‘We didn’t have people screaming’: An oral history of MediaLink’s curated tour of the CES show floor

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The Consumer Electronics Show has become a must-attend event for marketers largely because of MediaLink. In addition to creating CES’s Brand Matters program, which has evolved into the C Space event, the consulting firm operates what it calls “brand journeys” for clients to curate their entire calendars at CES — from the industry’s annual CES kick-off party to meetings with executives from media, marketing and technology industries in attendance. But it all began with curated tours of the CES show floor.

Alan Schanzer, svp of agency and advertiser development at Pandora and former WPP exec: If I remember correctly, they were one of the first to establish a presence as a tour guide. Now if you go to the show, you have Scripps doing it, and you can hire [consulting firm] Shelly Palmer and other people to do it. I don’t think all that was happening much back in the day when MediaLink and [former GroupM chairman] Irwin Gotlieb and the gang were starting these.

Michael Kassan, founder and CEO of MediaLink: The idea of a proper tour was something that happened very naturally. Irwin Gotlieb would get a group of us together, but it wasn’t official. It was just a group of people who were all at CES from the marketing industry because not many people were. Irwin, being such a brilliant guy, it wasn’t actually a tour. You would just walk around the show floor with Irwin, and you’d learn a lot. And I thought, boy, if there’s ever been an opportunity for a docent-led experience, this is it. Because if not, you’re just walking around looking aimlessly.

Adam Shlachter, CMO of Group Nine Media and former WPP exec: I remember being on the Irwin tour with clients way back before CES was a thing like today. There was no iPhone at the time. 3D was a big trend. Blu-ray was still new. This was about 10 or 12 years ago. Maybe a year or two later was when MediaLink organized what I remember as the first tour where they were bringing clients along.

Kassan: The first really big ones we did were for Unilever and Coke. And we also did it for GE early on. So what would be interesting for GE, Unilever and Coke if you’re going to walk around the floor? You want things that are going to resonate with them, so we didn’t want to make them one size fits all.

Shlachter: I remember they would have satellite and addressable media companies be part of it because they were trying to leverage technology to allow them to better target ads to customers. There was a pragmatic aspect to what you were seeing on the floor and how it applied to marketing.

Kassan: If I’m coming to see LG, I don’t want to show up at LG’s booth without them knowing at 3 o’clock tomorrow we’re showing up with Coca-Cola and here’s what’s interesting to Coca-Cola, so you best have people there ready to help us on that. I don’t want some general floor person who doesn’t know anything about consumer packaged goods.

Schanzer: If you walk the floor on your own, you’re going to get lost, whether it be physically lost or lost in thought. The ability to take that information — the things to focus on for my clients over the next 12 to 18 months and the things to be thinking about for the next 18 to 36 months — you can’t do that without some level of guidance.

Shlachter: The thing about Irwin’s tour that was so amazing was how intimate it was. You could only have so many people follow you around; it was easy to get lost. Yes, he had help, but he curated it and guided it. What MediaLink was able to do was replicate a version of that and scale it to make it more accessible, to make it more visible. They were carrying around placards. You couldn’t get lost.

Kassan: One of the crazy things we did, which nobody did before, was we didn’t have people screaming. We had post signs, as you would on a tour in Italy or something, and — now it sounds silly because everybody does it — we armed everybody with walkie-talkies. Otherwise, it’s hard to hear. And the MediaLink banners that everyone walked around with turned out to be a great marketing tool as well. Nobody did that before. Now everybody does, but we did that first.

Karen Chupka, evp of CES at the Consumer Technology Association: [The curated floor tour] has peaked within the past five years. I can remember at one point being on the floor and looking up and thinking that we might have more tour groups here than Disney World.


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