At the world’s largest event for creatives, right-brain experiences are paramount
Each year, graphic artists, web designers, photographers and filmmakers descend on Adobe MAX, the creativity conference produced by tech giant Adobe. They come from around the world looking to catch up on innovations in the Creative Cloud, to try out new ones like the Project Felix design tool and to get a sneak peek at what’s in store, along with a good dose of inspiration and fun.
And once again, Adobe MAX, which took place Nov. 2-4 at the San Diego Convention Center, delivered.
Like most business conferences, MAX hosts executive keynotes and educational sessions, pre-conference labs and an evening event. But organizing a convention for 11,000 right-brained people—those curious, creative types who get really roused by fonts, imagery, patterns and the like—brings with it a set of challenges different from the typical sales or corporate event, which is focused more on their left-brained kin.
As senior director-corporate events, Adobe’s Julie Martin deals with both, the attendees in jeans and hoodies and those in suits. “The difference is that this community loves, loves, loves to create,” Martin says (emphasis on the word “loves”) and points to a chalkboard in the lobby of the convention center, where people scribbled and drew with colored chalk, as an example. “With this community, you put it up, and it immediately fills up. I don’t know that the same thing would happen at the other corporate conferences.”
MAX attendees aren’t shy about strutting their creativity. “At other conferences, if you were to put some of these activities out there, attendees may be a little intimidated or wouldn’t feel comfortable with their ability to showcase their creativity. Some people can be a bit shy when it comes to that,” she adds.
No need to worry about that at MAX, however, where the creativity inspires them even further. “The more we can integrate design and technology and show how our products can output a really cool design, like a ceramic tile or a skateboard, when they see the tangible thing they created, they get really excited,” she says.
But it wasn’t always this way. MAX goes back to 2003, when it was owned by Macromedia, the masterminds behind software like Dreamweaver and Flash, and when Adobe acquired that company in 2005, the conference came along with it. “So that was the audience we were working with, that was the legacy, then slowly we started to incorporate designers into the mix,” Martin says.
Another driver was a product shift, which began in 2012, from Adobe’s Creative Suite of graphic design, video editing and web development desktop apps to the Creative Cloud, a web-based subscription service for users. “We’ve always had design tools in general, that is what Adobe is known for, but we made a pretty hard shift after we made some product strategy changes, moving from Creative Suite to Creative Cloud.”
That evolution, from developer to creative conference, resulted in a number of changes. The audience demographic, which had been 70:30 male to female, went to a more even split, with more female designers in attendance.
Martin also points out another, more subtle, change: “Developers are hands-on, but in a more ‘geeky’ way, than our current audience. For example, they like LEGO building,” she says. The developers played video games in a MAX playground, and one year they built pinewood derby cars.
Besides the audience component, the evolution required a shift to sponsors and a partner ecosystem that supports the creative community. Content changed as well. Keynotes, especially for day two, had to be more creative and showcase inspirational leaders in the industry.
To build awareness for MAX as a creativity conference, Martin and her team over the past four years have leveraged adobe.com, email and partnerships with media companies that support the design segment. “It was a big shift, and we continually work on it,” Martin says.
Word-of-mouth is a powerful marketing tool as well. “The best thing we have is other designers coming to this conference and just really talking it up, because they love, love…I’m telling you they love it,” she adds. (Again, emphasis on “love.”) Attendee surveys, which give the conference a satisfaction rating of 98 percent above average and excellent, back up her claim. “We are always asking, what are we going to do to raise the bar? But we always come up with new things, and the attendees love it. There is a lot of satisfaction in that,” Martin says.
To keep the love going, Martin, who has been with the company nine years and reports to Adobe cmo Ann Lewnes, heads internal teams dedicated to keynotes, sponsorships, event operations and event marketing for Adobe MAX. The group also handles an internal sales conference in December, a tech summit for Adobe engineers every other year in February and a digital marketing summit in March. They work with other internal Adobe teams and bring in external partners as necessary (with agency George P. Johnson as lead partner). “It’s sort of an all-hands-on-deck mode,” she says. “Events are always busy, always!”
The internal sales conference takes place at the Venetian, where Adobe’s vp of sales preps the 3,000 attendees for the year ahead, explaining the company’s vision and direction. That meeting includes keynotes, sessions, breakouts and an evening event, but no sponsors or community pavilion.
Adobe Summit is an annual three-day conference that supports Adobe Marketing Cloud and draws 10,000 attendees. Also at the Venetian, the Summit showcases Adobe’s digital marketing products and analytics. This year, actor George Clooney, soccer star Abby Wambach and singer Donny Osmond appeared onstage along with Adobe executives for a keynote on Inspiring Experience Through Creativity. The Summit featured 14 keynotes and 225 breakout sessions and a robust exhibit hall with partners such as Accenture, PWC and other large consulting firms. “There tends to be a lot more sales engagement there because it is an enterprise, similar to what you see at Oracle or Dreamforce,” Martin says.
Not so much at Adobe MAX, however, which is more about exposing the community to new features in the products they are already using. “The more that they see, the more they will use it, and that is really what we want to make sure is happening,” Martin says.
And that’s exactly what this year’s crowd got in more ways than one. The conference moved from the Los Angeles Convention Center, where it leveraged the Nokia Theater (now the Microsoft Theater), the JW Marriott and the L.A. Live entertainment complex, to the more spacious San Diego Convention Center with its indoor-outdoor feel. “You don’t feel like you’re stuck in a convention center, which is great for creatives,” Martin says.
