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“100% Digital” Conference Report (all the presentations are available for download)
GM Amsterdam

It was a shorter than usual journey to the GM hotel for the Head Office team, in fact we all hopped on our bikes and simply cycled to the Radisson SAS to set up the office, stuff the conference folders, and meet with the AV and hotel teams that would be supporting us over the next few days. With lots of help from the ever-willing Aminah, a couple of visits from some welcome early arrivals, and plenty of output from the Nespresso machine, everything got done on time and we were able to settle into our rooms at a reasonable hour.

GM Amsterdam

Wednesday dawned (and we were very lucky with the clear sunny weather), and registration opened mid-morning in the hotel lobby. There was a steady stream of delegates, collecting their conference materials and stopping by to say hi, before the Meet-and-Greet lunch in the Passageway with a delicious Indonesian menu (Indonesian food is to the Dutch what Indian food is to the English). And then it was a short walk (the first of many!) to catch the bus for the Painting Workshop, where we had two artists guide us through the creative process, show us some basic brush techniques and explain the concept of perspective. Each team worked on a different Dutch-themed topic such as cows, canals, bicycles, cheese etc. and it was amazing how quickly everyone shed their inhibitions and started arguing about the correct colour for the sky. Six masterpieces were carefully loaded into the coach and later proudly displayed at the hotel.

The Welcome Reception, kindly hosted by Adicio, represented by Terry Baker, brought together over 100 participants for drinks and traditional Dutch cheese, before Rob Paterson, ICMA Chairperson, welcomed everyone, introduced all the new members and non-members attending, and thanked the sponsors and exhibitors. The Welcome Dinner was held at In de Waag, a fifteenth century weigh-house which used to act as one of the city’s gates, and we were all seated at long candle-lit tables to enjoy a great meal to set us up for the days of hard work to come.

GM Amsterdam

The first ‘real’ day of the conference – Thursday – kicked off with a wide-ranging Keynote Address from Greg Sterling, a highly respected analyst and blogger (www.screenwerk.com) who covered the myriad of changes and challenges that the classified media industry faces today. After a couple of searching questions (there is no ‘perfect’ classified site or business model apparently), Greg was followed by Robin Goad of Hitwise, a UK-based market intelligence company who explained the significance of users’ online behaviour both before and after they visit a classified website (the number who head straight to eBay seem to indicate they’re not necessarily finding what they’re looking for with us).

After a bit of a scramble with the lifts and the stairs to the kitchen(!), we re-joined the pre-lunch session with three great presentations addressing different aspects of “100% Digital”. First up was Gary Stewart of Goa Internet Services who explained the role and contribution of his vertical search engine and aggregator tool. Unlike Oodle, Gary is seeking to partner with classifieds sites as he rolls out the property version, Nuroa, across Europe, and he was pleasantly surprised at the positive reception he got (read his full blog entry here). Paul Molenaar, COO of Ilse Media was next up, he’d been briefed to shake us all up with the topic “Print Is Dead. So Where Do We Go From Here?” and he certainly succeeded, with lots of wincing and wry smiles from the audience as he ran through the list of the 10 common strategic mistakes (my personal favourite is the “’If we leverage our existing assets’ fairy-tale”). Then it was back to the hard practicalities with a presentation from Genevieve LeBrun of Trader Corporation about how Trader had exploited synergies between its extensive classified business (particularly Autotrader.ca) and its Yellow Pages parent. Most of the questions focused on a wonderful gadget that the sales reps used to scan the unique ID number of car which then accessed all the key data from a central source at Kelley Blue Book and populated the principal data fields for the ad automatically – Genevieve, you’ll have to bring one of these with you next time!

The first afternoon session always has to battle with the post-lunch slump and so we were fortunate that the panel session on mobile turned out to be the hottest topic of the conference, and that the speakers were so well-informed and enthusiastic about their subject. Bob Cauthorn’s opening slide which stated “there is a bomb in this room” underlined the urgency which we must apply to orienting our businesses towards this new channel. He was followed by Jan Webering, CEO of Sevenval, a German mobile solutions provider who covered the opportunities available to classified media players who choose to develop their mobile offering. Felix Erken, MD of Junk Mail Publishing, urged delegates “do it when you want to, not when you have to otherwise it’ll be too late”.

The final session featured three member presenters, and we are enormously grateful to them all for agreeing to share their experiences with the conference. Dan Rindos, VP of Bargain News, kicked off with a rip-roaring description of the new technologies that he has implemented on his car site, and most importantly, how he has made money with them – one of ICMA members’ favourite topics! Then came Peter Moerkenborg who walked delegates through the online story of Den Blå Avis, and how their constant focus on providing the Danes with a horizontal marketplace enabling them to buy and sell – easily, effectively and cheaply, had ultimately paid dividends. Margus Tomberg, MD of Sanoma Baltics had the last slot as he shared the experiences of Auto24.ee, a highly successful car site in Estonia which attracts 1 in 5 of Estonia’s internet users very week, boasts 95% of dealers as members and rotates 18% of the total car “population” every year. Oh, and the small matter of an 80% profit margin generated by just 12 employees.

