Last week was a tale of two conferences for me, each a snapshot of an industry at the crossroads of innovation and tradition—aptly delivered against the backdrop of a global and political push for change. 

First up, B2B Marketing's Ignite —the premier gathering for B2B marketers eager to explore the latest trends and innovations whilst battling the need to ‘do more with less’. 

Following closely was MAD//Fest pitched as the ‘UK's most distinctive and daring invite-only marketing, advertising and disruption festival’ where industry heavyweights like Sir Martin Sorrell and Rory Sutherland took centre stage. 

A central theme of both conferences this year (whether advertised or not) was AI. As the global economic landscape shifts and new technologies usher in a new era, both B2B and Digital industries are striving to reinvent themselves, with AI at the forefront of this transformation. 

All change please 

Last year we heard a lot of AI theory. This year was all about putting it to practice. And there were new features and technologies as far as the eye could see, with Microsoft’s Ryan Miles showcasing the power of AI in ad creation. His session, titled "AI in Action!", demonstrated the AI tools Microsoft now brings to advertisers, enabling ad creation and personalisation at scale. 

Andrew Shepherd of Palo Alto Networks and Ashley Robertson of The Marketing Practice delved into the often-elusive challenge of proving the business value of brand and demand before unveiling the mechanics behind their latest AI-generated creative campaign, ‘This is Precision AI', featuring Keanu Reeves. I always love to see high production quality in the B2B space and who isn’t a fan of Keanu Reeves? 

David Keene from WIPRO offered a visionary perspective on the future of growth marketing in the post-pandemic world. His ultimate watch out was platform 'Enshittification' (a phrase first coined by Cory Doctorow). He worries LinkedIn is currently on the cusp of this fate too which would be a huge issue for those in B2B. 

At MAD//Fest, Rory Sutherland's provocative stance on AI adoption challenged the industry’s haste to embrace the technology. He argued that the creative journey and iterative process of developing ad campaigns often hold more value for businesses than the final execution—especially in B2B. Sutherland’s perspective served as a reminder that while AI offers powerful tools, the essence of creativity and thoughtful strategy should not be overlooked. 

A recurrent theme across both conferences was the impending demise of third-party cookies. With a startling revelation that 40% of marketers still lack any real plan for this shift, discussions at both B2B Ignite and MAD//Fest emphasised the urgent need for brands to pivot towards robust first-party insights and IP-based and contextual-based targeting strategies. This shift is crucial for maintaining effective customer engagement in a cookie-less future. Sir Martin Sorrell likened Google’s third-party deprecation to a Y2K moment, presumably a moment of hotly anticipated risk that never seems to materialise. 

Two Industries Getting to Grips with AI 

From the workshops and keynotes to the conversations on the ground, it is clear that the creative industries as a whole are eager to harness the power of Generative AI. Despite the great experimental and innovative programmes on display across the week, many marketers are still uncertain about how to invest in, or press ahead with the technology. 

There did seem to be unanimity in where to look though and where the expected early advantages might come from, with many focusing on the potential of Generative AI to produce insight-driven content at scale. Likely fed by the need to ‘do more with less’. 

Marketers have new weapons but are fighting the same battles 

Despite the advent of new technologies, enduring challenges in marketing persist. Proving the value of marketing to the board was a common thread and even the subject of a keynote at B2B Ignite. So too at MAD//Fest, where Rory Sutherland aptly pointed out his frustration that creatives always have to seek approval from the CFO, while creatives never have the opportunity to mark the CFO’s homework. He highlights this as a business convention that stifles growth and innovation. 

In B2B in particular, aligning sales and marketing efforts is still a major challenge and one that couples with measurement woes in long B2B buying cycles. Compounded by the fact that brands have effectively outsourced their data to platforms and consultancies for the past decade and are now left with a measurement patchwork quilt. 

And finally, the role of creativity in B2B. An age-old battle for marketers pushing the creative boundaries in B2B. This battle, however, seems to be one where B2B is finally turning the tide. B2B campaigns showed up stronger than ever at this year’s Cannes Lions festival with Edelman's & DP World’s own Move to -15 campaign taking home Titanium. There was a lot of creativity driven by AI on display at both festivals and this was great to see. 

Change is coming... whether you voted for it or not 

In summary, B2B Ignite and MAD//Fest 2024 highlighted both the excitement and challenges of a rapidly evolving marketing landscape. Brands and agencies alike are hungry for change. As AI continues to shape the future, marketers must navigate its promises and pitfalls to succeed. 

Generative AI has moved past theory for some and there are many working to integrate AI into their campaigns in one way or another. However, the models and uses of AI on show were as predictable as they were effective. Nobody yet seems to be disrupting the industry with an AI powered break through just yet. However I have no doubt that we are on the cusp of a big change... whether you voted for it or not. 

Huge credit to Joel Harrison, the B2B Marketing team and the MAD//Fest organisers for putting on a great show this year.

Josh Turbill is Head of Digital, EMEA, Technology, at Edelman.