I have mixed feelings about this year’s LeWeb conference in Paris. While the content was interesting and varied, I felt it lacked cohesion. The first day was of less interest to me and has been covered well enough by others. The one exception I should mention was Cluetrain Manifesto co-author David Weinberger‘s dream of crowdsourced leadership. If it was anyone else delivering this message it would be considered risible. As it is, I can only hope that someone takes David aside and gives him a gentle lesson in leadership principles.
It was difficult to come away with a sense that the stated theme: love – had been carried off by many of the speakers. Some did a great job. Gary Veynerchuk’s infectious if booming enthusiasm for all things to do with wine was a clear winner with the crowd. His message about passion, honesty, belief and commitment was spot on for an audience in need of refreshment. You could almost say the same for the Gillmor Gang, one of my personal favourites but something of an acquired taste in Europe. TechCrunch’s Mike Arrington played his part, attempting to convince the crowd that the center of the universe really is Atherton California but failing miserably in front of a partisan audience who know BS when they see it.
It was faintly amusing listening to VC’s saying that coming to them with an idea but no idea how to monetize isn’t going to get funded in the current economic climate. No shit sherlock? But why were they not saying this two or three years ago? It is disingenuous to suddenly do a 180 degree turn and then expect investees to do the same when they have business models based on a different paradigm. One that sucks but different nonetheless. What was telling however was the shift in emphasis onto business applications rather than the obsession with consumer facing applications that depend on advertising for revenue. That has to be good news because business needs a hefty dose of innovation right now. It sure as heck won’t get it from the incumbents any time soon.
The real star of the show for me was professor Brian Cox of Manchester University. He talked about the Large Hadron Collider in Cern and the matrix of things which make up all life. Whether it is because of my childhood fascination with astronomy or being a dunce at physics I cannot say. But I was enthralled with the way Cox made an extraordinarily complex topic approachable. Therein lies a lesson for all professionals trying to help clients in the current down turn.
Each year, LeWeb has its share of controversy. In 2005, it was Ben Metcalfe rising to Mena Trott’s asshole accusation. 2006 saw the Sarkozy affair and the Sam Sethi assholing. 2007 seemed low key in comparison. This year it was the crappy wifi (Swisscom really screwed up royally) and lack of food. I have no insight into what Loic paid the caterers but whatever it was, it was way over the top for a few admittedly top grade but inadequate nibbles. As Steph Booth quipped: “This conference is supposed to be about love but I sense we’re sliding rapidly down Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.” At the time, we were all starving and waiting for the pre-lunch speaker to stop before the inevitable food scrum. It was nowhere near as bad as Paul Carr made out (doesn’t The Guardian’s budget extend to giving their hacks a 3G USB dongle?) but like it or not, that is what LeWeb08 will be remembered for.
LeWeb has changed considerably over the years and always for the better. This year you couldn’t move without having a video camera shoved in your face, something that was almost entirely absent last year. It was good to see so many US speakers coming out of their Silicon Valley enclaves. It was even better to hear them acknowledge that the EU has a lot to offer, remains vibrant and inventive without the obsession with work that Silicon Valley seems to prize so highly.
As always, the real value lays in the casual conversations one engages in with the folk who turn up. I had a great time with the Irish contingent headed by Pat Phelan, Conor O’Neill and Fergus Burns. You can always guarantee that these three will extract any amount of BS they hear and re-parse it to reality. As an aside, Kara Swisher plans to bring the D Conference to Ireland next year. If that happens it will be a well deserved recognition that Ireland has some of Europe’s smartest minds.
It was especially gratifying for me to get an hour over lunch with Doc Searls, JP Rangaswami and Steve Gillmor. I’d wanted to meet Steve for a long time. We often disagree but he’s always a source of inspiration. JP, who is managing director of BT’s Design Team is one of the sharpest minds in business and it gave me the opportunity to talk with him about micro-messaging and ESME from a business standpoint. Doc is co-author of Cluetrain but his thinking about relationships and how they parse in business is rooted in some fine analysis that could lead to real value delivery. More on that later.
Despite the lack of pizza in the brasserie where we ate and my complete misunderstanding of the French waiter offering us free sangria when I thought he said margerita pizza (go figure) I enjoyed listening to their sharply different POV on topics like telco pricing and bundling, vendor relationship management and the power of Twitter.
I hadn’t seen Hugh MacLeod in eons. He was having fun drawing cartoons on business cards for anyone who wanted them and looking all the better for having escaped London for Alpine, West Texas.
My one regret is that the videos I wanted to get done didn’t get done. They can wait. In the meantime, I made a Flickr collection which is publicly available here.
Although I remain hesitant about Loic and Geraldine LeMeur’s ability to pull off a sixth year in the face of an economic recession, the fact he has politicians queuing up to offer facilities in the Paris area is a very good sign. Even more telling, the fact the hall was full right up to the final session speaks volumes for the eagerness of attendees to gobble up the content. It may not have been wholly to my taste but it was clearly a hit with the 1,700 or so who also attended. So what do I know? Here’s hoping we’ll be back in Paris this time next year.