As the first week in July came to a close, with it did the spectacle that is MAD//Fest. For many Brits, MAD//Fest is a bigger and more important date in the calendar than Cannes Lions; not only is it cheaper to access, it also strikes the perfect balance between a festival and best in class speakers. I was at Cannes a couple of weeks earlier and can definitely understand that sentiment. Cannes is today more of an unconference than the creative awards-fest it once was, whilst MAD//Fest self proclaims that it’s as much about the connections as the content.

Other than Cannes attracting an international audience and being on a beach on the Cote d’Azur (that’s a pretty good draw to be fair!) versus being set in a car park/club in Brick Lane, there are few other major differences. Whilst AI was a quieter undertone at MAD//Fest, many of the same themes around how to ride the storm of economic disruption, sustainability of media, bravery and retail media took centre stage. I was pleased to see though that the marketers at MAD//Fest were more in touch with the crippling cost of living crisis and how this impacts their customers and therefore, their marketing.

I’ve been fortunate to be involved in MAD//Fest since day zero, when Dan Brain, co-founder, pitched the idea of MAD//Fest to me and have seen it grow in stature and attendees over the years. This year was in such high demand, that, yes, there were capacity issues and long queues outside. None of us wanted that especially when the rain came, but it’s the growing pains that anything brilliant suffers. As Dave Katz said in his post event “love letter to MadFest” on LinkedIn: “This is a festival, there's supposed to be an element of chaos, it's what helps make it fun.” Dan and fellow founder, Ian Houghton, care more than anything about people loving the event so rest assured they have already been problem solving ahead for next year’s event. I belong to several advertising WhatsApp groups and I saw more love and understanding than anger - frustration quickly flipped to FOMO. 

I was host for the main Hexagon Stage on day one - boy was it a sensational day. I took the opportunity at the beginning of the day to remind the audience that we were all in the business of using marketing as an engine for growth which is more essential than ever given the challenging climate. The theme was aptly “Riders of The Storm”, so there was much talk of cost of living, inflation and the demand for more from less.

Much like Dunkirk British spirit, those marketers attracted to speak on a MAD//Fest stage are also the brave ones - in my consulting business CvE, we often talk about the best CMO’s being the ideal clients being those able to illustrate “confident vulnerability” and Michael Gillane, Heineken's Marketing Director, was the poster child for that. Michael shared many of the marketing successes of the last few years, including winning the ear of the board, getting fixed investment levels agreed and in-housing media strategy. With refreshing honesty often not seen at a marketing event, Michael was also vulnerable enough to front up to the challenge that younger groups are drinking less and that Heineken now needs to adapt their strategy to address this.

Given my allegiance to Manchester United, I was always going to cherish the session with my hero Gary Neville. However, from everyone I spoke to, both male and female, it’s evident he successfully connected with the MAD//Fest masses through his effortless commentary on leadership, how to run businesses/engage teams, and importantly, lift up and put female talent in to top table roles. His admission that 60 minute football could become a real format in the future was also a golden egg for the football fanatics in the room.

In the closing speech of the day, fittingly academic Professor David Nutt gave a fascinating lecture on the work he is doing to create a new drink that has the same positive affect on the brain as alcohol (greater confidence and improved sociability) without any of the negatives (liver damage, memory loss, headaches, hangovers etc) . If ever there was a sobering reminder that consumer behaviour and innovation can quickly change the landscape for a category, this was it. This is what makes marketing so captivating - we deal with human behaviour which is unpredictable and embracing new platforms that continuously force a change up in strategy - Threads being the latest that dropped during the event.

Pete Harbour, CMO of Unilever’s ice cream business across Europe, also gave us a timely reminder that quantitative data is not always the answer and encouraged the audience to balance both qualitative and quant sources of insight. 

Yet, the best of the day’s insights were from the CMO panel in the afternoon. Three very different businesses and their CMO’s took the stage: Sarah from Dominos, Nikki from Henkel and Kristof from Avon. Avon is a 130+ year old beauty business sold door-to-door but now embracing DTC, e-commerce and building a consumer facing brand. As Sarah expressed, Dominos is in a fierce weekly battle on Friday night for share. She beautifully articulated the need for consistent mental availability and experiential marketing to win share of mind and then an almost religious focus on converting this demand through precision marketing enabled by by data and tech. Nikki from Henkel reminded us that FMCG’s still sell most of their product in store but called out the doubling down on e commerce and commercial skill sets as well as harmonising trade and retail media strategies. From listening to Heineken and Dominos it’s evident they are taking more control of their comms in house but equally the role of agencies still remains critical for these brands and remain the mainstay for brands like Henkel. 

I closed out the panel asking each panellist to use one word to sum up how they felt about the second half of the year and we heard: “inspired”, “excited” and “bullish” - this was after hearing that each is grappling with increasing complexity and the demand for more from less, however, in spite of this the spirit was resoundingly positive.

There’s no better way to bring this piece to a close than paraphrasing Sarah Barron’s comment that, “there has never been a more exciting time to be a marketer” - we are as an industry defined by being brilliant problem solvers, bringing our creativity to the table and leveraging innovation to deliver more. Thank you MAD//Fest for reminding us all of that. Until next year, which will undoubtedly be taking over more of the Truman Brewery site….