COLOGNE, Germany—Strolling the crowded Dmexco expo floor, filled beyond capacity with eager and enthusiastic German and European attendees, you can sense an energy not usually seen at media conferences. But that wasn't the only surprise.
Hall 7 of Dmexco, which took place in Cologne's sprawling Koelnmesse expo center (about the size of three or four New York Javitz Centers) housed the usual suspects of Google, Adobe, Spotify and other tech vendors. But sprinkled in among them were ad agency booths.
To be more specific, media agency booths … something I have never seen before in my 25 years of attending conferences (starting with my first National Association of Broadcasters show in Atlanta back in 1990).
There was the GroupM booth, bustling with activity. Nearby stood the Dentsu Aegis Network booth, where Americas and EMEA CEO Nigel Morris held court before taking to the Dmexco stage to moderate a panel on women's issues. IPG Mediabrands' booth may have been tucked closer to the back of Hall 7, but it did not lack for attendees and clients.
MediaLink's booth—the company is never far away from its media agency frenemies—was bedecked with a campsite theme, replete with faux fire pit (but also occasional real fire as s'mores were served at various points during the day, to the wonderment of many German passersby).
There was even a branded Agency Lounge, which housed the likes of OMD, Havas, Razorfish and Vivaki.
So what on earth are agencies doing here in this capacity? They never spend this kind of money on building and renting booth space—they're usually organizing curated media tours from their suites at nearby hotels and hosting private dinners at restaurants with conference bigwigs.
The agencies I spoke to said their presence at Dmexco served as a combination of client retention and cajoling, the chance to catch up with partners and vendors, and even strike up new relationships.
"Remember, Dmexco isn't just an exhibit hall—it's a conference, too, and a place for great conversations," explained Henry Tajer, global CEO of IPG Mediabrands. "It's a chance for us to see what our partners are doing and to see who's partnering with whom."
Mediabrands held sessions and seminars at its booth on new-media issues such as "Herding Cats: How to Keep Control of Social Advertising," while keg upon keg of Kölsh beer was swilled and pretzels were consumed.
The presence of agencies (some of who had set up booths at Dmexco in prior years) caught a few observers by surprise. "I was pleasantly surprised to see agencies here in force," said Barry Frey, president and CEO of the Digital Place-Based Advertising Association, who was attending his first Dmexco. "It appears they're showing off their digital chops and tech capabilities in the face of a whirlwind of disintermediation. They're promoting themselves like I've never seen before."
And there's the rub. At a digital media conference that overflowed with cutting-edge tech vendors and media companies proudly displaying their data sets to anyone who would listen, media agencies found the perfect opportunity to plant their flag and declare, "We are and remain an integral part of this business—and don't you forget it."