Feats Of Clay (And Char, Of Course)

The Media Insights and Entertainment Conference for 2022 is in the books, and I’m told they exceeded their registration goal.  I’m not quite sure how much our participation or any of us specifically had to do with that, but I can tell you about someone whose efforts certainly did matter.  Frankly, were it not for him there may not have even been any conference at all.

Clay Collier is someone I’ve been fortunate to know for over 20 years when our paths crossed at the CTAM Research Conference, the predecesor to MI&E.  If that acronym isn’t immediately recognizable to you, it’s likely a generational thing.  Cable was once streaming, the shiny new technological marvel that was revolutionalizing the way people watched television and attitudinaly chose to pay for options and content the broadcast industry was not providing for free,  But for as much as you need to know Clay’s story, you also must know the story of the pioneer who hired him, Char Beales.

Char Beales is a dynamic force of nature and passionate reseacher whose first association with the organization known as CTAM, the Cable Television Advertising and Marketing,  goes back foru decades.  That was when everyone was being barraged with ads that urged them to “want their MTV”, were amazed that 24 hours a day of sportscasts and Australian Rules football could be must-see TV, and stayed up late to see bare breasts and hear f-words on HBO and Showtime.  Since Char was there and I wasn’t, I’ll let her pick up the narrative here:

CTAM was founded in 1976 when the first glimpses of a new medium were emerging. Marketers were operating on shoe string budgets and research was non-existent. Cable recruited marketers from other industries who were shocked there was no consumer research and demanded cable get smarter about consumers.

The first CTAM Research Workshop was held in Nov, 1982. To gain attendance, the researcher had to bring along their marketer. I was head of research at NCTA and a member of the CTAM board. I attended the workshop which was a tiny gathering of 10-15 people.

In the 80’s and 90’s, CTAM produced a number of research studies for the industry, since few operator or content companies had significant research staff. There were national Attitudes & Usage studies, specific projects on advanced set top boxes, new product tiers, consumer decision-making, early users of new media and non-subscribers. Over the years, CTAM produced at least 30 fairly major research studies that the industry jointly funded and benefited from the data. In 1985, CTAM partnered with Nielsen to produce a database of pay TV subscribers, churn and movement between networks. It was controversial because HBO and Showtime didn’t want people to know about the churn and was ultimately shuttered in 1995.

I was named CTAM President in 1992. The key players in the research world back then were Lee Clayton, Pete Gatseos on the operator side, Jeff Morris, Bob Maxwell and Bob Sieber on the content side and Paul Lenburg and Susan Whiting on the vendor side. In 1993, I hired Grace Ascolese to create a CTAM Research Department. She was followed by Barbara Gural, Jinling Elliot and Clay Collier. After years of suggestions to include a researcher on the CTAM board, Betsy Frank was elected in 2001, followed by Tim Brooks in 2007.

The Research Conference was a  idden gem. Always small at 50 – 150 people, many researchers were willing to share real information when the industry was on its rapid ascent to success. Everyone was making money and the competition wasn’t really a factor. As we hit the aughts, competition between networks was becoming more intense and information sharing decreased. Still, the conference was a valued annual gathering to establish themes, take credit for insights and have researcher fun. We held the conference in some great locations, especially San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Miami. It never made a lot of money, but I considered it an essential service for a super important CTAM constituency.

So while Char laid the foundation from the brick and mortar a nascent industry gave her and the convention, Clay was tasked with finding it a new home.  Again, it’s more appropriate for him to pick up the story from here:

When Char hired me as VP Research for CTAM I was head of primary research for Discovery Networks US and had been an attendee of the CTAM Research Conference as it was called then and an active participant on the planning committee for the conference.  I was a great supporter of CTAM and the conference at the time and had brought my entire research staff over to CTAM’s HQ in Alexandria to see how we could be more involved with the organization.  I was also not shy in telling Char what I thought could be improved with the event and how it could be broadened to benefit a larger community than just the cable industry. CTAM was really just about cable companies (distributors) at that time (Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing) and I thought that the organization and particularly the conference could do a better job of serving the content producers, cable networks and emerging technology companies who were producing content.  I was in the Michael Eisner camp of “Content is King”.  At some point during one of our meetings, Char told me I should come over to CTAM and run the event if I thought I could improve it!  When an opening came up she officially made the offer and I made the move to CTAM.

