Ideas Conferences as Brand Builders

[Originally posted on Forbes.com.]

We’re in an age of ideas conferences—not just such stalwarts as Davos and TED but also upstarts like All Things Digital’s D conferences (D11 is next, in May)—and attendance is increasingly seen as a mark of legitimacy. They’re the ultimate see-and-be-seen gatherings. Smart talk is today’s hot commodity, whether you’re speaking, listening or, perhaps most important, hobnobbing after the formal sessions.

“It’s easy to think that money is the currency of the world,” TED staffer Duncan Davidson told New York earlier this year, “but there are other currencies.” Davidson was being interviewed because three years earlier, a well-dressed mugger had tried to steal his all-access TED badge in Long Beach, Calif. That’s the significance these confabs have taken on.

But what do they say about your personal brand? Are Davos people different from TED people different from SXSW people? What about the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and Renaissance Weekend? Is there a big half-dozen in conference-going that lets you borrow for your brand (today’s equivalent of name-dropping) and build it up? And if there is, do you have to attend all of them (who has time?), or do you need to decide what each stands for and how it helps make a person a brand? Does your choice of conference send a message about what generation you see yourself in?

That same New York article includes a helpful history lesson:

“At least since the early seventies, when Davos was founded, there have been exclusive gatherings that mix fizzy ideas with major-league networking. The eighties gave rise to Renaissance Weekend, for a largely political crowd; Allen & Co.’s Sun Valley retreat, for media machers; and an early version of TED, for the titans of the converging worlds of (as the organizers had it) Technology, Entertainment and Design. But recent years have seen a furious proliferation of these status events. There’s PopTech, FOO Camp, the Clinton Global Initiative, Solve for X (Google’s conference for ‘moonshot thinking’). And beyond the higher-profile events, a lengthening tail of gatherings you’ve never heard of like the Feast, Do Lectures, the 99% Conference and Techonomy. All promise much the same thing: a velvet rope to keep out the attitudinally unwashed, serendipitous interaction, quirky content and at least the illusion of egalitarian elbow-rubbing.”

But I’d argue that some conferences are becoming so ubiquitous and trendy that their velvet ropes are being pulled back. TED has gotten so democratic—not just in making its 18-minute edited TEDTalks available online for all the world to see, but also in its increasingly frequent TEDx gatherings (270 events in 58 countries last month, according to the TEDx website)—that it’s more the brand of might-bes than überachievers.

Production company executive and Atlantic contributing editor for tech and media Michael Hirschorn coined the memorable term “clusterfuckoisie” to describe the tribes that pile on in hopes of proving or improving their social rank. A blogger at the Jane Dough asks if all the conferences have lost their mojo, simply because there are too many of them.

I don’t think they have, but it’s increasingly hard to know which conferences are really relevant to you. A forum on Quora about which conferences someone “needs to attend to meet world and industry leaders” has a few recurring answers—Davos, TED, CGI—but not much consensus overall.

And so, like Deadheads 40 years before them (but with espresso as their drug of choice), a new tribe has formed to follow the route from Sun Valley to Aspen to Austin to Switzerland. But following the knowledge takes its toll, and these conferences are eating alive the would-be thought leaders who join the circuit, traipsing around the world in search of ego food and new smarts, one quick bite at a time.

If they’re getting anything from this, it’s primarily that they’re strengthening their networks. Davos still seems to make careers—the others, mostly connections.

When you are managing your brand, it’s unbelievably important to remember that co-branding is vital: You are the company you keep, and that also means the conferences and events where you are seen and seeing. Unfortunately, in our reality-TV world, perception is reality and reality can be insanely demanding.

[photo: creativecommons.org/veni markovski]

Janene Ferrara: Euro PR’s New Health-Care SVP

For much of the past year, the issue of health care was the topic of the hour, commanding center stage in America’s political theater. But for Janene Ferrara, health care has been a daily passion for quite a while—and for Euro RSCG Worldwide PR’s new senior vice president, it’s one that won’t lose its luster once it’s out of the congressional hopper or beyond the media’s limelight.

Though she wields neither scalpel nor lab pipette, Ferrara works on the cutting edge of the health-care industry, whose success hinges as much on effective communications as it does on medical experts and new technology. (That’s something that became even more evident to hospital administrators, physicians and health-related NGOs when they witnessed the American health-care debate degrade into a debacle.) It’s exactly this—interpreting the changes and advances in the industry for the public—that constitutes Ferrara’s mission.

