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Under the Influence: reflections on a very influential conference

Over the years I've spoken at a great many advertising and marketing conferences, both in the US and the UK.

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The vast majority of them, particularly here in the US are boiler plate. Invariably, the attendees are expected to cough up a ton of money to listen to a bunch of MBA "suits" going through PowerPoint fuelled presentations that usually do little more than extol the unparalleled virtues of whatever company or service the presenter is currently shilling for.

Only last week, the AAAA (America's equivalent of the IPA) held their Leadership Conference at the Ritz Carlton, Laguna Niguel, California, which just happens to be one of the most expensive hotels in the world.

However, in the interests of the "new realities" of the ad biz, they dispensed with the customary golf and tennis tournaments and got straight down to business with the same regurgitated chat about the challenges of the Internet age, and how they should all shape up and get up to speed with social networking, Web 2.0, guerilla, viral, and watching Star Wars on the two inch screen of your mobile phone.

Even Chiat's legendary Lee Clow, sporting his new title of Global Director of Media Arts waxed eloquent about the possibilities of what you can do on the internet in terms of advertising and storytelling, before proceeding to show a bunch of Chiat's 30-second TV spots for Apple.

The whole thing sounds to me like one big yawn. But if you are into conferences, have the fortitude, and your company is dumb enough to pay your expenses, you could easily spend every day of the rest of your life listening to that kind of crap at an ad/marketing conference of your choice somewhere on the face of the globe.

Which is why I was so pleased to be lucky enough, just a couple of weeks ago, to be in London speaking at Iris's Under the Influence conference in the Borough Market area of the new and uber-trendy East End. And no, I hasten to add, for those who know me, it wasn't the fact that it was held in five pubs and included enough food and booze to choke a donkey that got me all excited, it was because it had a ton of original and highly interesting and relevant content.

OK, the food and booze was a definite plus, but everyone I spoke to (and there were close to a thousand people attending the event) thoroughly enjoyed it and was adamant they would be back next year. Oh, and did I mention that the whole thing, including the highly lubricated party in the evening, was free?

That's right, no co-sponsors, no one handing out pens or beer mats with media company logos on them, no wankers sat at booths trying to interest you in signing up for a free demo of their new Web 2.0 "ChatBook" -- the one they guarantee will be the beginning of the end for Facebook. Instead, the conference simply had lots of helpful people from Iris running a remarkably smooth event. Which when you consider the whole event took place in a series of packed to the rafters' boozers, and that by about 3pm, everyone was on their tenth pint, is a rather splendid achievement.

As for the content, not only was the quality of speakers extremely high...Yes, he said modestly, it did happen to include me and BrandRepublic's very own Philip Smith...It was the diversity of the people presenting and their radically different areas of expertise that made it particularly valuable.

Many conferences claim to be about the future of the industry with an emphasis on so-called "New Media". Yet the majority of the presentations are made either by representatives of old media desperately trying to reinvent themselves, or management zombies from the BDA's (Big Dumb Agencies), fresh from their latest buying spree of digital, viral, guerilla, or whatever companies, which they then proceed to suck the marrow out of their young bones, before tossing the calcified remains on the bone pile of their previous purchases.

In the big bad world of BDA's, nothing changes. But, if you take the speakers at Under the Influence as a guide to the future, there may just be a glimmer of hope. From Andrew Baron, founder of the wonderful Rocketboom, to Matt Smith from The Viral Factory, to Shaun McIlrath responsible for a ton of great work before joining Iris. These are just a small sample of the many great speakers who were present on the day. I believe you'll be able to see all the presentations at the Under the Influence site shortly. Which I guarantee will be well worth the trip.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the whole affair was that of all the people I spoke to over the course of many hours and many, many pints, not one of them was from a Big Dumb Agency. All were from the new disciplines, start ups, small shops and most encouraging of all there was a healthy sprinkling of students. But perhaps that may have had something to do with the fact that the conference was free and in the evening you could drink 'till you fell over, and it wouldn't cost you a penny.

Now, that's what I call a conference.

George Parker blogs in the UK at and in the US at His latest book is 'MadScam Kick-ass advertising without the Madison Avenue price tag!'

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