On the 8th and 9th of November I had the pleasure of attending the British Promax conference with my colleague Paul Grainge as part of our AHRC-funded project on the promotional screen industries. Promax is the industry body for the TV marketing industry, covering all of the companies and disciplines involved in the promotion of channels and programmes within the British television industry. This includes in-house teams within broadcasters, as well as independent agencies, and covers jobs ranging from graphic designers and media planners, to PR and marketing. The aim of the conference, according to Tim Hughes (the co-chair of Promax’s executive committee and On-Air Marketing Director for Discovery Networks UK) is to bring people together and to inspire creativity, focused largely on entry level and mid-level staff. In this blog I want to reflect on what we might learn from attending such events, particularly in terms of the ‘industrial self-reflexivity’ (to borrow John Caldwell’s term) on display.
The Promax conference was divided into two spaces, a more informal and creative space upstairs and a more traditional space for panel talks downstairs. The focus on creative skills and inspiration in the upstairs space is perhaps not surprising given that a significant proportion of the attendees seemed to be creatives engaged in the practice of writing and producing short form promotional work. It also speaks to an industry that is having to adjust to the changes wrought by digital technologies. As Tim Hughes claimed, ‘the industry used to be bigger. The BBC used to have a massive department … now everyone is much more multi-skilled. So it used to be about the tricks of the trade. There used to be a lot about what’s the latest bit of kit? How do you do this? What’s the best in sound design? What’s the best in direction? Now it’s more about creative inspiration.’ (interview with the author). In the upstairs space at Promax participants were explicitly invited to ‘get involved’ in a multitude of activities. Alongside more conventional show and tell sessions, such as demonstrations of new technologies, including a 3D printer, were zones focused on creativity, play and competition. In one area you could play Scalextric, courtesy of Universal Publishing Production Music, with trophies awarded to the winners of each race. Elsewhere you could make felt holders for your mobile phone or (to my joy as an avid knitter) take up some needles and learn how to knit. ‘The Ring’ (in association with Spark and Rumble audio design) was a space in which you were invited to team up with other participants and compete to make the best radio ads around unusual themes, such as ‘selling guns to nuns’, which were voted on at the end of each day. On the second day there was a large table where participants had to construct something out of Lego in response to a word pulled out of a (Lego) hat, with the best creation being awarded a prize at the end of the conference.
In some respects this upstairs room could be seen to be offering a form of professional training, particularly in the sessions and activities focused on skills and information of direct relevance to promotional work, such as creating a radio ad. Indeed, Tim Hughes suggested to us that the fees for attendance at the conference tended to come out of companies’ training budgets. Yet what was on offer here extended well beyond skills-based training for creatives involved in promotional work. Constructing an environment in which you are encouraged to demonstrate your ability to be creative by making things out of Lego or learning to knit suggests an industry keen to position itself as a site of creative work. Here creativity in itself is being flaunted and celebrated by an industry often tainted by the negative associations attached to marketing and promotion as distinctly uncreative sectors of the cultural industries that, in some accounts, actively work to undermine the creativity of film and television production. While we were informed by one participant that the conference theme was creativity the conference programme denied the existence of a theme at all. It stated, ‘Our theme this year? Well, there is no theme. It’s just Promax, pure and simple. Who we are and what we stand for – which is bringing the industry together collectively to be inspired, to learn from each other through collaboration and bring out our best through competition.’ The upstairs room seemed to embody this industrial identity, with its emphasis on playful creativity, collaboration and competition.
Indeed, the emphasis on creativity extended beyond the upstairs room and imbued the entire rhetoric of the conference itself. The signposts throughout the conference were large cut-outs of famous icons, with, for example, the registration desk being signalled by a cut out of Buzz Lightyear with the text ‘To Promax Registration and Beyond’. Meanwhile, a panel in the downstairs space about the relationship between marketers and creative entitled ‘Let’s Stay Together’ introduced each pair of participants with images of them as famous double-acts (the picture shows the image used to introduce Tim Hughes and Robin Garnett, Creative Director, Discovery Networks UK) and interviewed them on a heart shaped sofa. Even the conference programme included a central page of stickers that you could add to the front of your name badge under the section labelled ‘For’, which included ‘A new job’, ‘The food’, ‘Whatever I can get’, ‘My boss made me’, and ‘Swingers party’, as well as a sticker that simply said ‘please do not stick in inappropriate places’. This rhetoric of playfulness struck me as being so very different from the typical academic conference and contributed to a broader emphasis on creative ideas imbuing the most banal elements of the conference itself (such as the name badges and the furniture used for the panels).
