Live from New York, it’s Advertising Week 2021 — but where the heck is the XP?

Advertising Week

Almost every speaker at Advertising Week New York kicked off their session announcing, “It’s been 20 months since my last conference!” The declaration, which quickly became comical in its repetition, seemed to be a mix of excitement and expectation-setting as all of us re-learned how to network in real time. 

Walking into 30 Hudson Yards on Monday morning was a familiar, yet peculiar experience. Like visiting your childhood home after a new family has moved in.

Yes, there were the greeters, standing their usual 20 feet apart, ready to tell attendees where to pick up their badges and offer rehearsed directions to the closest bathroom. Yet, branded masks covered their comforting smiles and, in between two-finger points to the ladies room, they were also tasked with firmly, but kindly, reminding attendees to keep their masks on. 


Branding was the hottest topic inside and outside the sessions. The general consensus was that most brands not only don’t know who they are, but that they don’t know who their audiences are, either. I wish I had brought a sign that said, “There’s an experiential marketing strategy for that.”

Besides putting on real pants and practicing eye contact again, what made Advertising Week 2021 really work? And what can we all take away from it as we design our own events?

WHAT WE LIKED

A brand partnership experience gone rogue: The best experiential wasn’t even inside the conference, but a few doors down, at Shake Shack. Snapchat took over the burger joint inside Hudson Yard and supplemented the menu with an augmented reality try-on mirror, free food, custom Snapchat lenses and “Snap Shack” merchandise. 

This is the essence of experiential — to go rogue slightly outside a traditional experience, taking the familiar and flipping it on its head. Nothing like some AR with a side of fries.


Live podcast recordings: Political analyst and TV personality Donny Deutsch hosted his podcast, “On Brand with Donny Deutsch,” in front of an Advertising Week audience. Then, actor Joey Pantoliano and his daughter Daniella kicked off season two of their podcast, “No Kidding, Me Too!,” with an interview of Kelly Carlin, daughter of the late comic George Carlin, who shared her family’s struggle with mental health and addiction.

These sessions felt experiential by making the audience feel like an important player in the experience, their attendance and participation a critical component to the success of the live recording.

Returning to live music again: While Advertising Week attendees have long been accustomed to amazing musical guests (2019 included Pitbull and Wyclef Jean), attending concerts — any concert — feels new and exciting again. First, YouTube hosted headliners Mary J. Blige and Jazmine Sullivan at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem. Then, Anderson. Paak performed at Hudson Yards during Amazon Ads presents: Advertising Week After Dark.

Instead of talking about the welcome return of branded music events, YouTube and Amazon Ads just did the damn thing. In previous years, the evening concerts felt more like a time filler, something everyone attended because it felt lame to go back to the hotel and eat a club sandwich in bed. But this year, we planned our weeks around them.


The session, “Driving Fandom in a Brave New (Hybrid) World”: Adam Harter, PepsiCo’s SVP of Media, Sports and Entertainment, lead the closest thing to an experiential session all week. Harter looked back on our year-plus without live events and how brands were given the opportunity to rethink how they drive value in music, sports and entertainment sponsorships. 

This paused moment in time gave brands the opportunity to test emerging platforms, experiment with AI, and move from transactional to memorable experiences, Harter said. So basically everything we’ve been saying all along, but it’s important to hear it from a powerful voice at Pepsi, too. But, speaking of…

WHAT WE WOULD HAVE LIKED TO SEE

Um, hello? Where were the experiential sessions? Events and experiences should have had their own unique track and Harter’s session was the closest we got. With so many bold and innovative brands in attendance (looking at you, TikTok), how is it possible that there were ZERO sessions with “experiential” or “XP” in the title or description?

What makes it even crazier is that the return to IRL events was the hottest topic of the week, yet somehow the opportunity for brands to capitalize on this exact feeling was completely ignored. I’m not mad Advertising Week, just disappointed. No, wait, actually, I am mad.

More focus on creators: While there were sessions with celebs like Matthew McConaughey on the importance of forging your own path, filmmaker Ava DuVernay on diversity and Al Roker on how “hero” storytelling attracts audiences, I had hoped for a healthier mix that included art directors and designers alongside all of the celebrities, CEOs and CMOs.

There was one session, “The Critical Role of Creators in Advertising,” which highlighted the growing democratization of creativity and redefinition of tastemakers, but it was lead by business execs: Peloton’s SVP and Head of Global Marketing and Communications, Dara Treseder, and Facebook’s VP of Business Ecosystem Partnerships, Alvin Bowles. Let the artists speak! Let’s talk to them about their work directly!

Fewer sessions: With eight stages, 20+ tracks and hundreds of sessions over four days, there were too many options to choose from. No one in attendance this week could walk away feeling like they experienced everything they wanted to. 

While I understand that there was high-demand for information and expert advice on everything from wellness at work to the future of cryptocurrency in esports, and everything in between, it felt like attendees were set up for disappointment and missed opportunities from the start. Remember, we can’t turn the clock back to 2019. The event attendees of today need more time to emotionally recharge and fewer decisions to make.

Better acoustics: While event attendees will almost never notice great sound quality, they will certainly notice, and complain, when they can’t hear anything. Inside the cavernous halls of Hudson Yards, the Advertising Week crew erected temporary walls about 2-feet shy of the ceiling. Unfortunately, those partitions couldn’t block out the white noise of the sales teams working their booths just outside. And, after almost two years away, it felt much more difficult to focus on the panels and drown out the chatter. 

The amount of noise really stressed me out. Even with speakers fully mic-ed up, I burned my brain trying to learn about the future of NFTs and ignore the future of vending machine advertising pitch taking place just behind the wall. Yes, sound-proofing is expensive, but when your attendees expect to learn from experts and walk away with actionable lessons, they must be able to focus.

Clearly defined health and safety rules: It’s Covid’s world and we’re all just living in it. While attendees masked up to sit down for each session, the rules throughout the conference halls were less clear. Signs reminded attendees to “Do your part!” but most people took masks off to chat with vendors, network, catch up with co-workers and sip their coffees. Event producers need to email, tweet, post and share consistent messaging onsite. 

Advertising Week was really the canary in the coal mine for conferences and trade shows. Other event producers looked to this year’s multi-day event at Hudson Yards for inspiration and missteps. We’ll see who follows the trends — and who invests in soundproof room dividers.

Subscribe to the XP Land newsletter. Follow us on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Welcome to XP Land

The digital news platform covering the art, science & impact of the experiential world.

Get the insider's take on all things XP,
delivered weekly to your inbox.

FOMO yet?
Subscribe for free.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter