Turning Advertising Week into a virtual event creates new possibilities
A view from Matt Scheckner

Turning Advertising Week into a virtual event creates new possibilities

Good news is hard to find during Covid-19, but 'life finds a way', the founder of the ad festival says.

2013, just seven years ago, the doors of Advertising Week Europe opened at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho with The Guardian's Alan Rusbridger on stage talking about whistleblower Edward Snowden's espionage revelations.

Lord Sebastian Coe reflecting on the 2012 Olympics led off at Bafta by day and we partnered ITV for our first opening gala at St Paul’s Cathedral by night. 

Reflecting on that now, it’s hard to gauge the distance from there to here; from London’s West End to Sydney’s Opera House to the Blue Note in Tokyo, the music has stopped because of Covid-19, with no restart in sight.

Shared experiences bind us and our time will now be ranked alongside the Black Death of the 1300s and the 1918 Spanish Flu. 

History tells us to expect profound impact, with social and economic upheaval, and we have already seen many areas of concern, including climate change, extreme poverty, gender equity, racism and deteriorating mental health.

In the middle of this pandemic, time and space have shifted as our lives resemble Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, living the same day over and over again. And for many industries – airlines, cruise ships, hotels, festivals, nightclubs, restaurants – the road to recovery will be long and winding.  

Good news is hard to find, but as Michael Crichton wrote in Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.”

Advertising Week 2020, which begins this week in London and continues in New York next week, will be a truly global event, uniting thought leaders from Johannesburg, Mexico City, Mumbai, Sydney and Tokyo virtually in a way that we might never have thought possible before Covid-19.

Our story is one of many examples of resilience, determination and the spirit of innovation that defines our industry.

With the same handcrafting we deploy in the live arena, Advertising Week 2020 delegates will have a chance to watch – live or on demand – about 500 distinct sessions and experience offerings, like our "global kitchen".

To be sure, the virtual world is entirely distinct from the live world. 

In a sense, it reminds me of how we used to watch television growing up in the 1970s, when there were just a few channels and if you missed something in the live moment, that was it.

Contrast that with today, when we can watch just about anything we want, when we want it, through a variety of platforms and screens large and small.

While the doors at Ronnie Scott’s, Picturehouse, Scala and other venues we have long used at Advertising Week Europe are closed, the virtual doors have swung wide open, creating a whole new set of opportunities.

We are just as excited as energised as ever as we showcase thought leaders such as Ogilvy’s Piyush Pandey out of Mumbai, Ndaba Mandela out of Johannesburg and old favourites such as Richard Curtis. 

There is a lot of speculation about what aspects of Covid-19 life will remain, what will go away, and to wonder aloud if and when we will return to "normal".

Here is a vote for a new path forward that brings together the best of both worlds.

The scope, reach and connectivity that virtual affords is a tremendous positive and that will remain once we enter a post-Covid-19 world as business travel ramps up slowly. So we see a permanent addition to the events landscape via the virtual platform.

But with equal conviction and certainty, we see a return to live and a huge demand to reconvene in person when a safe way to do that becomes available.

From Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to crowds gathered at the Roman Colosseum 2,000 years ago to grand contemporary festivals such as Glastonbury or even smaller gatherings such as the wonderful Cheltenham Jazz Festival, humans have a fundamental need and desire to be with each other. That will never change.  

For us, the constant is showcasing stories of reinvention, renewal, re-emergence and reimagination.

In today’s virtual world, these stories might be fitness trainers on small screens barking orders to hungry, sweaty weekend warriors; caterers recreating holiday meals delivered to your door; doctors of all kinds helping and treating patients remotely; and young entrepreneurs making their way in the Instagram marketplace.

The common thread that ties us all together is a fierce determination to find the silver linings and new ways to keep ourselves engaged, enlightened and entertained. After all, life finds a way, be it live or virtual.

Matt Scheckner is founder of Advertising Week and chief executive of Stillwell Partners