In contrast to the upstairs space, downstairs offered a more traditional conference experience, where you could sit and listen to panels on themes such as the influence and impact of fan culture, marketing the Olympics and Paralympics, and the UK obsession with Scandinavian drama. The panels here tended to focus on experts sharing their experiences and knowledge. Much of this was based on personal experience, which was given significant weight. For example, although the panels on Scandinavian drama and fan culture did each include an academic (it was great to see Matt Hills representing our discipline on the fan culture panel), the focus was the application of knowledge – why are fans important and how should we deal with them? – drawing on the practical experience of the participants. As an academic I was struck by the ways in which knowledge was presented on these panels. There seemed to be little expectation that knowledge should be backed up by evidence. As one Red Bee staff member said after attending an academic ‘hothouse’ that we organised at Nottingham, in industry conferences the participants just want to know what they need to know, while at academic conferences there is far more emphasis on method (how the knowledge was obtained). Certainly at Promax there were some panels and speakers who made a number of potentially contentious claims not backed up with any evidence, which appeared to go uncommented on and (as far as I could tell) unnoticed. Indeed Paul and I were surprised at the little amount of time left for questions during these panel events and the reticence of the audience in asking questions. This again points to a fundamental aspect of the industrial self-reflexivity at play. At an academic conference, questions are your currency. We teach our students and our graduate students to be able to question everything and to take nothing for granted. This is one of the bases of the industrial self-reflexivity of academic work itself. Not so within the television marketing industry. This is not to suggest that the work created within this industry is not based on evidence-led research. Neither is it to suggest that this industry does not ask questions or prize those members of staff capable of answering those questions. Indeed we have met a number of very smart people and have been struck by the way in which this industry seems to be asking many of the same questions that we are asking. But it does point to the different status that knowledge has within this industry. Here knowledge is a functional property – what do I need to know in order to create great marketing campaigns? Within academia knowledge is the end in itself. And so it is not surprising that the awards ceremony that rounded off the conference rewarded, above all, creativity in the campaigns produced and their effectiveness, rather than the knowledge and research that sat behind those campaigns.
And it is worth ending with a few reflections on the awards ceremony that ended the conference on the Friday night. This was a black tie event, although to the relief of Paul the dress code was not strictly limited to dinner jackets. It was held at the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane and there was the real sense that this was a reward for those people who had produced the best work over the past year. The composition of those attending was different from the conference. Here it was the core members of the teams who had been nominated for awards that attended, accompanied by some of the more senior staff from each company. The emphasis on reward extended across the way that the ceremony and dinner was organised, from the complimentary drinks (accompanied by a live music act) before the dinner, to the ritual of bottles of champagne being bought every time someone won an award. A staff member from Red Bee told us that they had a designated member of staff at each table who had the specific responsibility for buying a bottle of champagne if anyone on their table was to win. The winning of awards was accompanied by whoops of joy, particularly from the ITV table, who, under a new marketing and creative team significantly improved their performance at this year’s awards. This video shows Red Bee Media winning the award for Best Indent/Branding Package. I apologise for the quality and do please ignore Paul and I talking over the end of the video!
I was struck by this sense of reward at the ceremony which seems shockingly lacking in the academic profession where the work itself, it seems to me, is deemed to be the reward in itself. But I think this is partly to do with the differences between public and private sector work. Within the promotional screen industries such awards are part of the currency that one might use to move across into better jobs. In an industry that is far more insecure than academia, such award ceremonies act not only to reward good work but also as a form of currency that the recipients can use in their own career trajectory. And this extends beyond the employees to the companies themselves, where awards can be particularly useful in generating new clients and maintaining existing client relationships. It was important for Red Bee, for example, to gain awards not only to reward its staff but also to prove to potential clients its position as a leader within this industry.
In many ways, then, such conferences act as sites that make visible some of the values underlying particular industrial sectors and professions, and in particular the ways in which such industries express their own values to themselves. Promax painted a picture of an industry particularly concerned to express the centrality of creativity to its own professional practice. It is notable that creativity here is not associated with the lone auteur, but specifically linked to collaboration and competition. For an industry whose creative output depends on collaboration within teams with different roles and expertise (from account managers and strategic planners to editors and designers) and between these teams and the clients themselves, it is perhaps unsurprising that much of the conference and the dinner focused on social interaction. Yet in a highly competitive industry where reputation (for individuals and companies) is central, competition and competitiveness is also actively encouraged. If the Promax conference does function as a form of training for staff within the industry then part of what is being taught here are a set of professional values in which creativity stems from playfulness, collaboration, competition and the practical application of knowledge. It seems a far cry from the professional values that we might be teaching in the typical academic conference, but that’s the topic for another blog.
Catherine Johnson is a lecturer in the Department of Culture, Film, and Media at the University of Nottingham. She is the author of Branding Television and Telefantasy and co-editor of Transnational Television History and ITV Cultures. Her current research examines the broader creative industry sector that produces promotional material for the screen industries.