Dais ex Machina

I don’t think of September as back-to-school month anymore; I think of it as the return to the conference circuit – the hundreds, possibly thousands, of gatherings of CEOs, industry gurus, pundits, and authors and the people who want to meet them (and whom they want to meet).

These conferences – you see them advertised in full-page ads in business and technology magazines – do what business magazines do, and talk shows and chat rooms, only a lot better. You get rubbing-close to the people you want to know about; you get to hear stuff before it’s public; you get to say, Hey, I’ve got a good idea about that, too (and generally, people listen to you and sometimes go into business with you). Conferences are not only an integral part of the information-technology-media industry – the background of hundreds of media deals – but media in and of themselves.

The first time I went to a conference – this was about ten years ago as a full-fare-paying attendee – I had one of those experiences people often have when first exposed to a new kind of media: I thought the world was about to completely change. I thought there should be conferences for everything (judging by the brochures I get, I may have been prescient about this). My immediate thought was that we should get rid of schools: Just send students to algebra conferences, AP-American-history conferences, bio conferences. At a good hotel, with great presentation tools and a strong, motivational speaker, you could do a semester in a weekend. Who wouldn’t send their kids?

Since then, I’ve probably been to 200 conferences, as both attendee and speaker. (As an entrepreneur, I would have paid for the privilege of speaking at many conferences, and, in one way or another, often did. Once, in my entrepreneurial days, I hired a P.R. firm that, for a $40,000-a-month retainer fee, guaranteed its clients speaking posts at the best conferences.) Indeed, the natural progression on the conference circuit is to be promoted from attendee to speaker. Which is sort of the point about conferences (and about much new media in general): We’re all experts. Or at least we’re all in this together. We are all networkers. We are all self-promoters in the conference world.

But what happens if you actually have no product to sell, no IPO to stage, or no great urge to meet the conference’s various CEOs and BMOCs?

When I got a letter from Dow Jones chairman Peter Kann early in the summer asking if I’d be interested in speaking at the Wall Street Journal’s Technology Summit (conferences are often called summits), to be held in Washington, D.C., next week, I thought the WSJ’s sponsorship would certainly mean a straightforward exchange of fees for punditry services. I thought they were recruiting me because people would then pay them to hear me speak.

Obviously the WSJ pays pundits for their opinions – it does every day. In fact, the Journal turned out to be partnering on this conference with a technology-business gadfly named Richard Shaffer; he mounts the event and they split the gate. (This was not terrific news because I had spoken before at a Shaffer conference, paying my own way to San Francisco, and only thirteen people had shown up.) The conference, in other words, was more in the spirit of Silicon Valley than it was in the spirit of the Wall Street Journal.

But then I saw my name in a full-page ad in the Journal promoting the conference. Ha! I thought: Once you’re printed up, they’re stuck with you. So I brought up the money issue.

But apparently, Oxygen Media CEO Geraldine Laybourne and eBay CEO Margaret Whitman and Yahoo! president Jeffrey Mallett and more than 40 other CEOs (why was I on this list to begin with? I suppose on any dais, someone has to be the lowest-net-worth individual) weren’t asking to get paid – nor was the Journal offering. So I said, begrudgingly, all right, I’ll do it. Which would have been it, except the conference people scheduled me at an early hour. So I said, you’ll at least pay for my hotel room, won’t you? But there was no budging them (usually, at least on the expenses, you can get some pity). By quick calculation, I was going to have to shell out $1,200 to give my speech.

“I hope you’ll feel that the pros of participating in Technology Summit 99 far outweigh the cons of having to pay your own way,” Richard Shaffer e-mailed me. “Just to throw a few numbers out there: a full-page ad in the WSJ costs about $165,000 a day. By participating, you get nationwide exposure in a series of these full-page ads, three of which have already run; several more are to come. Besides the raw cost of the ad itself, there is the intangible value of appearing on the same page with scores of industry luminaries. There is also the event itself, at which you will have the opportunity to address a very-high-level business audience – we expect the event will sell out, as it has the past two years. Of course, press from all the major general interest and trade publications will be there as well.”

What’s more, I was told, the Dow Jones policy was not to permit its reporters to speak for compensation at conferences run by others for profit, so therefore it does not pay speakers either fees or expenses at its conferences. (What? Hello?)