Pre-conference training days kicked off with presentations, demos and hands-on exercises in various topics and technologies. One of this year’s highlights—Adobe principal creative director Russell Brown and his team offered a creature-themed three-day course in which attendees designed and lasered 100 Halloween-inspired skateboard decks, with the best design printed as a limited-edition offering by Santa Cruz skateboards. Attendees created marketing campaigns and, dressed in Leonard Nimoy costumes, walked through the streets of San Diego. All this before the conference had even begun.
The Community Pavilion, which was located on the first floor of the conference, served as an interactive hub with activations by Adobe and its sponsors. At the Adobe Make It Experience, attendees customized print-n-stick fabric, designed and lasered ceramic and leather coasters and created mobile apps with Adobe XD. The Your Brain on Max exhibit by neuroengineering company Emotiv gave attendees wearing interactive headsets an inside view of what their brain experiences as they sketch. Scanners in the Artec booth created 3D digital selfies. Virtual reality demos took place at a MAX VR experience and at Samsung, HP and Intel booths. The Mama’s Sauce Print Village featured on-site printing of letterpress buttons and screen-printed postcards and posters. A MAX playground, with a large Lite-Brite, a Scrabble game and comfy inflatables, offered a creative respite. (For a more in-depth look at the Pavilion, click here.)
Next to the Community Pavilion, the general session room housed the keynotes and Sneak Peeks, a popular session where Adobe unveiled new collaboration capabilities and enhancements to its Creative Cloud Libraries. The opening keynote, Changing the World through Digital Experience, by Adobe president and ceo Shantanu Narayen and other executives, showcased innovations like Adobe Sensei and Adobe Experience Design CC (XD), along with other news. The second-day keynote featured designer Zac Posen, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, photographer Lynsey Addario and artist Janet Echelman who shared their stories of triumph and inspiration to a packed hall.
The dining hall also was located on the first floor, a massive space where most of the attendees took their meals. Food that wasn’t consumed was sent to a local food bank.
Upstairs, more than 300 sessions, labs and workshops took place on topics such as After Effects for Designers and Editors: The Top 5 Things You Need To Know; Creative Cloud Coloring; Adobe Muse Hands-on Power User Tips and Tricks; and Mastering Photoshop. Signs outside the rooms advised attendees to arrive 10-15 minutes before the sessions began, especially for labs and creativity workshops, or risk forfeiting their spot to someone on the wait list. “Most of our attendees sign up for nine or more sessions, so we had almost 80,000 sessions signed up on peoples’ schedules,” Martin says.
And they just can’t get enough. “It’s pretty amazing,” Martin continues.” When we look at the third day, we are always thinking people are going to leave, but they stay until 6 p.m.”
Ditto for the Community Pavilion, where on the last day of last year’s conference, attendees lined up waiting for the space to open so they could run to the stations they wanted to visit. “One of the guards was like, ‘Whoa, it’s not Black Friday,’” Martin says.
Adobe MAX includes an executive-level experience for creatives and marketing executives at larger corporations who utilize Adobe’s enterprise products. Besides exclusive content, the experience this year featured an evening event at Petco Park, which the attendees had all to themselves, along with some Adobe branding, of course. The event began with a meal prepared by a local restaurant chef and included a round of golf on the course there.
“The more we can integrate design and technology and show how our products can output a really cool design, like a ceramic tile or a skateboard, when they see the tangible thing they created, they get really excited.”
Everyone else networked in the Community Pavilion and in the second-floor workshops. “This group loves to be inspired, and they love to be inspired by each other,” Martin says. “A lot of times they will see what each other is doing and build off of that. As long as we offer the activity to them, they just engage and start doing it.”
And then there is the MAX Bash, an evening that is part networking, part entertainment, part fun and a whole lot of party. “We really try to tie it back and keep the experience consistent from the keynotes to the pavilion and then to the Bash, but change things up a bit,” says Jennifer Heaton, senior group manager-trade shows and events at Adobe.
This year’s Bash, held at the Embarcadero Marina South Park on San Diego Bay, drew a crowd of about 9,000. The party featured art installations including an aerial sculpture by the keynoter Janet Echelman, a Jelly Belly artist, lotus flower blossoms that sensed peoples’ heartbeats when they touched them, a 16-foot high by 70-foot long Shark Tank water wall with colorful Baltic birch plywood sharks and, if mounds of shrimp, beef and veggies didn’t satisfy the foodies in the crowd, a 250-foot-long dessert conveyor belt that served up 14,000 individual desserts did. Performances by two bands, Alabama Shakes and The Mowgli’s, capped the evening.
Over the course of the event, Adobe’s website, max.adobe.com, and a mobile app keep attendees up-to-date. Keynotes and conference sessions are live-streamed during the event and available on demand afterwards on max.adobe.com. Post-event, the conversation continues on social media, including Adobe’s corporate YouTube and Instagram channels, along with its blog. And of course, Adobe is always reaching out to its creative audiences as a normal course of business through its Creative Cloud.
All these engagements keep the crowds coming back. And attendance is growing at a steady clip—58 percent year-over year. Planning is already underway for next year’s conference, which will take place at the Venetian and the Sands Expo Hall in Las Vegas. “If you talk to the city of Las Vegas, they will tell you it does increase the overall attendance by 10-15 percent, just because it is a destination and a lot of people like going there, and there are a ton of things to do,” Martin says. “The bigger challenge there will be keeping them on-site and doing a really good job with your conference, so they won’t venture off-site.”
We’re betting Martin is up to the task.