Direct To Boston

BOSTON–Direct marketers from agencies and client organizations near and far are in the house for their annual Direct Marketing Association confab. But that is not why I am here. I am here to geek out, thanks to an invite to speak on the future of paid content from the organizers of the first-ever Geekend Roadshow, a special track inside of the DMA’s sizable offerings.

One thing that is apparent straight away is a degree of formality I don’t see at SXSW and other conferences. My unscientific estimate is two-thirds of the nearly 7000 attendees are wearing a sport coat, heels or some other office gear. Clearly, these direct cats mean business. Even David Meerman Scott who is a big fan of Grateful Dead has a suit on (but no Jerry Garcia tie).

At one point in Meerman Scott’s Monday afternoon talk he illustrates a point about the power of free content by asking people in the audience to stand if they have ever attended a Dead show (the band is famous for allowing fans to record live audio and share the bounty with friends). I reluctantly agree to stand and after he says keep standing if you’ve been to more than 10 shows, I am the only one left standing. Meerman Scott approaches, hands me his book, Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead, and asks me how many shows I have been to. I consider lying, but do not. Meerman Scott announces to the crowd that I have been to 165 shows and the “holy shits’ are almost audible. After his talk, the author, and highly paid speaker, signs my new book with the inscription, “If you get confused, listen to the music play.”

Following that scene, I duck into my first Geekend panel of the day. It is about how devices are divisive and it is delivered by Roy Christopher, a Ph.D candidate in Communications at UT Austin. Christopher says, “we’re not designing devices, we’re designing ourselves. And we have to be careful what we design because technology makes decisions for us.” One of the key phrases I lock onto in Christopher’s talk is “Advent Horizon,” which he describes as the line we draw at the edge of our level of comfort with technology. “When we see these advent horizons, we try to build bridges,” he says. “We rely on analog scaffolding and analog totems.”

With my device safely in pocket, I head downstairs into the exhibition hall and easily see Bob Knorpp of TheBeanCast from a distance. The dude is tall. He’s also outgoing, high energy and extremely knowledgeable about marketing and about who is who at this conference. He introduces me to Steve Penn, a writer from Minneapolis and Jennifer Monaghan, US Navy advertising account director at Campbell Ewald in Detroit. They don’t know what AdPulp is, but Bob makes it a point to inform them. I am at once slightly embarrassed and grateful.

Steve, Bob and I head outside and walk down Summer Street to Papagayo–the location of tonight’s Geekend Tweetup. I order a Herradura margarita and nibble the complimentary empanadas. Bob reminds me to save room for dinner, because we’re going big at The Oak Room with Joseph Jaffe and John Wall. Jaffe turns out to be more personable than I anticipated, which is especially interesting (to me) given that we spend a good deal of time over dinner discussing how online personas do not always match up with the real person. I won’t go into the nitty gritty of it all, but it is safe to say none of us will use the term “social media douchebag” lightly, if ever again.

On Tuesday it is my turn to take the stage. Unfortunately, my talk and many of the other Geekend talks are woefully under-attended. DMA had the right idea when they invited Geekend to create a conference within a conference, but it appears that they failed to promote it properly. Be that as it may, a performer’s duty is to perform, so that’s what I do. And like Meerman Scott, I weave the spirit of the 1960s counterculture into my talk. But Grateful Dead is not at the center of my talk, Stewart Brand is. Brand uttered the now famous words, “information wants to be free” in 1984. Of course, he also said, “information wants to be expensive” at the same time. If you’d like to hear more about the tension between free and paid and how ultimately content providers need both, please download the text version of my talk. You can also see my accompanying slideshow and listen to the recorded audio from my session.

After my talk, Craig Johnston of Sudjam, talks about the design process and how most software projects fail. He says, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” He explains that models are just ideas, which can’t be right until they’re made physical.”

Later in the afternoon, Seth Priebatsch, Chief Ninja at SCVNGR, delivers the Geekend Keynote and I’m impressed by the speed at which he delivers data. I’m also lost but that’s okay, I appreciate being stretched by a big mind. Priebatsch says, “Interchange Zero means money flows without friction,” and he then discusses his company’s LevelUp product, which enables mobile payments by turning shoppers on to new places with free credit to spend on whatever they want (unlike Groupon, which specifies an exact product or service offer).

Tuesday evening I attend the Echo Awards care of a special invitation from Bob Knorpp, who is on the award show’s Board of Governors. Here again the formality factor kicks in. I would have opted out were it not for Bob’s kind offer of a sport coat along with the complimentary ticket. The man wears a 48L like me. What are the odds?

Again, I note how many of the attendees seem to know each other. There’s clearly a fraternity of direct marketers and this is their biggest party of the year. I sit front and center with Bob at the Governor’s table, although it is pretty clear to some of the other board members that I do not belong. What they do not grasp is I am here for a reason. Bob knows what they do not–that I will cover the event on AdPulp.

While I find industry awards mostly beside the point and would expect similar sentiments from the kings of measurable media, the fact is the room is buzzing with excitement. Comedian Greg Proops is the emcee and he’s a funny guy. The video presentation of the winning work is also well done, as is much of the award-winning work, although to my eye much of it looks like classic advertising, not direct. For instance, some of the winning pieces have a phone number displayed somewhere in the layout, and that’s a response mechanism, which qualifies the work as direct.

Ogilvy One and DraftFCB win several awards, as do agencies I am not readily familiar with. BBDO/NY wins the top honor, a Diamond Award for their “The Last Text” integrated campaign for AT&T.

Turns out Bob Knorpp and I are on the same plane to JFK the next day. He invites me to a gathering in the city, but I’m on my way back to Portland. I say so long in the hallway at JFK and thank him for extending himself and for being so generous.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.