Attending last week’s International Advertising Association World
Congress in Cairo was like watching a high-wire act being performed
without a safety net.
The threat of a nasty accident hovered over the proceedings and
delegates, many paying up to dollars 1,300 to be present, were left
wondering why the sure-footedness that has been the hallmark of previous
congresses was so conspicuously absent.
Technical hitches, last-minute changes to the programme and chaotic
organisation turned the event into an embarrassment for the IAA and
highlighed a worrying lack of central control.
True, the IAA’s position is a difficult one. Egypt is a marketing
backwater that has been ignored and misunderstood by major advertisers
for a long time while labouring under the stifling influence of a
controlled economy. To change that perception, the Egyptians were almost
prepared to move the Sphinx itself and the IAA was understandably keen
to offer encouragement.
The congress hosts did have more than their fair share of bad luck. When
64 tourists were killed at Luxor last November, the chances of
attracting large contingents from Europe and the US diminished. Extra
security measures only added to the bureaucracy and confusion.
That said, the Egyptians allowed themselves to get carried away on a
tide of national pride. The result was a serious error of judgment as
the organisers attempted to use a captive audience of agency, client and
media people to promote Egypt’s investment and tourist
Nor should the hosts have been allowed to get away with fielding a
second-division speakers’ list on which Martin Sorrell, the WPP
chairman, was the only figure with international credibility. That error
was compounded by mistakes that allowed representatives of sponsoring
companies such as Mobil and Compaq - which provided more than dollars 1
million worth of computer equipment - to peddle propaganda from the
As the number of international marketing conferences burgeons - and
company travel budgets get cut - delegates will not return if they feel
short-changed. The IAA can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of Cairo.
Hopefully, at the London congress in 2000, they won’t.