Arvind-DiorIf the conservative décor of the hotel, and copies of the New York Times (in print) fooled delegates at the 4As Transformation conference into thinking they were still in New York, the brass band playing at breakfast, which then proceeded to shepherd stragglers into the conference room, can have left no doubt that we were in New Orleans.

Thus, with much fanfare commenced the session on March 11, 2013. The first speaker was New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who spoke a little bit about transforming New Orleans in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina while being true to its roots, and marketing it anew to tourists, a key source of income for the city. He mentioned that our hotel, which pre-hurricane faced the Superdome, now faces in the opposite direction, towards post-hurricane economic activity. What better symbolic place in which to start addressing some of the triumphs and challenges of the advertising industry, and rebrand it to communicate its enduring value to clients, as well as attract new talent currently going elsewhere.

A pleasant surprise in the lineup for the day was the number of women in senior positions scheduled to speak. In the wake of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s controversial article ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’, and the launch of Sheryl Sandberg’s book on how to be a successful career woman, it was good to see that the industry has so many female leaders, from Peggy Conlon (President and CEO, Ad Council) and Ann Lewnes (CMO, Adobe) to the 4As own President and CEO, Nancy Hill. As a style enthusiast myself, I was glad to see that they entirely rejected the stereotype that to be a successful professional woman, you need to dress like a man – Ms. Lewnes opted for a black leather jacket (à la Alexander Wang) over a skirt with ruffles dramatic enough to have made Ms. Westwood proud. Campbell soup CEO Denise Morrison caused a stir when she walked on stage in a bold cheetah-print jacket, which she proceeded to explain was a metaphor for her leadership style: quick as a cheetah (“0 to 62 MPH in five seconds”), guided by vision, steered by the tail (brand’s legacy) and predatory in going after what she wants.

The other intriguing characteristic of the lineup was the number of talks involving politics, with which advertising has a difficult relationship. In the Truth About Advertising, we found that 78% of consumers think worse of advertising in general because of political advertising, a number which rises to 84% among industry folk. In addition to Mayor Landrieu’s speech, one of the highlights of the day was an electric conversation between Mary Matalin and James Carville where they expressed the view that the previous election decisively proved that an unlimited budget and ad bombardment do not a good campaign make. Carville made a particularly astute comment about political advertising and its effectiveness, saying “People use information like a drunk uses a lamppost, for support, not illumination.”

The discussion around the effectiveness of advertising was one of the best parts of bringing the industry together in all its professional diversity, including creatives, account people, innovation officers and planners. Proponents of ‘big data’ discussed its benefits while those championing the ‘big idea’ suggested that respect of creative intuition needed a comeback.

Yet even as perspectives from different areas of the industry were aired, many suggested that we should look outside the industry for solutions. Advertising’s relative insularity, and our pre-occupation with talking to ourselves about ourselves has had consequences, such as the dearth of new talent and new ideas from outside the industry microcosm. In the Truth About Advertising, we found that 57% of the industry believes we have a problem attracting and keeping talent, and 79% of industry employees think that we’re good at selling our clients’ businesses but not or own. The conference proposed to tackle this problem by announcing an ambitious new competition on the back of the Truth About Advertising. Nancy Hill, who launched the competition, explained that the aim was to encourage agencies to come up with innovative campaigns to revitalize perceptions of the industry.

It would be great if next year, to build on 2013’s successes, we could invite even more people from outside the industry to talk about transformation in their fields. As a fashion fanatic, my personal pick would be Miuccia Prada who has managed to transform her brand from just a clothing label, to one that is showcased in museums and talked about in the context of its stance on femininity, feminism and modern womanhood, to the extent that to wear Prada is an intellectual statement. It would also be great to hear from someone involved in organizing Burning Man, the annual music and arts festival held in the deserts of Nevada, where branding of any sort is anathema. This latter conversation will inevitably raise interesting philosophical questions about what we do, and force us to think in new ways about our contribution to society and role in the economy.

Till then, however, massive congratulations are due to the 4As for a very successful, enjoyable and transformational conference. Here’s looking forward to 2014!