The Return of The Illuminati

Some of you may have caught my recent piece in ADWEEK’s Jan 2nd issue, “7 Emerging Conferences Every Advertising Professional Should Know About.” This article stems from a larger dynamic I’ve observed around a new class of events — ones that are highly curated, invite-only, experiential and purpose-driven.

I lovingly refer to the emergence of these communities as “The Return of the Illuminati.”

In my piece, I talk about the ongoing importance of tent-pole events like CES, Cannes, SXSW and others as a permanent fixture on my agenda but this new set of events and communities has had an immense impact in in my own insight gathering process. It’s also expanded my network of uncommon practitioners exponentially.

From an outsiders perspective (especially to those foreign to the worlds of media/marketing), the fact that I attend, let alone that it’s part of my job must seem ridiculous. Selling them through to my wife Sara has actually been the biggest challenge. I owe her a lot of dog walks!

Colleagues starting off in the business often ask how I was able to sell through attending such events early on in my career and I tell them the same story every time, that I actually paid out of pocket for my first SXSW trip and took PTO to do so.

I’ve always believed investing in my own career from a network and community perspective to be an important factor to my success. Coming back with what I call “book reports” that I could roadshow to clients demonstrated to leadership that while others were boondoggling, I was creating value. Same went for CES and others, quickly making me a must attend on the delegate list. If you spot kids on your team doing the same, my advice — hold onto them dearly because this is a very difficult mentality to hire for.

Why are these events so important and why should they be to you?

To recap the ADWEEK piece, there are five areas I look for when evaluating emerging conferences and communities but in this post I’d like to go into them in more depth.

1. Attract a balanced audience of inventors and innovators: It’s important to distinguish between the two Inventors are the scientists, technologists and artists deep in the experimentation or creative process, while innovators are those using the inventions and providing commercial value.

  • When you’re in the business of curating emerging opportunities and ideas for clients, access to personalities driving change is your currency there’s no better place to find these folks then at venues where they’re highlighting their work and finding collaborators of their own. These emerging evens are often intimate providing access and 1:1 dialogs with such people.

2. Prioritize human connection: It needs to represent more than simply putting people in a room. I look for events that focus on facilitating idea-generating dialogue, collaboration and memorable experiences that result in long-lasting relationships. I also look to events that cultivate a community that lives beyond the event itself.

  • Memorable experiences drive deeper connections — it’s as simple as that. Think about where you’ve developed your most valuable relationships whether they be personal or professional. I buy into Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi theory of Flow big time and if you haven’t seen his TED talk or read his books, you should. The premise is that when we’re in “flow” we experience deep enjoyment, creativity and a total involvement in life.

3. Provide access to uncommon personalities and schools of thought: Personally, I don’t want to keep seeing the same programming experience at the major tent poles. Instead, I want to put myself in unconventional environments where otherwise uncharted conversations are facilitated. In fact, one of the tactics I employ when attending is to specifically seek out the off-the-beaten-path and uncommon sessions.

  • I like to pride myself on the fact that i have an incredibly diverse group of friends and colleagues that cover a wide range of expertise and pursuits but in order to “collect” that network, I’ve made a concerted effort to place myself in environments that attract that diversity. It’s probably why i attend so many of these events in the first place. It gives me incredible perspective but also the reputation for being a go-to for sourcing talent innovating across the social sciences. It takes effort and restraint. When attending these events, it’s important to come back with business results but also a few uncommon relationships.

4. Include purpose-driven elements: The early days of SXSW were dedicated to how attendees could harness the internet to serve the greater good; similarly, I look for events wherevthe gathering is about leveraging our skill sets and networks to solve larger socioeconomic issues, allowing attendees to connect on larger, more personal issues that will enable deeper, longer-lasting relationships.

  • We all have causes near and dear to us and when we find people that share that passion, we create a deeper connection with one another. When we identify these shared interests, naturally the stories that lie under the surface that rise above and we let ourselves become a bit vulnerable. This vulnerability allows us to connect as people not as potential partners. What I’ve come to realize is that when events include elements of larger purpose, the relationships that result are much stronger. Whether by happenstance or design, more and more events are including purpose-driven elements to facilitate these relationships. I’d like to think they’re coming as a result of people caring more and not the latter.

5. Successfully extend the physical connection through digital: More than offering a template app to showcase programming, an event should have an underpinning of strong thought leadership and technology to help attendees connect fluidly pre-, during and post-experience.

  • I probably have dozens of conference apps on my phone that i never use, but there are a few that i go back to again and again. These are the ones that continue to provide value post experience. Whether its the ability to connect with folks throughout the year, provide fresh content, or set up digital forums, investing in these types of digital extensions is incredibly important in keeping the event top-of-mind from year to year but also helps me justify those hefty delegate fees.

Interested in seeing some of the events I’ve highlighted, read the full article in ADWEEK and stay tuned as I plan cover others along the way.

See you on the circuit!

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