As the leader of Euro RSCG PR’s team for the sanofi-aventis diabetes franchise, Ferrara will focus on sharing data about one of the most important diabetes treatments available and information about the company’s commitment to educating the public about insulin and diabetes through patient success stories and the work of key thought leaders. For sanofi-aventis, Ferrara’s work is about more than just dollars and cents; it’s about revolutionizing the way diabetes is treated by optimizing care through appropriate and earlier use of its Lantus and Apidra insulin products.

Ferrara’s deep expertise gives her the array of precision tools needed to develop sophisticated health-related campaigns. As an SVP of the health-care practice at Marina Maher Communications, Ferrara developed a client network that reads like a pharmacopoeia of the industry’s most important firms and treatments. From Millennium’s Velcade, an effective treatment for multiple myeloma, to VisionCare’s CentraSight, which restores eyesight, from Pfizer’s Toviaz and Relpax to Novo Nordisk’s Victoza insulin portfolio, Ferrara has amassed a wealth of knowledge on health-care communications while earning a reputation as one of its gurus.

To accomplish all this, Ferrara cultivated her own health-care communications strategy, which often makes use of the expertise and imprimatur of third-party academic organizations and nonprofits to undergird important campaigns. She has partnered her clients with organizations such as the National Council on Aging, American Epilepsy Society, American Social Health Association and National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners to give campaigns the perspective of hands-on health-care experts.

As the United States begins implementing its new health-care law, the issue will only continue to grow in importance—even if its noise levels subside. And with Ferrara on board, Euro RSCG Worldwide PR is continuing to build a leading approach to health-care communications that combines thinking campaigns, digital reach and—most important—a nuanced understanding of exactly what health care means today.

Raising the Bar on Thought Leadership

It’s been 15 years since Joel Kurtzman, editor in chief of Strategy + Business magazine, compiled interviews with “thought leaders” who had put forth new ideas about business. In that decade and a half, the term has expanded to take in not just forward-thinking individuals whose insights are embraced and acted upon by their peers, but also companies that are recognized as understanding their business, their consumers and the future of both.

Like almost everything else in the past 15 years, thought leadership has grown increasingly crucial to business success—and increasingly difficult to attain. White papers are now the cost of entry into smarter conversations. Books by big thinkers in business advance the dialogue every day. For corporate recruiters, forward-thinking is the ultimate value-add. The bar for true thought leadership is constantly getting higher.

Kurtzman’s early thought leaders included British management thinker Charles Handy, who advanced the concepts of portfolio workers and shamrock organizations; Stanford economist Paul Romer; Mitsubishi president Minoru Makihara; University of Michigan strategist C.K. Prahalad, the author of The Core Competence of the Corporation; and his co-author, Gary Hamel, a professor at the London Business School. In this decade, Strategy + Business has conducted compelling thought leader interviews with Robert Reich, Carly Fiorina, Jeffrey Garten, Lawrence Lessig, Daniel Yankelovich, Alvin Toffler and Esther Dyson, among others.

So who’s leading my personal list of thought leaders today?

One is Andrew Benett, Euro RSCG’S head of strategy, who just co-authored a compelling book called Good for Business: The Rise of the Conscious Corporation. The book makes the case that in this challenging economic climate it is essential for businesses—both large and small—to maintain and even expand their corporate social initiatives, thereby enhancing customer and work-force loyalty.

In an e-mail, Andrew told me: “In the past few months, we’ve seen compelling evidence that corporations truly are moving in a new direction—rethinking how they do business and what impact they wish to have on local communities and the larger world. Walmart’s new environmental labeling system has the potential to affect how goods are produced and packaged around the globe. And while the U.S. Congress is still bickering over health-care reform, GE has gone ahead and done something about it with its Healthymagination initiatives. It’s exciting to see major corporations finding profitable ways to help solve some of our most pressing problems.”

Others on my list of thought leaders are top executive recruitment firms, such as Korn/Ferry and Heidrick & Struggles, which have published hundreds of must-read white papers on talent-management and leadership issues.

As I noted above, thought leadership now encompasses both individuals and institutions. Companies succeed when every employee—at every level and in every discipline—is thinking of the future and developing insights.

Ideas, as always, are more than welcome.