Purina’s Better with Pets Summit was nothing like I pictured.
First of all, it did not involve any booths showcasing cats and dogs wearing pet gadgets or new kinds of catnip treats or anyone, really, resembling a “cat lady.” There were no animals dressed in elaborate superhero outfits–the event had a notable lack of pets entirely. Just a select few animals tightly held by their owners, only occasionally allowed to roam as far as a leash would allow.
The conference did not take place in a carpeted midtown conference center either, but someplace hipper, in one of those blank-canvas type Chelsea event spaces with white walls and cement stairs. Purina rolled out a red carpet and hung velvet rope for the day’s celebs, which included celebrity dog trainer Victoria Stilwell, the cat and dog with the Cats and Dogs of Instagram, and Turbo Roo, the two-legged chihuahua.
Inside, attendees were checked in with iPads while a 3-D printer across the room made colorful pet figurines. Downstairs, rows of armless white plastic chairs were lined up in front of the stage, whose backdrop was made of wooden planks that could double as tabletops in any Brooklyn bar.
In other words, it felt like a TED talk.
But instead of talking about technology or business or ideas, we were there to talk about puppies.
“Our template was TED Talks,” Pat Erb, director of marketing at Nestle Purina, confirmed to me. “TED stands for, as I’m sure you know, ideas that inspire. We took that inspirational mantra, if you will, and said we’re from various disciplines across cultures, can we get people that can inspire us about pets and do it in 15 minutes or less.”
That being said, TED for pets did not lack for absurdity. The day started off with a crowd warm-up from the emcee, Takeaway host John Hockenberry, who opened with the joke “so, who let the dogs out.” (It got huge LOLs.) After some thoughts on the varied meanings of the day’s slogan, “better with pets,” we played a game. Hockenberry, channeling his inner Garrison Keillor, read poems written by fictional animals. We had to guess if the author was feline or canine. “Where did you go, where have you been,” began one. “Dog,” the 300 or so people in the audience shouted with a hint of “duh” in their voices.
Next up was Brooke Martin, the 14-year-old inventor of iCPooch, a tablet-based treat-deliver system created to help the 6 million dogs currently suffering from separation anxiety. Her $130 gadget lets owners video-chat with pets and remotely deliver a treat. ICPooch is ideal for kids, pet lovers, and soldiers, who tear up when they have to leave their pets for war, Martin said. Hockenberry called her “the Steve Jobs of dog treats.” She certainly carries herself like the legendary inventor, wielding the slide clicker with aplomb.
The poised girl genius was followed by a multimedia presentation about cat videos as art that contained the familiar conference-talk pivot “but then something changed” before the big reveal that cat videos . . . are indeed art. Next we got a heftier discussion, a Q&A between Hockenberry and Dr. Ed Creagan about healing with pets. Then a break.
After the first series of speakers came the requisite palate cleanser. (The modern corporate event always has entertainment between talks. At a Montreal conference, the host regaled us with stories about being Canadian while wearing a Canadiens jersey and flannel.) An iPad DJ in a black hoodie walked on stage. He played meowing and barking sounds to a beat while another man beatboxed.
Then came the rapper. A third dude wearing cerulean sunglasses (inside) popped onto stage. He schmoozed the crowd a bit, then taught the audience a call-and-response with the lyrics: “When things get ruff, ruff, we don’t give up up.” He rapped a verse about a “dog named Scooter” and then came the chorus. The crowd provided the “ruffs” and “ups.” A white man behind me with spiky hair did some lackluster fist bumps. The performance ended with Hockenberry barking, meowing, and clucking on stage. For those watching at home, Hockenberry’s animal noises start at around 5:55:
So how surprising is it that a pet conference takes the TED format? In some ways, it’s not so surprising: The commoditization of TED has been happening for years. “What’s happening to the whole category is it’s all becoming commoditized. The secret sauce has been fully digested,” Andrew Zolli, the executive director of a TED copycat told New York magazine in early 2012. Zolli was referring to the ideas conference boom that happened after the popularization of TED. Think: Aspen Ideas Festival, Summit Series, and Zolli’s own PopTech.
Ultimately, the New York article asks: “What happens when the idea of ideas worth spreading gets spread thin? What happens when the concept of innovation itself becomes stale?” writes Benjamin Wallace, who has a popular TED Talk of his own.
The Purina Better with Pets Summit is what happens. (The theme of the day, by the way, was innovation.) Brands happen.
“When we work with a client like Purina, who has so much to contribute, to basically to establish thought leadership, one of the ways they can do that is by actions,” said Rob White, the CEO of Zeus Jones, which helped Purina with the event’s logistics and planning. “Modern brands are defined by what they do, not what they say.”
The classic industry conference isn’t very exciting. It doesn’t result in branded content that people can spread around the Internet. It doesn’t go viral.
TEDPets is much more engaging–by design. All of the talks from Better With Pets are available online, waiting to be shared. “If we could boil it down to a well-curated collection of diverse stories that are all delivered in 15 minutes with an occasional artistic interruption or interstitial,” White added, “that leaves an inspiring net impression of the amazing role pets play in our lives.” And by association the conference leaves “an inspiring net impression of the amazing role” Purina plays in our lives.
Over the last few years TED has lost its sheen, with critics calling it “middlebrow megachurch infotainment” and the “insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering,” among other things.
The format might not be appropriate for complex ideas. But appealing to the masses in digestible sound bites is exactly what businesses seek from advertising. It was only a matter of time before we got the branded content version of TED. When constructing shareable content, you could certainly do worse than cute animals.