When I got there the “Research Conference” was a bit anemic, 160 attendees and key attendee feedback scores that were well below other CTAM events including the CTAM Summit.  Key indicators like Value for the Money and Plan to Attend Next Year were very low.

Char and I decided to do a major overhaul of the event both in speakers, programming of sessions and marketing and tell everyone that we were doing so.  I think the line that Char came up with is we were giving the conference “A First Class Upgrade”

Uve Hodgins and I were producing the event at the time and we created a very strong and diverse planning committee with members from all facets of the media community to help plan content for the event and bring in new and innovative speakers.  I went out and recruited one of the best in the industry to be one of the conference co-chairs, Fontana Fitzwilson with TV Guide and we set out to shake up the conference as we knew it.

One of the things that popped really high each year in the post conference survey was the importance of Networking at the event.  The conference had been going on at that time for close to 25 years and it was the one time each year that senior media researchers had the opportunity to get together.  They really looked forward to and cherished that chance to see one another and share common experiences.
Fontana and I decided that one of our goals would be to enhance and expand networking opportunities at the conference and one way to do that was bring back the networking dinner and dinner speaker.  This event had been dropped years before due to budgets and conference revenue losses.

We called our friends and Nielsen and asked if they would step up and sponsor an industry dinner and speaker at the CTAM Conference, gave them a number that we needed to make it work and held our breath.  Nielsen came back and said yes and on top of that, would sponsor the dinner for the next few years!  It was a huge success!  We had Malcolm Gladwell as our inaugural dinner speaker with many great speakers and dinners to follow.

That year in San Diego the conference attendance set a record, we added exhibit demo booths; they sold out and the post conference attendee scores almost doubled and several key indicators topped the CTAM Summit.

The following years the conference kept growing and we worked hard to innovate, bring in new media players and new thinking, changed the conference name to add “Insights” and “Innovation” to the name and dropped “Research” entirely.

So one day when Uve, Char and I were sitting around trying to decide what the key drivers and benefits of the conference were and would be for the next year, Char suddenly said ”I just realized what makes this conference so unique from other media conferences and other CTAM events, you have created a Media Community”  It’s more than just a conference, it’s a loyal community of media executives who value their time together and appreciate the event for much more than sessions and speakers, the content is certainly important but so is their chance to get together and drink and laugh and catch up.

We did expand the audience/content/speakers as the industry consolidated (particularly cable) and I will leave it to you to tell that story as you were a part of that transformation on the planning committee and chair of the event.

CTAM came under continued scrutiny, at the end of my tenure, by the cable companies (mostly Comcast who were paying the bulk of CTAM’s dues at the time).  They wanted to eliminate all resources and money spent on conferences (Summit, Research and Digital). They felt that CTAM should focus entirely on programs that directly benefitted them.  The conferences were benefiting content companies and others more at the time. They finally decided that CTAM would stop producing all conferences, SkiTAM benefiting disabled skiers and all other programs that did not directly benefit the cable companies.  They also cancelled all custom research benefiting the industry.

So as VP Research, I was out of a job.

When the conference folded, several people including Holly Leff Pressman went to Kim Rivelle at Informa who they knew as a for-profit conference production company and said that they didn’t want to see the conference go away and suggested that they hire me and bring the conference to Informa. That is exactly what happened later that year and the newly branded Media Insights & Engagement Conference was re-born.

I ran the conference for several years until Informa (at that time called IIR USA) reorganized, Kim left the organization and others came in and decided that the conference wasn’t big enough to support have me full time.  I left IIR for several months and they did one conference without me.  After that they decided that I was really the face of the conference, they didn’t really understand the media business nor did they know the key players and that having the relationships with the media community was far more important than just running a conference.  And that’s where we are today.

