"Hi, are you ‘you’? I’m me. Nice- to-meet-ya,” says a flustered Matt Scheckner in a thick New York drawl, 15 minutes late for our interview.
The fast-talking global chief executive of Advertising Week has landed in London days after the inaugural Latin America edition of the industry exposition, before hopping on a plane to South Africa tomorrow.
Jumping straight into conversation before taking a seat, he’s telling me about his “unlikely but really close relationship with the Duke of York”, who has just helped him secure Australia House for the closing night dinner of this year’s Advertising Week Europe.
Despite being in only its fourteenth year, Advertising Week – whether in New York, London, Japan, Sydney or Mexico City – has become an industry must, a meeting of minds grappling with the tough topics facing AdLand.
“When we started in New York in 04, there was a lot of cynicism – it’s a naturally cynical industry,” he says.
“Any time you start something new, that’s a little ambitious, people want to shoot you off the top of the building. I’ve never viewed us as in competition with anybody, our product is completely unique. There isn’t anything like this that is accessible to anyone in the advertising industry.”
The first and last points are not entirely accurate. Cannes Lions, which has taken a beating in recent years for an over-focus on tech, is definitely competition. The speakers, performances and events are naturally similar. But the barrier to entry is far lower for Advertising Week. See how much change you get out of £50,000 from sending your team to the French Riviera to drink Rosé for a week.
A waiter approaches the table, Scheckner orders a chicken salad. “Would Sir like a small or large”
“Small or large?! Look at me, do I look like a small or large guy to you? Whaddaya think?”
“Anyway” he continues. “I think we have a pretty good recipe. One of the things that’s interesting about it is that it makes people feel very good about the industry they’re in. It’s not to say we don’t talk about difficult issues. We talk about real issues, and this is very important. We’ve been on gender equality, diversity, sustainability, mindfulness for years. We’ve been on those issues, and – I mean this in a straight up way – before they became popular. So we’re not just jumping on the bandwagon.”
Also like Cannes Lions, Advertising Week has an award ceremony. But unlike some of the more banal prizes gifted at the annual industry love-in in France, the D&AD Impact awards are for the “real issues” to which Scheckner refers.
“Financial empowerment, sustainability, diversity and inclusion, health and wellness, education. There are 12 categories. It’s the only award show in the world that’s about real issues, and we’re very proud of that,” says Scheckner.
It’s not all vogue niceties, however. Last year the misplaced ad debate exploded on stage at Advertising Week Europe in London.
Brand safety was always an industry issue – but this time it was splashed across the front of national newspapers. The topic of brands appearing next to, and inadvertently funding, questionable groups, has dominated the news agenda ever since. Google came under mounting pressure to create a brand-safe environment, as traditional media had always done. Scheckner thinks Matt Brittin, Google’s European boss, handled the fallout with grace.
“I give Matt enormous credit. He stood up and he said ‘this is on us, we have to do better’. I think Google recognises that it’s their obligation, and I have a lot of confidence in their ability to fix the problem.”
That’s not to say, Scheckner adds, that advertisers, many of whom instigated a kneejerk boycott of Google, don’t have to be accountable.
“The promise of a connected world is here now. It’s what enables things like the Arab Spring to take place. It’s what enables us to donate money in times of crisis, like the earthquakes in Mexico, or Haiti. It also creates an opportunity for bad actors to leverage those tools. So we have a collective responsibility to combat bad actors – whether they’re using old tools or new tools. And that’s everybody’s responsibility.”
Parallels between the brand-safe world of television and the comparative Wild West of digital have often been made. If one can do it, why not the other? “You don’t have people uploading millions of hours of programming onto ITV,” chuckles Scheckner.
When I suggest that TV is so safe due to regulatory standards backed by a fine structure – which many have suggested should extend to digital – he offers a rebuff:
“The ultimate responsibility, and the ultimate opportunity, is for the platforms. And the private sector will lead. I don’t have a whole lot of confidence in the government – yours or ours – to really understand this stuff.”