Q&A With Perry Drake, Founder Of The Midwest Digital Marketing Conference In St. Louis

On April 12 and 13, St. Louis’ Union Station will be brimming with marketing and communications professionals, entrepreneurs, technologists and innovators from some of the biggest brands in the world, brought together by the 2017 Midwest Digital Marketing Conference. Facebook, IBM, Microsoft, Refinery 29, Buzzfeed, Pinterest, Pandora, Fleishman-Hillard, Twitter, Monsanto and more, if you can imagine, will all be represented.

Conference founder Perry Drake, director of business collaboration and current assistant teaching professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), held the first conference back in 2013, though it was originally intended for his students at UMSL to connect with industry professionals. Drake envisioned an event driven by national thought leadership, which grew with the support connections and St. Louis’ intuitive desire for it.

Drake and his wife, both native St. Louisans, had lived in New York City for 28 years when Drake received an offer from UMSL, his alma mater, to help the university build out their digital and social media marketing program. It also provided him the opportunity to complete his Ph.D. He was a professor at New York University for over 14 years, and several of his former students have worked their way up the ranks at companies like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

“It’s been great being back in St. Louis. It’s such a vibrant community, with digital, social, tech, fashion, innovation. My network when I came back to St. Louis exploded. People here make an effort to share their networks.”

Keep reading our Q&A with Drake to learn more about the goals of the conference, thoughts on St. Louis, and how his journey helped create this innovative event.

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What inspired you to start this event?
I had just moved back to St. Louis from New York, and I’d only been back for about four weeks. I’d been getting into the whole vibe of St. Louis and really starting to love it. I called on a couple of my old colleagues from New York and asked if they’d be willing to come on a Google Hangout to guest speak for some of my students. A few of them offered to fly out to St. Louis for free and meet with the students face to face. I thought, “Maybe I’ll put them in front of more than my students. Maybe I’ll do a half-day summit.”

I pulled in about 425 business executives for a half-day event, with representatives from Nickelodeon, Google, Yahoo, IBM and more. That’s really how it started. In my head, I envisioned it as a conference for professionals that my students could learn from. Now, only about 10 percent of the audience are students, and the rest are industry professionals. We offer discounts to students, and better yet, now I’m even getting requests from high school students to attend at the discounted rate. I could sense the vibrancy and the passion here around all things digital social and tech. That’s the vibe I was getting.

Out of curiosity, do you think social media marketing will be a position in and of itself in 10 years?
It’s no longer the kind of a siloed job it was five years ago, where that was one employee’s sole responsibility, if that makes sense. It’s becoming more integrated into the marketing mix. It’s becoming more of a skill you have to have now as a strategist. But you have to understand the whole picture, be it traditional, print or social media support. I think it will still be a viable position, but likely with deeper understanding of the bigger picture.

The kids who grow up in social media—I actually just talked to a group of high school kids about this—they’re growing up using social media from a personal perspective, but they don’t understand it from a marketing and business perspective. In my digital strategies class, where I have undergraduate juniors and seniors, I get them thinking about using social media differently. We talk about how to use it strategically, particularly for how potential employers are going to look at you, and to rethink social media from a branding perspective. The depth of discussion around social media is just getting deeper and deeper as time goes on.

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What is the larger goal of the conference?
Even from that first year, it has always been to bring in outside thought-leaders around the digital, social, tech, communications and marketing industries. We have a lot of smart people here. But for me, what’s critical is bringing in the outside thought-leaders. I try to plan it to have about 75 percent of speakers from outside St. Louis. I also want to have a good mix of some locals, because that’s important. I never see the conference leaving here. I see it always being in St. Louis. As far as participation, last year we had about 10 percent of our audience come from outside St. Louis, and this year we’re trying to push for 15 percent. I want to drive discussion that puts St. Louis on the map. It just amazes me how passionate St. Louisans are about these things.

For lack of a better word, I call myself a conference architect. I try to think of a theme for the conference, and this year it’s “Rise of the Digital Native.” I try to sketch out and write down all of the key things we’re hitting in that particular conference. I always try to thematically cover a certain story line. That’s how I’ve always tried to do it, which has always seemed to work and has developed a good user experience at the conference. Last year our theme was “Innovation Without Borders.”

How are you improving the conference and opportunities offered every year?
We’re always trying to bring innovation into the discussion, which is a part of every industry today. This year, if you have a company that’s two years old or younger, you can apply to have a free table in the exhibitor hall, which is worth about $1,000. We’re going to select five startups for that, and they’ll also have the opportunity to pitch to industry executives and investors. One winner, I’m proud to say, will get a check for $5,000, sponsored by Purina and UMSL Accelerate, our new entrepreneurial leg within UMSL’s College of Business. That’s a new component we’ve added. I’m hoping it will really take off, and allow startup entrepreneurs to show off their product or service in front of thousands of marketing professionals.

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