The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is where every sort of gadget maker unveils the newest giant TVs, wearable electronics and digitally connected cars.
But increasingly, CES is also the go-to destination for Madison Avenue to make deals and figure out how the latest technology will transform the advertising business. Events like the annual upfront TV ad sales period in the spring, and Advertising Week in the fall, are less important than CES as a nexus for determining how more than $100 billion gets spent every year on TV and Internet advertising.
This year over 10,000 ad industry executives will attend CES, including the CEOs of every advertising agency and conglomerate, plus the chief marketing officers of every major brand, from Procter & Gamble and Unilever, to General Electric, American Express, and Samsung, plus all the major automakers.
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What are all those executives doing at this tech trade show? Many are touring the floor, checking out the latest technology to figure out how new gadgets and devices will help hem reach consumers. With wearable devices and connected cars in the spotlight this year, agencies are looking at the potential to target consumers on the go, based on where they've been, and where they're going.
"It's become all about consumers; people are using devices and changing their behavior and it's happening at a rapid pace," said Starcom MediaVest Group CEO Laura Desmond. "Marketers see this event as the key place to see what's now and what's next and how to put consumers at the center so they can reach and market effectively."
Said Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever, the world's second largest advertiser: "We want to be on the leading edge, we want to be able to connect with people where they are." And where they are, Weed says, is on mobile devices, using wearable devices like fitness monitors, and using digital technology in cars. "The same people who are on their mobile phones are eating Ben & Jerry's."
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And some of the biggest names in digital advertising are taking the stage—Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and Publicis CEO Maurice Levy are doing a joint on-stage conversation about the convergence of big data and communication. After that conversation Wednesday, MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan will interview Facebook VP Carolyn Everson, plus executives from Ford and MillerCoors, about the convergence of advertising and technology.
Starcom MediaVest Group took advantage of the spotlight of CES to unveil new technology to create branded content—articles that promote products—at scale, in a new cost-effective way. Until now, it's been time intensive to create "native" advertising, which make brand messages look like they're editorial content. But Starcom MediaVest's initiative, called "Content at Scale," lets advertisers tap into articles from publishers including Time, Martha Stewart Omnimedia and Forbes. The technology allows advertisers to browse a library of what's been published and include excerpts from articles in display ads. The publisher and advertiser then share the revenue.
Weed is also looking for new start-ups in which Unilever's marketing venture fund could invest. The idea is to find tech-driven companies in the marketing space that will give Unilver's brands innovative ways to reach consumers. For example, Unilever invested in a mobile marketing company called Brandtone, which allows the company to deliver mobile ads not just to smartphones, but more basic feature phones around the world. Now, the consumer products company is hunting for the next technological innovation to allow it to reach consumers in a more efficient way.
So which companies will benefit from the shift toward digital? Desmond says she sees Yahoo, , and Twitter, plus Samsung, benefiting from the ongoing shift to mobile devices. Weed wouldn't pick favorites but says he's meeting with all the major players, from and Samsung, to Twitter and Facebook.
With seemingly endless meetings and parties, the executives are touring the show floor. It all comes down to the rush for all these brands and executives to get "to the future first," as Weed put it.
—By CNBC's Julia Boorstin. Follow her on Twitter: @JBoorstin.