Q & A

Candace Purdie-Montgomery Keeps Essence Summit Sponsored and Relevant

By Michael O'Connell October 23, 2008, 1:36 PM EDT

This year marks Essence events and special projects director Candace Purdie-Montgomery's fifth summit.

Photo: Eric Fischer

Essence magazine’s fifth annual Women Who Are Shaping the World Leadership Summit returns to New York tomorrow. Targeting successful black women looking to network, open doors, and stay on top of their game, programming includes a day filled with seminars and keynote speakers. This year Robin Roberts and Star Jones join a growing roster of participants that has included Suze Orman and Soledad O’Brien.

Events and special projects director Candace Purdie-Montgomery joined Essence the year of the first summit and continues to supervise what has become one of the magazine's signature events. This year demanded the conference rethink its approach to securing sponsorships and planning the program, so Purdie-Montgomery talked to us about evolving partnerships, reaching a wider audience, and tackling economic woes with the panels.

What does Essence consider when deciding on a lineup of speakers?
We need speakers from all areas of business and entrepreneurship—people who can speak on the topics and agenda we’ve set. They need to provide tactical information about the challenges and ups and downs they’ve encountered on their own paths. Speakers need to advise the women on how to learn from their mistakes and successes.

Are there plans for the summit to address the current financial crisis?
Our program is planned with the editors. The planning committee sits down on a weekly basis because the editors are very close to the reader, so they know what the audience wants to hear about and what’s important to them. This year, particularly, we’ve been using a lot of language about “recession-proofing” your life. We’ve created panels to specifically address some of the issues that people are facing today. A lot of people are really thinking about their careers—whether they’ve been laid off from their jobs or their businesses are changing—but they’re wondering whether it’s time to step out and try something new. They can take this opportunity to form a business plan that will help them go after their specific dream. It’s really just about using this climate in a positive way to try to realize your dream.

How has the event changed from year to year?
Well, we’ve gone from a smaller venue, the Pierre Hotel, to a much larger venue, the Marriott Marquis, so there’s definitely been growth in terms of our consumer base. The scale has gotten bigger, but what has stayed the same is trying to attract a really stellar lineup of speakers and trying to provide the attendees with a group that will attack the issues they’re there to hear about.

What kind of attendance do you expect this year?
Our first year we hit maximum capacity [520], and that really showed us that we had hit on something. The second year we squeezed in two more tables and had 540, but then we realized we needed to move to meet the growing demand. We went looking for a larger venue and found the Marriott Marquis. This year we’re expecting between 600 and 700.

How does Essence work to attract new women to the event each year?
A lot of it is through partnerships. We do radio and we do print, but we also partner with a lot of large-scale events in outer markets. We were at the Indiana Black Expo this year, where we partnered with our consumer-marketing department. So while they have a booth selling subscriptions, we have information there about our upcoming programs, Women Who Are Shaping the World being one of them. We may do partner email blasts to get the word out in other markets with African-American female-specific organizations that have reach in outer markets.

How do you integrate sponsors and partnerships?
Women Who Are Shaping the World does have a sponsorship model and a portion of it is based on paging [securing advertising space] because, of course, we are a magazine. One of our first goals is to get the paging from the advertiser. It’s our bread and butter. Big sponsors we have this year are L'Oreal, which has been with us from the beginning, and ING.

We’ve had to be a little more creative about sponsorship this year. L’Oreal and ING have the more traditional sponsorship packages, but we now have smaller sponsorship packages that have been created for smaller agencies and smaller budgets: our Corporate Table Rewards package. Companies can buy tables and get other benefits like inclusion in our gift bags or table presents. A lot of people have scaled back sponsorship dollars this year, so we’ve had to be more creative about the ways we go out to get them. There are incentive sponsorships for partners who go out and help us generate ticket sales. We’ll send out an email blast with a partner, and if they can help us get 10 tickets, they may get a portion of the ticket sales.

Has the summit's proximity to the election affected any of your plans or programming?
We do have a panel that is in line with the conversation called “Who's Right and What's Left: The Real Truth Behind the Headlines.” It is our answer to the election right now. It’s our political panel and it features journalist Roland Martin and Essence deputy news editor Tatsha Robertson.

It would behoove any type of conference right now—trying to attract the type of consumer we’re looking for—to have current topics and information available. The women that come to the conference are middle- and senior-level managers. They are cutting-edge black women, so you’d be doing the conference a disservice not to make reference to the election.

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