What's the big idea?

Leave it to those nutty Detroit-area "creatives" (the name given to advertising workers) to be instigators of a good time.

Last week's Viva Ad Vegas event at the Novi Expo Center was a lively carnival showcase of some of the area's most innovative creative suppliers. They displayed their wares -- portfolios, artwork, the latest technologies and graphic arts tools -- while wearing extravagant costumes ranging from cowboys, showgirls and blackjack dealers to Elvises and other lively getups.

It was sponsored by the Ferndale-based company The Big Idea, publishers of a sophisticated bimonthly magazine (of the same name) and providers of other creative-related resources mostly for the local advertising industry. This second annual event appeared to be a big success, with more than 100 exhibitors and ongoing entertainment in every direction.

My mission was to scope out the Web scene. I learned that the Detroit area's advertising industry -- which is gradually extending to the Web -- is fourth largest in the nation. Business cards were being exchanged faster than you can say "Show me the money."

Opening night festivities, which I unfortunately missed, were emceed by Trixie Deluxxe and featured musical and comic performances by employees of the exhibiting companies. As told by all, it was a tremendous family affair. Mort Crim even showed up to host the Elvis impersonator contest.

The next day (when I did show up), Carla Boettcher, charged with hosting the Mort Crim Communications booth, took a Polaroid of me standing beside a life-size cardboard stand-up of Mort himself dressed up like the King. It's now prominently displayed on my desk and I can't stop laughing (I'm easily amused).

"There's not a really good place for people to dress," Lucy Hully told me. She's a sales representative from Foto1 Imaging, based in Ann Arbor, and was tugging at her Cleopatra uniform.

"The UFO agency has all these tall, gorgeous ladies walking around dressed in 'interesting' ways; and so in the morning we were all in the women's room, which turned into an interesting spectacle -- all these women getting dressed and being really beautiful," she said.

But it wasn't only a showgirl spectacle; two fine-looking technicians from Brophy, a Detroit-based agency, strutted around pushing product (interactive CD-ROMs and custom image databases), in scant Romanesque sheaths that barely covered their technical parts.

If the first day was the party, the second day was time to get down to business. All-day seminars featured presentations by Jim Turnbull, director of creative services of the City of Detroit; Mel Foster of J. Walter Thompson; Jeff Dwoskin of U.S. Web; Doug Kisor, chair of graphic design at the Center for Creative Studies, and several others in the heavy-hitting advertising category.

Peter Kelley, director of operations at Global Link in Troy, was supposed to deliver a talk on successful Web site design, but instead delivered an articulate overview of the history and direction of the advertising industry on the Web.

A founding partner of Portfolio/Detroit and formerly the creative director of AKA Detroit, Kelley pointed to the fact that most ad agencies have long been reluctant to enter the Web business, for a variety of reasons including the fact that profits were still a long way off, prohibiting most companies from considering doing business on the Web.

"The Web wasn't going to build those nice big buildings they're in now," he chided.

This hesitance left room for a number of start-up multimedia firms, such as locals Sigma6, Root Level and AKA Detroit. They specialize, respectively, in interactive Web sites, kiosks and CD-ROM production, and have been able to slip into the market and start gobbling up the business from the agencies.

At first, Kelley explained, agencies saw computers more or less as glorified typewriters. As far as they were concerned, computers were only good for typing and layout.

That meant that early Web site producers were jacks (or jills)-of-all-trades, doing design, writing text and providing their own technical support as well.

"From an advertising perspective, the Web was a third-class medium," Kelley said.

But that tide is turning. Now, major agencies are creating huge new departments to specialize in Web site design: J. Walter Thompson, Campbell-Ewald and Ross Roy to name a few.

From an overall perspective, he warns, it's still a new industry in a continual state of reinventing itself.

"If you look at the history of (the communications) medium, it took radio 30 years (to reach market saturation), TV took 15, cable took 10, and now the Web is five years.

"The Web is not for the weak of heart," Kelley emphasized. "Excitement is not for everyone."

But from the looks of the crowd in Novi last week, I would say our creatives are ready to roll. Plus, they might be onto something with the new corporate uniform of the 21st century -- showgirls and Elvis. It's all one big gamble anyway, isn't it?