Crowds, Chaos and Innovation at CES

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is almost 50 years old, and its evolution is as fascinating as the floor itself.  What started as a conference for new TVs, radios and stereos has evolved into something much bigger and wilder: an annual meeting place for those who want to see the future of technology, marketing and entertainment.


With each successive revolution in consumer electronics — PCs, the internet, and now mobile — CES has managed to take on new industries without shedding some of the time-tested titans. But a growing component CES isn’t necessarily on display at the convention floor.  That’s because advertisers are increasingly using the show as a venue for wheeling and dealing with clients, cutting some of the biggest deals of the year.

It was at CES that countless game-changers were unveiled.

The VCR (1970), camcorder (1981), HDTV (1998) and HD Radio (2003) – to name just a few. The show has also seen the introduction of countless historical novelties that never were, like a home-security Roomba (1991) and an “iSmell” to give scent to the internet.

While many pundits argue that the most exciting new technology products are no longer launched at CES, there was plenty to impress. A few that caught our eye: Sony’s 4k projector which made Gizmodo‘s “Best of CES” and their smart tennis racket was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in years.

HERM_scoresIt’s a tennis racket with a lightweight vibration and motion sensor in its handle that can be synced to a mobile app. The sensor provides players with lots of data, including swing speed, ball speed, spin, impact position, and number of balls hit. It uses this information to analyze your swing, showing you how many backhands, forehands, slices, and volleys you’ve hit. It’s amazing.

This year, there were also a host of innovations that seemed to come straight from science fiction.

Toshiba’s “smart mirror” provides information on weather, your schedule and heart-rate whenever you’re near. And a 3d printer that could create food was sure to make any Star Trek giddy with it’s similarity to the fictional “replicator.”


But the real story, CNN noted, is the business deals being forged on and off the showroom floor.

Indeed, for all the action on the show’s many floors — walking all 1.9 million square feet of CES is a soul-sapping, dehydrating, physically grueling, thoroughly demoralizing experience — as much action happens off the floor as on. CES even has become an important stop on the circuit of chief marketing officers, who are fully aware that technology holds the key to their future…

In fact, a chief marketing officer who doesn’t attend CES runs the risk of being out touch. “Marketers who come to CES now aren’t here to see the technology per se,” says Wenda Millard, who runs the digital marketing advisory firm Medialink. “They’re really here to understand technology as a facilitator of changes in consumer behavior. They’re not looking at technology because it’s cool. They’re looking at changes in consumer behavior caused by changes in technology.”

Indeed, one of the biggest strengths of the show is that in an era when more and more business is done over long distances, you can actually see your customers and partners in the flesh.

CES attendees are a who’s who of advertising execs, big name corporations and gifted young innovators. So while a CMO can keep a pulse on the latest gadgets that offer new opportunities in ad-targeting, they can also schmooze with execs from Coca-Cola and Walmart, who are finalizing ad deals of their own.

Even as far back as 2012, AdAge brought to light floor tours being offered to media agencies looking to connect with new clients. Ad Age writes:

You could spend six months meeting all your clients and customers, or you can do it in six days,” said Jeff Levick, chief advertising officer of Spotify. “It’s a very efficient use of time.”

CES is catering to its newfound, big-spending constituency. In 2011 it added a Brand Keynote Panel, which this year will feature participants from Facebook, Unilever, GE, Hyundai and AT&T. The discussion will be moderated by MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan, who has made quite a business from connecting consumer marketers and technology — often representing both sides.

In this sense, CES will probably always be be a must-attend event for any marketing executive who wants to stay ahead of the curve. Not only do advertisers need to keep up to date on the latest technology trends (and craft inventive ways to capitalize off them), but as more behind-the-scenes deals are cut there, it’ll cost companies more money not to attend.

I had a blast at this year’s CES, and can’t wait for the next convention in 2015.