Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs was the keynote speaker at an ad tech conference and the results were more bizarre than imagined

By James Robinson , written on March 28, 2014

From The News Desk

“Time to have a drink and talk about some real shit up in this motherfucker.”

So says the headline speaker of ad:tech 2014 to a crowd of a few hundred expectant faces in San Francisco. What follows in the next 50 minutes has little to do with advertising technology, or really, technology period. Because the headline speaker is Sean Combs – whose brand name was recently changed back to Puff Daddy – and he’s here to play up to every overpaid stunt-casted celebrity corporate speaker cliché imaginable.

Combs greets his co-host Steve Katelman, Omnicom’s head of Global Strategic Partnerships, and the two do a vodka shot. Katelman proceeds to play the part of the awkwardly fawning interviewer perfectly, with a cringingly awkward old white guy tick of saying “amen, brother” after Combs’ answers and a penchant to let Combs indulge in every single conversational whim. He doesn’t force him to talk about advertising in even a tangential way for almost the entire time they’re on stage.

“I don’t even know why I’m here,” Combs says, settling into the couch on stage. “I’m definitely not the most tech-savvy guy.” Great.

He’s there I’d imagine, because the price is right, but also because he has things to sell. His headline slot is an advertisement in itself, if you examine it broadly. The vodka he and Katelman slug back is Ciroc is a brand he helped develop and he’s got a five-month old television network, Revolt TV, to plug.

Revolt is an always-on live music network -- classic MTV with a hip-hop bent. Combs talks about two fascinations he has with it at length. He wants it to be like ESPN, but for music. He really likes ESPN. But he’s also caught up in thinking that his is a revolutionary network because it is recorded live-to-air. He has a way of talking about live TV like he’s the first person to think of it. “The future is about real-time and about covering it as it happened. We don’t follow the conversation, we make the conversation,” he says, earnestly. Combs adds, in all seriousness, that the Internet and Twitter happen in real-time too. They’re popular. Ergo Revolt TV will be popular.

“Revolt is a planet, it gives you a place to go to where you know that there’s food and there’s water and everything is going to be alright,” Combs says nonsensically.

All of this could have been interesting if Combs had any revealing level insight on information and culture in the Internet-era. “I’m very big on disruption. I love fucking chaos,” he says, allowing the crowd to whoop but without explaining what he means.

There were two moments that could have been interesting, if Katelman had an ear for a good discussion and not just lapping up hanging out with a celebrity. He asks Combs about how Revolt TV will cover his upcoming album “Big Homie,” a question that has new relevance in an age of mega-rich founders starting their own media networks.

“If something is dope, it’s dope. If something is quality, it’s quality. If it is wack, it’s wack. If you stick by those common sense principles,” Combs says, but trails off. I find myself genuinely intrigued about how the answer will end, but he never finishes the thought.

About half an hour in, Katelman brings up to Combs how Revolt TV’s advertising operation will work, which is interesting because this is an ad tech conference, but also because Combs has done something different with Revolt TV, putting product placement for other products inside of Fiat ads.

Combs’ answer is straight bumper sticker. “One of the great things about a startup company going to this uncharted territory is that there are no rules. The only answer is yes,” he says.

The conversation touches on silly, puerile and quite strange places. Combs talks about how he wasn’t trying to buy Fuse TV, as many said, he was trying to buy the New York Knicks and people got their wires crossed. He talks about how rich people are hard to buy gifts for but still like getting presents. He says that he thinks God is a woman. He talks about millenials, but seems confused because his six kids have lives that few other children would. One of his kids wants a Range Rover Porsche for their birthday. “I didn’t know they made them shits,” he says.

We get to the question and answer component. The first is from a girl who just wants a hug and gets bought up on stage to do a vodka shot. The second is from Twitter, wanting to know where the after party is. Combs tells the disappointed crowd that he’s leaving for Miami right at the end of the talk.

The next comes from the crowd again, from Dan, who gets a seat on the couch next to Combs and gets a vodka shot. Dan asks Combs how he stays motivated to do Puff Daddy-like things after all of these years. He touches Combs awkwardly on the shoulder and gets a hostile look in return.

“There is nothing like that first night you made love. But it can get better if you are innovative, if you’re fearless, if you want it to get better,” Combs says.

The crowd is complicit in the joke, it seems. They have no desire to hear Combs get technical, even if he could. The last question is about whether Combs likes metal music. He talks up Iron Maiden to the whoops of ad nerds winding down from one of the drier conferences you could attend in your life.

Combs isn’t here for music but this is still performance. If you examine it as an intellectual exercise, it is sad. But if you squint hard enough, it’s really good comedy.