The Evolution of Brandworks “U”

photo courtesy of Brandworks

Marsha Lindsay still remembers the first Brandworks University. The president and CEO of Lindsay Stone & Briggs freely admits it was really Public Relations 101 and Marketing 101, but this May, when Brandworks observes its 20th annual conference, she will oversee an event that is much larger and more sophisticated in scope.

Brandworks isn’t the only example of a local business offering such an experience, but it was among the first to set the local standard. From the research and planning to the execution of the event to the post-conference assessment, Brandworks illustrates how a local company can build and maintain a respected and globally relevant business conference.

For area business people who think they might be able to pull off such an undertaking, especially when brainstorming about new revenue streams, IB spoke to Lindsay and to Amy Rohn, vice president and director of public relations for Lindsay Stone & Briggs, to find out how Brandworks University began and evolved.

Lindsay Stone & Briggs chose the name Brandworks University because it wanted to convey what the company delivers. Since brand strategy and execution in marketing communications is LSB’s specialty, management wanted the name to be aligned with the company mission. "We wanted them to know we taught branding, brand strategy, brand management, and brand communications," Lindsay said, "and [the word] university sure beats conference or seminar or confab. The other term, and we say it quite often, is A-level and the name Brandworks implies that kind of level. This is very high-level, strategic, big thinking kind of stuff, and the word university suggests that."

Give them more

If a company truly has something unique to offer in a conference, and executes it well, it may not be small for long. In Brandworks’ early years, the invitation-only event might have drawn 50 people to a local hotel, and the LSB staff presented the material. The problem became one of replication: with one conference held in March and another event in October, both concentrating on the basics, what could LSB do for an encore?

This was an important question for a gathering that would remain invitation-only. "You can’t teach them 101 all over again, so the bar kept getting raised," Lindsay explained. "People wanted more, expected more, and so we couldn’t go over the same curriculum."

It was time to engage in some "insight modeling." After finishing with Marketing 101 and PR 101, LSB realized that a real value to clients and invitees was that the company could offer insights into what is likely to happen over the horizon. What’s the next problem they will have to solve? What are they are all facing, as marketers, that they can’t quite articulate? To this day, the annual theme of Brandworks is based on an emerging need of marketers.

The company also began to focus on that need-based theme early in the planning process, which begins more than a year in advance. About 18 months before a conference — the theme for the next Brandworks is established before this year’s Brandworks gets underway — the company begins research to identify an emerging challenge for marketers. This includes some proprietary research to formulate the focus, develop a solution in a useable, applicable framework, and then research and recruit experts and speakers from around the world who can "drill deep" and provide attendees with something actionable.

According to Lindsay, the word that best describes what LSB does is "curate" the conference. She believes this makes it different from any other marketing conference put on by Fortune or Ad Age in that attendees learn from a focused curriculum and come away knowing exactly what to do.

LSB’s strategy is to bring in high-profile experts who lend more cache. The conference has evolved to the point where it attracts speakers from major brands like Harley-Davidson and Nike, and presenters like New York Times columnist David Brooks, political consultant Frank Lutz, and media types like Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine.

It also draws a lot of regular attendees who annually bring five or more employees — one company has signed up 27 for this year’s gathering — so while it’s easy to convince marketers to come, the focus is on attendee value. "We are very much a think-tank operation here," Lindsay said. "Our folks here are very strategic. We live this stuff every day, applying it to our clients, so the think tank that develops these emerging questions is in practice every day. It’s what we do."

For companies that can pull it off, Rohn believes it’s an advantage to be an industry practitioner when putting on a conference. "I think because we’re able to talk about how these things are practiced, as an agency how these best practices are put into play in real life, I think that’s definitely beneficial," she remarked. "I think they like the mix of seeing theory as well as the practice. We have several marketers, client-side marketers who come in and share their stories, and Marsha always sets up the conference so that one speaker flows into the next.

"So you’ll hear from someone from a corporation who has put into practice some of the things a professor or author has talked about earlier in the day."

One trap for the presenting company to avoid is using the event to sell itself. According to Rohn, LSB walks a fine line to avoid using Brandworks as a hard sell because that’s not what the 2-1/2 days are about. Brandworks has just introduced a pre-conference session featuring speakers from the agency who are there to teach, but generally Rohn said employees are there to learn and share alongside clients and other marketers.

Having industry insights definitely helps identify emerging needs. Before the economy turned south in 2008, LSB had an inkling a slowdown was on the way (as early as the spring of 2007), and built its 2008 conference around the following question: Are you prepared to take on this economy?

According to Lindsay, the indicators were such that stockholders were demanding greater and greater returns, and marketers were finding it harder and harder to produce. The conflict between short-term results and long-term sustainability was a focus of that conference. "It was the headline of this constant pressure to produce double-digit growth," Lindsay recalled. "You can’t sustain that over and over again. Folks were sacrificing and doing such crazy things, and you could see it coming.

"The pressure was there, and there is only so much you can do."

Venue menu

There was a distinct point in time when Brandworks, which had been held in hotel ballrooms, really took a step up, and that was the opening of Monona Terrace. The importance of venue cannot be over emphasized because the convention center not only made possible a higher level of AV equipment and space, but the opportunity to come to a Frank Lloyd Wright building piqued the curiosity of prospective speakers and attendees.

Once space was secured in the convention center, everything changed. LSB could put on a cocktail hour and, weather permitting, attendees could go to the roof top and listen to live jazz or even Concerts on the Square in the distance, and enjoy unique views of the lakes or the Capitol. For Lindsay, it’s a delight to see Madison through their eyes.

"That was part of the allure," she said. "We also were able to host more people. To do what we did at hotels, we could host maybe 200 or 250, but when we went there, the quality took a giant leap and we invested a lot more."

