Suits take centre stage: How a new Edinburgh festival aims to get the backroom mixing with the talent

Click to follow
The Independent Online

They may not be the sexiest people in media, it's true. The marketers, the planners, the directors of communications, the analysts, the venture capitalists, the brand specialists and the digital strategists tend to sit in the shadows, while the content creators – the presenters, actors, writers and directors – flutter in the limelight of public recognition.

That's all set to change. The business end of the media is to get its own chance to tread the boards of fame, and where else but Edinburgh, at the height of the festival season? Britain's newest media festival will target those parts of the industry that tend to control the purse strings, but it will take place in an environment designed to give the greatest attention to their creative juices.

The inaugural Edinburgh International Marketing Festival (EIMF), which runs from 23 August for six days, is intended to help delegates to mine the latest intelligence in brand management, while rubbing shoulders with comedians, circus artists and burlesque performers.

The festival is the result of a collaboration between the advertising grandee Tom Holmes (a former executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, the Lowe Group and Grey Worldwide) and William Burdett-Coutts, who for the past 30 years has run the most famous venue of the Edinburgh Fringe, the Assembly Rooms. The industry has not had a chance to express itself like this before.

Among those booked to speak are Thomas Gensemer, the head of Washington-based Blue State Digital, the company credited with co-ordinating Barack Obama's online election campaign, and Roisin Donnelly, the UK corporate marketing director of Procter & Gamble. Media brands represented on the stage will include Google, Sony Music and LoveFilm. In recognition of the host city, Edinburgh adman Gerry Farrell will describe how he turned a sweet, orange concoction called Irn-Bru into one of Scotland's national drinks. Delegates will be entertained by Fringe performers such as the crooner Mikelangelo and the comedian Russell Kane.

"It's not about being stuck in a conference centre," Burdett-Coutts says. "This is happening in the hustle and bustle of everything else going on in Edinburgh. This is the point of the event. It's about getting out there."

The festival is being started at a critical time not just for media owners but for brands in all sectors of the economy, not least in the performing arts, which are reeling from recent announcements of cuts in funding. "The old structures of doing things are breaking down. We have to think about where the money comes from on one hand and where the public is on the other. The things that link those two are communication, entertainment and the world of performance."

The programme puts a strong emphasis on online marketing ideas. "We want to appeal to the next generation that has been brought up with Google, Facebook and eBay and are much more digitally literate," Holmes says. "We are starting to identify new and emerging companies that we can showcase in a way that hasn't been done before."

The inimitable Peter York will be talking on modern marketing opportunities and the festival will be devoting much time to the vexed question of how brands can engage with music, an obvious strategy but one that requires increasing sophistication with consumers so media-aware.

In the 300-year-old Club Bar of the Assembly Rooms, EIMF delegates will have the chance to mix with performing artists. Graham Norton and David Walliams have been regular visitors at past festivals. "The ideas that get chucked around in that room between performers are extraordinary," says Burdett-Coutts, who also runs London's Riverside Studios complex and the Brighton Comedy Festival. "It's the melting pot. You can end up with someone running a festival in Sydney, chatting about ideas to a writer from Chicago, and out of that projects tend to emerge. How do you tie into that the world of brands?"

Both Holmes and Burdett-Coutts were students at Rhodes University in South Africa. Burdett-Coutts came to London when he "did a runner" after being called up to what was then the Rhodesian army. Holmes went into advertising, working with the Saatchi brothers and then Sir Frank Lowe.

It was Sir Frank who created the "Reassuringly Expensive" Stella Artois brand, using his membership at Queen's Club in London to create the very upmarket Stella Artois lawn tennis tournament, and with it lots of free television advertising. "It was a huge success and provided the brand with a much more effective route to market. It's getting back to those days now," Holmes says.

Indeed. Brands are now attempting to reposition themselves with imagination but minimal budgets.

Holmes, the founder of creativebrief, an international directory of agencies from all marketing sectors, says the splintering of the media has created confusion. "A lot of these brands have no idea where to go to find out what's happening. What we want to do is find this fresh way where they can find out what's available in a format that is enjoyable and entertaining," he says.

But the two former Rhodes University students do seem to have one regret: that word "marketing" in the title is both overly simplistic for a broad-based media festival and, dare I say, a bit of a turn-off. "Marketing does have an image that isn't sexy," Burdett-Coutts says, "and it's probably not the right word [for the festival]. It's about the world of media, marketing, communications, engagement really." Holmes puts it another way. "What we want," he says, "is the whole rainbow." Preferably one with a pot of gold at the end.