Cannes in the Desert: Advertising, media execs head to CES for the industry’s annual kick-off

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GroupM’s chief product officer Jack Smith is likely to be among the people gravitating to the self-driving cars that will be on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas — but not for the obvious reason. As much as these autonomous vehicles are considered the next great mobile device — windshields becoming another screen for people to consume media — he is interested in what’s under the hood.

“The graphical processing unit chips that are used to do the calculations to drive self-driving cars are the same kinds of chips that we use to process data for programmatic trading,” says Smith.

Surprising as the connection between autonomous vehicles and ad tech may be, more surprising is the fact that media and marketing executives remain interested in the technology showcased at the Las Vegas Convention Center, which competes for their time with meetings along the Las Vegas Strip and has been losing that battle in recent years.

A week of meetings
For advertisers and publishers, CES has become primarily a networking event — a second Cannes. CES could stand for Colored Eraser Sell-a-thon and industry execs would show up. Regularly scheduled in early January, CES serves as the industry’s annual kick-off following a heady fourth quarter and a brief holiday hibernation.

“It’s a week where everyone is focused on meetings. And it works well with Cannes where CES is the yearly kick-off and the mid-year catch-up is Cannes,” says Insider publisher and CRO Peter Spande.

In the same way that meetings at Cannes can foster more creative opportunities, the technological backdrop of CES can make executives more open to trying something new. “You can imagine more readily the convergence [of different technologies] and what it means for consumers and clients’ businesses,” says Richard Hartell, global practice lead at Publicis Media’s strategic studio.

More important than the meetings’ context are its participants. Consulting firm MediaLink has worked to make CES a must-attend event for CMOs, and that has made it a must-attend event for media and tech companies.

“Last year Facebook showed a lot of video [at CES]. I don’t know how much we spent on Facebook video this year, but it’s got to be in the tens of millions of dollars, and that happened at CES,” says Omnicom Digital CEO Jonathan Nelson. Similarly spending time with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey at CES helped to address concerns over the company’s ever-shifting management ranks. “Our spend with Twitter went up significantly,” Nelson says.

Meeting management
Given that media companies investing their time at CES can see actual returns, they make all kinds of efforts to maximize their time at the event. Across the various teams that Pandora sends to CES, the company runs “maybe 10 meetings every hour,” says Lizzie Widhelm, svp of ad innovation at Pandora.

Many media companies look to centralize their CES presence near the Aria, where CES’s marketing-centric C Space conference is held. Pandora will post up at the Aria, while Twitter will once again have a space next door at The Cosmopolitan. The area serves as a quiet place to commune with clients. To ensure clients stop by, Twitter will have a stage to host fireside chats and program different meeting tracks around topics of interest to clients, says Sarah Personette, global head of client solutions at Twitter.

At the last CES, Insider adopted a different approach to maximize its meeting time. The publication hired a van that it tricked out with a conference table inside to conduct meetings on the way to meetings. It’s considering doing the same this time around. “The van also then works as a moving billboard, which is helpful as a secondary return on investment,” says Spande.

Mobile meetings could be especially important during CES in 2019. The gravitational pull for industry execs will still revolve around C Space. That event will add a half-day programming track that will feature CMOs from Cadillac, Pandora, Procter & Gamble and Unilever. The CTA will also be moving the CES Sports Zone conference from the Sands to the Aria, says Karen Chupka, evp of CES at the Consumer Technology Association, the industry organization that hosts the annual event.

Technology to see
However, in 2019, marketers and media execs may feel a stronger-than-usual pull to the Las Vegas Convention Center to see the technology that will supposedly alter their industries.

Gadgets like foldable screens and 8K TVs might be for hardcore CES attendees, but media and marketing executives are looking to get a little closer to the metal that’s more assuredly meaningful for their businesses. “It was never sexy to think about GPUs if you weren’t a gamer or in that space, but now they’ve become super relevant to AI and any kind of massive big data application,” says Nick Coronges, global CTO at R/GA.

“If you’re focused on the wearable necklace or panoramic TV, you’re fortune-telling,” says Widhelm.

Instead of seeking out internet-connected oven mitts, industry execs look for big-picture trends at CES, which aren’t always so obvious. Each year, Isobar compiles a 20- to-30-page report analyzing the CES trends relevant to its clients. Last year, the agency included a robot stripper in its report because it raised important ethical questions for clients that were considering investing in robotics, says Isobar chief innovation officer Dave Meeker.

The major takeaways from CES in 2019 are likely to be less about robotic strippers or various screens and more about the technology connecting them. As the next evolution of wireless connectivity, 5G promises to let people download entire movies to their phones in seconds. It carries similar importance in 2019 as the technology that originally turned CES into an annual pilgrimage for media and marketing executives. Content companies began coming to CES in the early 2000s when high-definition television emerged as a new format that would upturn their industries in the not-so-far future, says Chupka.

“2019 is going to be the year that 5G gets talked about more and more,” says Hartell. That talk will start at CES.

This story has been updated to reflect that Richard Hartell is the global practice lead at Publicis Media’s strategic studio. It previously stated that he is global president for business transformation at Publicis Media.

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