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‘A similar way to Cannes’: At CES 2024, ad execs will go beyond the show floor

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Keep up to date with Digiday’s annual coverage of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. More from the series →

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At next week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Kevin Gentzel, Newsweek’s global chief commercial and growth officer, is a prime example of how the event has transformed for marketers. He’s got a marathon day lined up — booked solid from 8 am to midnight. But get this: none of it involves the traditional show itself.

“CES has become a staple on the schedule for a variety of reasons,” said Gentzel. “It’s still the place to go to learn more about new innovation and new technologies that are disintermediating the lines of business but the conversations that are being had tend to focus on deeper, strategic partnership agendas.”

This is the new reality at CES. Those once-essential MediaLink floor walks? They’ve taken a back seat. Now, the real action happens in the intense hustle of strategic meetings and behind-the-scenes networking, orchestrated by the consulting firm at the heart of it all. 

“In previous years there was much more focus on the floor tour and the more standard top to top meetings from a client perspective,” said David Muldoon, MediaLink’s vp of strategic advisory. “This year, clients are going into meetings asking more strategic questions like ‘how do we get ahead of our competition?’, ‘How do we really innovate in order to stand out?’, and How do we build much deeper relationships?,’.”

Marketers at CES aren’t just attendees anymore; they’re playing a whole different game, with every move carefully planned. At a time when economic fluctuations and industry disruptions loom large, they’re at the event to find ways to stay ahead of it. They’re weaving through the strips, casinos and hotel suites with an eye for both opportunity and stability.

“CES used to be about what companies were showing, now it’s about what they’re saying,” said Gillian MacPherson, vp of product at Epsilon. “The show is an efficient spot to connect with key contacts and partners in advanced TV and digital, so my main focus this year is on high-level meetings.”

And it’s not just talk — the numbers tell the same story.

“The amount of companies we’re seeing at CES is up this year on the previous one by about 10% but the number of people they’re taking is down,” said Muldoon, who is attending the event with one of his clients from Unilever. “Companies are taking less people but the ones they do send want to make sure that it’s going to be something that will actually add value in the long run.”

And then there’s AI – again at the forefront, just like last year. But this time, it’s different. Marketers are no longer just toe-dipping into AI; they’re plunging in headfirst. They’re planning to use their time at CES not just to keep up, but to steal a march on their rivals when it comes to the best ways they can implement it across their businesses, not just individually.  

Execs from MediaMonks, Publicis Media, Duolingo, Pfizer, Comcast and Pinterest will be doing just that over the course of the event, covering topics like how brands can use AI to turbocharge their efforts to personalize creative to how companies are using generative AI to bolster their social media efforts.

“AI has been a big part of CES for two decades but it’s starting to become very real,” said Sarah Ivey, chief strategy officer Havas Media Network. “The thing that’s top of my list right now is how AI and curation can expand the creator universe. We’ve seen creators get this ability to produce so much more content at higher speed, but being able to curate all of that at higher speeds will make that shift so much more interesting. Those creator tools will be one of the things I’m looking forward to next week.” 

Digiday senior reporter Marty Swant, author of our weekly AI Briefing, will be on the ground in Las Vegas reporting on all things AI over the course of the week.

AI might be leading the charge, but it’s just the beginning. Topics like retail media, the creator economy, and streaming are set to dominate much of the dialogue shaping the event’s discourse. And while these topics might sound like a rerun from last year, there’s a new edge to the conversations now — a sense of urgency that wasn’t there before. Least of all for the world’s largest streaming services. The pressure is mounting on them. 

No longer a novelty, streaming has yet to yield significant free cash flow, burning through billions. Advertising is seen as a potential turnaround strategy, but its efficacy is yet to be proven. As a result, their 2024 upfronts practically kick off at CES, given the showcase of new formats, advertising strategies, and the presence of top-tier executives like Disney’s ads boss Rita Ferro and her counterpart at Netflix Amy Reinhard. They will be joined by rivals like Amazon, Roku, NBCUniversal Paramount Global. 

The urgency is palpable – these aren’t just future trends; they’re pressing challenges that need immediate solutions. It’s a race against time. And the moves are bold: Netflix debuting its first-ever CES booth, Disney bringing its tech and data marketing event to Vegas. 

As for the media sales teams, they’re hitting the strip with a clear agenda. It’s not just about the glitz and glamor; they’re there for a serious vibe check. They’re sizing up how marketers are feeling about spending this year. There’s going to be a lot of pitching, sure, but the real goal? It’s about getting a read on budgets and figuring out what’s really resonating with marketers, especially since the end of 2023 didn’t give much clarity. Some are doubling down on B2B events, showcasing themselves as data and insights wizards. 

They’re all about flaunting their first-party data and audience reports, especially with an eye on the upcoming election cycle. Others are talking up their prowess in AI, connected TV (CTV) and audience insights, all to woo marketers. Digiday’s media editor Kayleigh Barber will have more on that soon. In the meantime, here’s a glimpse into weekly news magazine Newsweek’s plans for next week.  

“We have a really interesting potential partnership that we’re building with an agency holding company around production,” said Gentzel. This production is a  docu-series shining a light on  students in urban areas honing their debate skills at school. The conversation at CES will delve deeper into this venture, with the agency aiming to drum up demand from advertisers. 

This surge in tech and media discussions is so pivotal that the C Space exhibition at Aria Resort — the hotbed for ad industry insights during CES — has expanded for the first time into the neighboring Cosmopolitan hotel. It’s a telling move, underscoring just how integral these conversations have become for marketers, and how the dialogue around technology’s impact on media and lifestyles has outgrown its original bounds.

“In a similar way to Cannes, CES is an event where you can get a lot done in a short amount of time,” said Steve Bagdasarian, chief commercial officer at ComScore. “I don’t know if the themes have changed much compared to a year ago. It’s just the realities of them all are starting to set in, whether its signal loss, privacy regulation and so on. Frankly, now it’s action time.”

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