The smart people at Informa today like Kelly Schram, Anastasia Ioannou and Liz Hinkis now realize that this is more than a conference, it truly is a community.  It’ not like the hundreds of other conferences Informa puts on across multiple industries each year. 

This is the only Informa conference where the attendees have such a key role in developing the event through the Advisory Board.  The only conference where clients sponsor!  ESPN, A&E, Crown Media, Warner Brothers, Discovery, Viacom, AETN and others all have sponsored.  They don’t have to sponsor anything, they are not trying to attract more business by sponsoring, they are doing it to support the conference.  To support the community that the conference has created.

And know you know how I got to Nashville, and the year before learned that Clay’s way happier when he’s near water in Florida, ideally with a fishing pole in one hand and a beverage in the other.

Oh yeah, my story–because you know by now I’ve got one, too.

Clay and I, along with media legend and fellow Mets lover Artie Bulgrin from ESPN, were tasked with chairing one of the later CTAM Research Conferences in Arizona.  One of our more inspired decisions to promote the concept of community and camaraderie that he cited earlier was to bring in a big name dinner speaker to provide a reason for the conference to share at least one meal together in a fancy atmosphere.  Gladwell, who was a best-selling author with a populist approach to research, was a natural.  Later year’s options were a bit more tangentially connected.  One particularly intriguing option we had in our year was Gabriel Kaplan.  As baby boomers, we reckoned that having a chance to be entertained by someone whose comedy career began as a high school teacher on WELCOME BACK, KOTTER was a natural.  At this point in his career, Gabe had become an investor and personality in the poker world, which was highly popular on ESPN, NBC cable networks and GSN and offered the allure of interactive media that their networks and advertisers coveted.  Gabe had become a prolific poker player in the days following Kotter, and as the guy who attempted to educate John Travolta at the outset of his career he would forever be recognized.

Or so we thought.

For one thing, anyone a decade or so younger than Clay or myself who wasn’t a poker fan had no idea who Gabe or what KOTTER was.  Secondly, as someone determined to establish himself in his current field he was reluctant to even discuss his days on the show.  As it’s easy to research, Gabe had several adversarial negotiations with the producers during his four-year run, particularly when Travolta became eminently more popular as a co-star of a show he had personally developed from his stand-up act.  We just didn’t do our homework.  Thirdly, we learned that Gabe likes to drink on his flights, and when he arrived in Phoenix he was a tad inebriated and quite pissed off at the airline for losing his luggage.  Finally, when Gabe did take the stage, after doing a few minutes of warmed-over shtick he reluctantly took some questions.  An eager attendee wanted to know what he thought of the role of research in knowing about his audience and his investments.  He scoffed and said “F–k that.  My audience is degenerate gamblers like me.  I go on instinct”.

Yep, he knew his audience quite well.

Fortunately, we all had a few drinks ourselves, the food was great, and we somehow came through with decent approval ratings for the event, entertainment choice aside.  Because, as we’ve all noted, it’s as important to connect with people personally as it is to know what’s going in the industry.  The last couple of years have been exceptionally challenging for the event planning industry.  There’s only so much intimacy you can get from a glorified zoom call.  Thankfully, the success of this year’s event reinforced how much being in the same room with people you know matters, how much you can pick up while drinking a cocktail named for the events’ chairpeople as well as a presentation, and why, virus or not, it’s absolutely essential to keep the concept of networking together to assure that there’s still an industry to support us.

Thanks, Clay, and of course Char (and yes, Kim too) for keeping this flame alive and the necessity of business friendship a lesson that even younger generations are learning to appreciate.  I’m looking forward to future events and I absolutely promise we will never suggest hiring a washed-up comedian to join us ever again.  Frankly, we’re better entertainment, and we can hold our liquor better.

Until next time…


2 thoughts on “Feats Of Clay (And Char, Of Course)”

  1. The good ole days, thanks Steve and Clay! I remember being in the resort golf cart with Gabe and he told me he had dental work done – now I know what really happened. Ha.


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