Until 2003, the conference was not only by invitation only, it also was free. When it began to attract upwards of 400 people to the convention center, given the cost of food, AV equipment, and speakers — many of whom were paid and had their travel expenses covered — the expense became too much to bear. LSB was very nervous about charging for it, but that actually gave it more credibility.

No matter what the venue, any well-honed planning process includes a post conference assessment. Lindsay’s staff carefully reviews the extensive evaluation forms turned in by attendees, and nothing escapes notice, including questions like: Were the bagels really hard? "We perfect the process with incremental improvements every year because this has been vetted so many times," Lindsay said. "So yes, it is continuous improvement, but it’s on something that has been perfected over the years. This team and the blueprint we follow is really, really solid."

Lindsay said the most valued Brandworks-related document LSB has is a spreadsheet of exactly what has to be done, when, and by whom.

In the months following the conference, the staff works to nail down both the emerging problem and the solution framework for the next one. By this point, they are in the process of expressing to marketers, for the first time, something in their gut that’s still developing. That involves research, sorting, reading, framing the problem, and then articulating the solution and identifying the people around the world who actually are working to address it.

Given the sad state of economic affairs, the 2010 conference will focus on jump-starting customer spending with the latest data mining, behavioral economics, and predictive modeling techniques.

In addition to staff, LSB has an outside board of advisors consisting of past speakers.

When the emerging issue for the next conference is identified, Lindsay sends an e-mail to about 20 past speakers and 10 or 15 loyal attendees to gain some feedback on theme and focus.

The task of recruiting speakers usually begins in early fall, and by November LSB is in position to get out invitations, explain the focus and what attendees will learn, and divulge pricing — all on its Web site.

Attracting speakers to a conference in Madison is no easy task. Logistical issues, caused in part by the comparative lack of non-stop flights, vary from speaker to speaker and attendee to attendee. First, some speakers and attendees have never heard of Madison and don’t know where it is, which lessens Brandworks’ credibility in their eyes. Secondly, some speakers and attendees won’t go anywhere if they have to go on more than one plane. So what LSB sometimes has to do, especially for speakers, is have them picked up by limo in Chicago, or hire a private plane to bring them in, which is very expensive.

The little things

Putting on Brandworks is not just about differentiating material, it’s about the conference structure and presentation. The event also is known for extensive networking opportunities, custom seating made possible by data base research to help introduce attendees to strangers, competitors, or fellow graduates of Wharton, and a main conference room arranged as "theater in the round" with four large screens capturing the speaker underneath — all the way down to catering to attendees’ special dietary needs.

"We really create a networking situation for folks at that first luncheon, at cocktail hour," Lindsay said. "We work so hard at that, and people come away from that and say, ‘that’s the kind of networking I couldn’t get in a Webinar. I couldn’t get that from a blog, and it creates relationships that last for years, and that are very valuable to them."

Theater in the round was an idea put forth by Chief Brand Strategist Rick Stone, who brought it up on a late night drive back from Kenosha. It has been the scene of memorable presentations by Mary Slayton, director of market intelligence for Nike, and Mark-Hans Richer, chief marketing officer of Harley Davidson, who rode a Harley in the rain from Milwaukee to Madison, and then rode it up on stage to set the stage for his talk.

The theatrics actually begin with an opening skit where improv groups try to wrap peoples’ minds around the conference theme, something you don’t see at a typical business conference. "It’s not the standard stage, speaker, drapery, and podium," Lindsay noted. "There is a bit of audaciousness that is always on topic, but I think it adds to the environment."

Conference materials have a creative flair centered on the theme. In 2003, when the theme was consumer insights, LSB staff got the message across with a brochure containing the image of a man with a hole drilled in his head. In 2005, when the theme was about the creative imperative, information arrived in a clear plastic box of crayons with a nostalgic reminder about childhood: "You were creative once …" In 2008, when the theme was centered on the conflict between short-term and long-term results, the fight game was featured and Lindsay delivered her keynote while sporting a pair of boxing gloves. This year, with persuasion psychology in mind, it’s the carrot and the stick.

In terms of promoting Brandworks, the autumn timing is crucial because that’s when businesses start forming their budgets, including decisions on what conferences to attend and where to apply training money for the following year.

The fall time period is about pitching the idea, ramping up plans, and talking to sponsors and attendees further and further out from the forthcoming conference. "We need to be talking to them before the year ends so that they have it on their radar screens and in their budgets for the following year," Rohn said.

This is the first year LSB has sold sponsorships — amazingly, at the sponsors’ request. The company is not at liberty to say how much it can command from sponsors, but it varies. According to Lindsay, "they have come to us and said we’re interested, so we’re doing it for the first time this year, and we’re doing it very carefully because we want to deliver what they need, but we do not want to inhibit the credibility of the conference."

Once the new calendar year begins, it’s a matter of revving up conference promotion and beginning to make plans for the following year.

Scholarly advice

Companies that venture down this path should take note: The conference business has grown dramatically in the past five to 10 years. Ten years ago, Ad Age had one annual conference, but now the need for new revenue streams compels the publication to put on 19 or 20. On top of that, colleges and universities have stepped up their conference activities, especially business schools.

"It engages people and it builds relationships," Lindsay stated, "so the world that I live in today is extremely competitive for putting on a conference."

Lindsay believes the reason Brandworks is still standing against conferences in Silicon Valley, New York, and resort areas is because it offers something compelling, relevant, and different. Any local company that wants to put on its own show would have to do the same thing, but that’s where industry expertise comes in. The ability to present a framework and solutions is unique to businesses in the trenches.

"We’re practitioners here," Lindsay said, "so we understand what’s happening to clients on the battle field."

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