This is when I started to behave badly. I said Dow Jones had taken my name for its own purposes and profits. Forget just the hotel room, I said, that’s off the table; now I want my full fee (my full fee, by the way, tends to be whatever anyone will pay me). They said, on further thought, they were dropping my panel from the event, no reflection on me; they would, however, they said after a few more flames, be interested in donating $5,000 to a mutually agreeable charity if I would sign a release against all claims.

I suddenly realized, with horror, how old-media this was of me. In that model, I should be paid, as I am being paid for writing this, because giving opinions is what I do for a living. But in the new model, my opinions are just entrée to a relationship with someone else – in many ways my opinions are just the icebreaker that will encourage others to express their (equally valuable) opinions. My compensation from Dow Jones is that my opinions might be heard by someone who might want to do some indeterminate business with me. “While there is no doubt the Technology Summit is a profit-making venture for the Wall Street Journal,” explained conference organizer Shaffer, “it is also a unique and prominent platform for the speakers who choose to accept our invitations to participate. The conference is of course nothing without the speakers, but we think the trade-off of expenses versus exposure is a fair one.”

“You know,” said one of the Dow Jones people involved in my dispute, “this is not about you.”

By which I think he might have been saying, new media – this kind of new media – isn’t about stars, or experts, or even celebrities as such, but more about being a member of a sort of club.

This is true, I think. The conference business, starting in the mid-eighties as a technology marketplace, launched a new social dynamic. Conferences, you could argue with only slight hyperbole, replaced the country club, the Old Boy network, the golf course, and the importance of where you went to college.

In some ways too the exclusivity of these conferences aped the class consciousness of clubs and schools. (It makes sense that as information has become cheaper and more accessible, there would be a new medium that would be the opposite: costly and exclusive.) For many of the highest-priced conferences – Esther Dyson’s PC Forum held in March in Scottsdale, Arizona; Richard Saul Wurman’s TED, held in Monterey in February; and Stewart Alsop’s Agenda, held in October in Scottsdale – the main marketing principle is that you are being invited. Sometimes, even, the word apply is used. Now, as it happens, no one with a check is excluded. The fact is that anybody willing to pay (respectively) $3,900, $3,000, or $3,400, can meet John Doerr at PC Forum, or Norm Pearlstine at TED, or Bill Gates at Agenda. (There are, too, for the technologically less advanced, interdisciplinary conferences like Davos in Switzerland and the Clintons’ Renaissance Weekend in Hilton Head.) But real exclusivity (Herb Allen’s conference in Sun Valley is one of the genuinely exclusive gatherings) is beside the point. Conferences are theater, environment, and a degree of Walter Mitty fantasy – you and Bill Gates – and a certain willing suspension of disbelief is called for.

If you think about it, the whole form is quite remarkable, requiring on the part of conference organizers (who become celebrated themselves – alpha moderators, they’re known as) a very special sense of social and intellectual artistry, to bring people and ideas together in such a way that everyone feels they depart with something of greater value than what they came with – and to do this without necessarily paying anybody. It is new media. The proscenium is broken down. Both sides of the information equation merge. Users create the content they are using. Audience and players mix.

If you’re looking for money to fund your technology or new-media business, the best place to do it is on the conference circuit. If you’re looking for ideas about what business to start, or where to invest, or just generally what’s going to happen technologically, commercially, and even culturally, an efficient place to learn this is on the conference circuit. If you’re looking for gossip, the best place to go is a conference. Indeed, if you’re in the information business and you’re not going to conferences three or four times a year (at least) in Laguna Beach, in Scottsdale, in Amsterdam, on the Upper West Side – then you’re really out of it.

But how do I get paid? This is the question we – who are now called “content people” – are more and more worriedly asking. If everyone by virtue of his or her own self-interest is a provider of opinions, then how do people who have no other mission (no business to launch, no options to trade, no agenda to flog) than to be witty or clever or honest or in-your-face make a living?

But, honestly, even to myself I sound churlish and, worse, naïve. For better or worse, in the brave new world of new media, we are all individual entrepreneurs. You just have to get on the right side of the business model.

I, therefore, am starting my own conference. Why not?

My idea is that everybody who feels he or she has been skewered or offended or mistreated by this column should come and sit on a panel with me. I won’t even make you pay.

Except if you’re from the Wall Street Journal.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Dais ex Machina