An all-too-short break and we congregated in the reception for the walk to Haesje Claes for the traditional Dutch dinner (if anyone wondered why we walked everywhere, it’s simply because the streets by the hotel were so narrow that a normal-sized coach couldn’t fit down them). Amazingly, we didn’t lose anyone in crossing the main road, and everyone settled into the cosy tables and tucked into “erwtensoep” (Dutch split pea and ham soup), braised duck and then traditional Dutch apple-pie. People trickled back to the hotel via the cobble-stoned streets (thankfully, it still wasn’t raining) and more than a few headed to the bar, to discuss classified media matters of course!

GM Amsterdam

Friday, the second day of hard work rolled up all too quickly, and we were delighted to welcome Eylard Wurpel, Business Development Director of Yahoo! Netherlands to talk about how the search landscape was changing. He got some fairly tame questions publicly but some much tougher ones in the coffee-break apparently? Michael Oschmann of Mueller-Medien GmbH took the 9.30 slot and explained how his family company with diverse media interests from radio to directories has accepted that they could not go head-to-head with the big search engines and expect to win, and so had instead opted for a strategy of partnerships, leveraging their small company flexibility and speed and maintaining close relationships on the ground with SME’s. The final presentation before the coffee-break was from Simon Greenman, MD, Digital of European Directories, who explored the fundamental differences between classifieds and directories, and gave a critique of the various cross-over offerings from his competitors, whilst keeping very quiet about European Directories’ own plans.

The next session tackled the issue of verticals online, and Fredrik Larsson of Mascus went first to share the story of their pan-European franchise business of a Finnish-owned construction/agricultural machinery and parts website. He is actively looking for partners in Benelux, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, the Former Yugoslavia, Russia and Ukraine. Paul Cruise, Operations Director of Friday-Ad Ltd gave a great account of www.boatsandoutboards.co.uk, a successful boat vertical which not only monetises its online content but has also spawned a profitable reverse-published print product. Finally, it was Tony Roy of CareerBuilder.co.uk’s turn to review the prospects of the recruitment vertical and even though this was the last presentation before lunch, the participants gave him a really hard time in the Q&A. Tony acquitted himself very well, as he was quizzed on CareerBuilder’s strategy in multiple European markets, and survived unscathed. But expect that US$ 2000 job-posting soon…

We broke for lunch and then it was straight into the workshops on usability, SEO, auctions, mobile and sales force structure and compensation. These were highly interactive with just small groups of 10-15 people but agreed to be too short at just 30 minutes – we’ll extend them at the next GM, promise!

After a much-needed coffee-break, most people had an early finish to Friday, but 20 hard-working publishers gathered for the special “Sharing Best Practice” session. They split into two groups and discussed a series of pre-submitted metrics in the areas of online business and private advertisers. The session was remarkably open and honest with all participants being incredibly forthcoming about their businesses, and the reasons behind the numbers. With near perfect approval ratings of 98.5%, this is definitely one to repeat.

Head Office gave as many restaurant recommendations as we could, and everyone headed out into the Amsterdam evening to enjoy what ICMA’s wonderful home city has to offer.

GM Amsterdam

Saturday came, and with it a change to the programme. Gerald Coniel, the chair of the Publishers’ Meeting has requested that his presentation session should be accessible by all conference delegates, and so after some swift re-scheduling of the Sales Managers’ Workshop times, we all gathered in the main conference room for a comprehensive presentation that touched on all aspects of Web 2.0, how it has changed consumer behaviour and expectations, and how we must embrace technology to develop products and services that will appeal to our customers.

The group then split into two with the publishers continuing with their meeting (with the red and green caps which they wore to indicate their agreement or disagreement with the views being expressed during the discussions, a great interactive tool!). The sales managers headed downstairs with Peter Lamb, who conducted possibly the most lively and interactive session yet on what makes a great sales manager. Apparently the role-play in the final session was very realistic!

The Business Meeting approved the proposed 2008 budget unanimously and also passed a change in the Bylaws limiting the number of terms a Committee Member is entitled to serve. There were no candidates standing for the vacant position on the Committee.

The Gala Party was a fantastic success! After a short cruise along the lit-up Amsterdam canals, we reached the Prins van Oranje saloon boat which was also bedecked with lights and about to start its cruise along the Ij. Some cocktails and several canapés later, we were ushered upstairs to sit down to a delicious meal with live Dutch accordion music (although the table behind me was singing in French, and our song was “Kingston Town”!). We went down a deck for the piece de resistance, a dessert buffet that rose majestically from the floor, and descended later (much-depleted) to allow the dancing to start. The DJ was great, and the floor was heaving in no time, prising people away to rejoin the boat back was no mean feat! But the party continued long into the night in the hotel bar…

Another great GM, thanks to all the speakers, facilitators and chairs for their expert contributions, the sponsors and exhibitors for their support, the Committee for all of their help and input, and of course all the delegates who make these events so valuable.

See you in Belgium!