Even with 98,000 attendees, not every marketer can make it to Advertising Week New York. And even if they could, with the many sessions and separate pathways it’s impossible to attend them all. Fortunately, I was there and met one-on-one with some of the biggest players in the space to talk about the future of digital advertising.

These conferences are always full of AdTech companies peddling their latest data or targeting offering, but for the purpose of this article I’m steering away from recommending any specific platforms or vendors. I will instead focus on the high level themes that resonated with me when it comes to performance marketing.

1. Be afraid. Be very afraid. But do it.

When Fernando Machado quoted his panel’s theme – “Be afraid. Be very afraid. But do it.” – he was specifically referencing the need for bravery in pursuit of memorable ad creative.

As Global CMO of Burger King, buzz-worthy campaigns matter to Machado. He still recalls the joy he felt as a child seeing iconic Burger King commercials such as “Whopper Freakout.” That spot inspired Machado to take on a leadership role and, ultimately, help an iconic brand take risks to create memorable, engaging campaigns.

My takeaway: Pushing the envelope is not confined to creative. I love Machado’s outlook on being brave creatively, but I’d like to see more brands being brave when it comes to testing breakthrough ad units or pushing their media partners to create something new and unique for them.

Brands are not yet experimenting with types of ad units and how they can interact with an individual. As an example, instead of setting up standard display ads – which everybody does and which many users subconsciously ignore – you can serve up interactive and personalized ad units that are truly thumb-stopping.

There are so many things that brands and agencies can do, but don’t because they are afraid to take a risk. I value the clients who allow me to be brave by coming to them with digital media opportunities that don’t meet the standard display and search formats, but offer the potential for far greater ROI.

2. 2018 was the “Year of Audio & Voice.” 2019 is the “Year to Catch Up on What You Didn’t Do in 2018.”

With more and more consumers gravitating toward audio-first and voice-activated platforms, brands are being presented with new opportunities.

At “The Future of Audio Summit,” hosted by NPR, executives from Google Home, Pandora, VaynerMedia, Nielsen Audio, Neuro-Insight, Havas and American Express shared insights on the rise of voice-activated devices and how marketers can leverage audio advertising from podcasts to, somewhat obviously, digital radio with Pandora or Spotify.

My takeaway: Audio includes everything from podcasts to voice search, and it plays a huge role not only in how people consume media, but how they interact with technology and brands.

Category leaders are in a race to stake ownership of voice search queries, and digital audio is often lazily constrained to Pandora. Visionary marketers need to acknowledge that the connected consumer is building a mesh of connectivity from their home to their car to their workplace – and that relationship is no longer a one-way street. Keep your eye on how they’re adapting to human behavior and the potential market opportunity (which happens to be $40 billion in digital commerce by the end of 2022).

Setting up a competitive voice search strategy is process-heavy, technical and strategic. I’m fortunate to be part of an agency that’s orchestrated global voice search initiatives for some of the world’s largest brands, but, even so, we’re in a race to be first for our clients. If you didn’t stake your claim this year, then 2019 will be the year you realize you have to catch up.

3. Influencer Marketing is getting smarter, but it lacks the rigid attribution we apply to other media.

Luis Di Como, UNILEVER’S EVP Global Media, discussed influencer marketing, noting that while endorsements have been an advertising staple for eons, social media is changing the landscape. Di Como deplored “fake followers,” and, along with his panel, asserted that brands must take a stand to eradicate bad practices and increase transparency in partnerships.

My takeaway: Di Como hit the nail on the head, but we can already validate, with a degree of certainty, the authenticity of an influencer’s followers. Virtually everyone has fake followers, whether intentional or not, and sometimes that’s OK from the perspective of gaining access to high quality, influencer-generated content.

Looking for influencers with millions of followers is antiquated and full of vanity metrics like “potential reach” (the number of followers an influencer has, instead of ACTUAL reach, which is the number of unique individuals that actually saw the influencer’s post about your brand).

There are ways to efficiently gain access to mid-tier influencers who create beautiful content without breaking the bank. The benefit is that we can then use targeted paid media to put that content in front of millions of individuals in the target audience, instead of wasting that budget on vanity metrics like “potential reach” which don’t advance your business’s revenue objectives.

4. Getting value from your data is possible, but still complex.

Customers expect brands to “know me better, help me faster, delight me everywhere.” A panel including representatives from Google Cloud, Samsung Electronics America and Office Depot discussed how brands are forced to meet this high bar and the need to deliver personalized experiences across channels, in real-time. This means marketers must find and quickly activate the best insights their data contains – not an easy task.

I was particularly impressed with comments from Darren Zap, sr. digital marketing manager for Office Depot, and Jesse Laskaris, head of data and marketing technology for Samsung Electronics America. They emphasized that big data can be paralyzing when you holistically consider all of the data available to marketers today.

Their advice? Before you dive in, set clear goals for how you’re going to use data. It is critical to set the goals first. Then develop practical use cases that define the goals you want to achieve with data and the kinds of data that will most inform achieving those goals.

My takeaway: Big data analytics is complex. The environments, the applications, connecting the right data sources, ensuring data integrity – all of it is excessively complex, which means one of our fundamental jobs must be to simplify things.

Even the most sophisticated organizations are struggling to derive useful trends and patterns that clearly inform business decisions from their massive data sets. New technologies will help us with this. For example, big data companies are now introducing sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) applications that aren’t intimidated by these large amounts of data. AI assimilates the data, learns from it and reports trends that we humans wouldn’t see. Machine learning and potentially even blockchain will change the way we use data and help us determine the validity of that data in our decision-making matrix.

The other takeaway? Machines haven’t quite achieved singularity yet, AI isn’t perfect, and the “real” individual is more complex than what the data tells us. You still need a human – a strong marketer with sound business acumen – to interpret the data, derive the business, marketing, brand and communications insight, and turn it into tangible strategic action that drives results.