We came. We saw. We Brainstormed.
Fortune Magazine held its annual Brainstorm Tech conference last week in Half Moon Bay, Calif., over the hill from the heart of Silicon Valley and just down the seaside road from San Francisco. As usually happens at Fortune events, we put together a wonderfully eclectic mix of heavy hitters from industry, big thinkers on issues most of us didn’t know existed, and the occasional oddball that makes the drive or flight worthwhile. It obviously has taken me more than a week to find time to jot down my impressions. Here are some highlights:
Bloggeriffic. I suppose the most buzzed-about event I participated in was a panel we called the “blogger showdown.” It ended up being more of a blogger smackdown, WWF-style. Despite my best intentions of getting Kara Swisher of AllthingsD.com, Giga Omni Media’s Om Malik and Robert Scoble, of Scobleizer.com to talk about the industries they cover, all they and the audience really wanted to discuss was the state of the blogosphere. Fortune’s Yi-Wyn Yen did a write-up of the event that the media site Romenesko featured, causing old journalism friends of mine to come out of the woodwork to say hello. As an old-media guy (who writes a blog, appears on TV and radio, and Twitters), I’ve been coming around to the opinion that bloggers are just journalists and that the oft-discussed distinctions aren’t meaningful. Let’s just say I’m in the minority. Old-school readers can’t stand these folks for their perceived lack of standards, and the new crowd (my panelists were no younger than I am) wants nothing to do with fuddy-duddy readers. I’m willing to make the same prediction about blogging that I made 10 years ago about “Internet” companies: In 10 years there won’t be an distinction. Blogging will be part of the multi-media spectrum.
There was an interesting off-subject (or on-subject) moment during our Q&A. Kevin Kelly of Wired, responding to an extended conversation we’d been having about Yahoo (YHOO), asked, “Who cares?” (I had earlier asked if there was anyone in the room who still worked for Yahoo, noting the number of ex-Yahooligans in attendance. No one raised their hands, but there were in fact several current Yahoo executives there.) Swisher gave an appropriately spirited defense of our fascination with Yahoo, namely that it’s a giant, influential, and valuable media property, warts and all. That ought to be on the minds of folks paying attention to Yahoo’s annual meeting Friday in San Jose.
Making money on the Net. I hosted a breakfast panel on this hoary subject. The headliners were Rob Glaser of Real Networks (RNWK), which sells about $100 million a year in ads and sponsorships; Neil Ashe, CEO of CNET, recently acquired by CBS (CBS), and who will have to prove that there’s a reason to marry a slow-growth old media company with a slow-growth new media company; Greg Waldorf of eHarmony.com, the dating service backed by Sequoia Capital that’s still private after all these years; and Mike Volpi, the ex-Cisco (CSCO) exec who runs Joost, which has surprised the media world by lagging its competitor Hulu.com in product development. Everyone explained how they’re “monetizing,” but just before we ran out of time we started in on a fresh topic, the failure of the Web industry to make good on its promise of delivering really precise ads to users who want to see them. “It’s really a failure of targeted advertising,” said Brad Garlinghouse, the departing Yahoo executive of peanut-butter-memo fame. Added Bill Gross, arguably the man who invented search advertising: “AdSense is junk.” To deconstruct his conclusion, Gross — who founded GoTo.com, which became Overture and then sold to Yahoo, but not before Google (GOOG) appropriated its best ideas in AdWords and later AdSense – is saying that even mighty Google doesn’t deliver the type of ad quality it professes. Let’s get the band back together and keep on this one!
VCs out of luck? A great group of venture capitalists agreed to share a stage with me for a panel we called “Investing in a world without exits.” The conceit was that with the IPO market shriveled and Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and eBay losing the appetite for acquisitions, the poor VCs won’t be able to sell their portfolio companies, which makes it really tough to buy Gulfstream jets, country-club memberships and vacation homes in Italy. The VCs on my panel, of course, are different. They’re going to find exits. Trust them.