a headset.

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Spending a moment or two to say hello or hold a door open makes a festival an enjoyable experience for everyone. And the added benefit of being on first name terms with the event coordinators? No queuing time. When you look out for someone, they look out for you.

What are you trying to say?

A note to all speakers: being on a panel is a privilege. A result of your hard work and status in the industry. As a result, you have a responsibility to inform and/or entertain. The audience has given you their time, so you need to prepare: what are you going to say, and how are you going to present yourself?

I saw too many under-prepared speakers who found out that, despite their many creative talents, ‘winging it’ was not an option. But I also saw the other side of the coin too. Chris Eubank made a striking presentation – which was fitting for his talk on first impressions. And it wasn’t just the celebs who stood out. Finlay Clark from Waze, Chris Forrester from Spotify and Jonathan Pie all spoke with a conviction which proved they knew how to use the stage as a platform for their inspiring ideas.

Never judge a book by its cover

Flicking through the Ad Week programme there was a lot to get excited about, thanks to great titles like ‘Has audio killed the video star’ and ‘Whatever happened to the likely lads? The future face of marketing to men.’ But this is perhaps advice number one for any first-time visitors: don’t get sucked in by a catchy title if there’s no prospect of catchy content attached.

Too often the talk only got interesting – and honest – when the panel was opened to questions. If you don’t feel you can put together a presentation or panel discussion that allows everyone to be contentious and speak their mind, then you probably shouldn’t be allowed a panel slot.

Make it memorable

If you’ve got inspiring creative speakers on your stage, the rest should hold itself together. But we can’t all be Rory Sutherland or Dave Trott and most of the time it’s pretty essential that a panel is structured in a way that stimulates debate.

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There’s no one set way of achieving this, but I did see one event that could be used as a good guide. The ‘Mental Manifestos’ discussion was co-ordinated in a way that inspired something truly thought-provoking. Each speaker had ten minutes, giving Hussain Manawer a chance to relate some spoken word, and Psyched co-founder Kathleen Saxton a chance to give a well-prepared, compassionate and compelling speech.

And the balance of speakers were well-selected. Just like in real life, it’s no fun when everyone agrees. An engaging panel needs an engaging format.

Embrace the zeitgeist

Even if you weren’t at Ad Week – you would have heard about it. The power of the press and social media gives added weight to all the do’s and don’ts above. Giving an inspiring speech or a brilliant answer to a question doesn’t just stay in the room with the audience. It’s tweeted, reposted – and sometimes even makes the headline news.

Don’t be afraid to ask newsworthy questions. That’s how Matt Brittin brought the festival to the world on day one – tackling burning questions on Google’s ad placements. And when I asked Eddie Jones who he’d pick as the British & Irish Lions captain, he gave an inspired answer. I thought it was left at that, but his answer made the BBC News, and I was reminded that everything we say counts. So forget the fluff and padding and go for the jugular. Just like the work we do on a daily basis, if it’s worth talking about, it will get talked about – long after the festival is over.

Steve Aldridge is the chairman of Partners Andrews Aldridge.

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