Pando goes to Dreamforce: Willy Loman was born too soon

By Dan Raile , written on September 21, 2015

From The Disruption Desk

Willy Loman was born too soon.

These days, some 150,000 of the world’s fortunate sales-folk can travel to San Francisco once a year to attend the aptly-named Dreamforce conference, to be supplied with a ready-made collective fantasy-world, tailored to dispel any creeping notion of their own tragic absurdity and isolation.

Every morning during the four-day run of the conference I emerged from the subway to join the river of corporate flesh seething across the pavements, through the baleen of brand ambassadors, bewildered homeless and badgeless natives shouldering upstream.

The scope of this gathering boggles the mind and San Francisco’s traffic grid: the sheer number of souls, the tonnage of shwag and free meals, the volumes of jargon dispensed, the lost forests exchanging hands in the form of business cards. 

In the demo hall at Moscone North, attendees could get a free drone or razer scooter or raffle ticket for an iWatch or a faux-fitbit or one of those hands-free neo-Segways, if only they watched a short demonstration of some enterprise software or another.  

The event is itself a sales-pitch. As such it promises more than it delivers: by joining its ranks, salesfolk can be a part of "something bigger" and more meaningful than the drab menagerie of office solutions that is Salesforce’s product line, the ephemeral stuff of the cloud that attendees are left with when the dust settles on Howard Street. Dreamforce has less to do with sales software than it does with sales solidarity and fostering pride in the noble profession of selling stuff. 

The conference itself is a showcase of salesmanship, inducing a fugue state among Salesforce customers with: surprise Stevie Wonder appearances, a massive corporate “music festival”, the really good-looking guy from Entourage, panels on the health of the world’s oceans, mindfulness and championing the cause of women in the workplace, grand gestures of participatory charity -- the artful conjuring of one Marc Benioff, charismatic leader of the ‘Force. Benioff was joined onstage throughout the conference by fellow Salesforce co-founder Parker Harris, in the role of Bud Abbott to Benioff's hamming Lou Costello.   

The duo first took the stage mid-day Wednesday, regaling the crowd with a play-acted demo of the latest Salesforce offerings, kicked off by an on-stage Stevie Wonder medley, with Harris clad in a NASCAR/super-hero suit and wielding various props ("I can make him do anything," Benioff quipped later).

They wrapped up the conference Friday afternoon in the ballroom at Moscone West, seated in swivel chairs on a cloud-shaped stage surrounded by a throng of thousands of dazzled, mostly white, people. In the course of several hours of demonstrative repartee (this is the salesman's practiced affability and easy camraderie, par excellance. Watch and learn.) the two fielded questions from the crowd.

Benioff displayed his knack for zen-like mysticism.

“It’s not CRM but it is. It is many things; it is one thing,” he said of Salesforce’s product line.

He waxed Socratic.

“Who are we? What are we doing here?”

One intrepid Australian woman took to the microphone to voice her disappointment with the childish marketing heaped upon attendees.

“I just would like to see less play-acting and more real stuff,” she concluded, to brief applause.

Benioff, in a porkpie hat, Dave Grohl t-shirt and jeans, spun leisurely in his chair and addressed Salesforce’s marketing director where she sat in the audience.

“Lynn, stand up please. What do you think she means that the marketing is juvenile?” he asked. Lynn did her best to explain the rationale of the marketing department.

Whether or not the Australian question was planted, Benioff returned to it throughout the remainder of the program, baring his thought-processes for the benefit of his assembled horde of customers.

“I wanted [the keynote] to be energetic. That’s why I called Stevie [Wonder] up, I was like ‘Stevie will you come?’ He said he wasn’t really a keynote band but I was like ‘c’mon’ and he was like ‘ok.’”

“I mean, we clearly don’t know what we are doing. We need help. Our marketing is juvenile, we can barely run an event.”

The crowd tittered. What better way to end this massive undertaking than for its commanding general to make an elaborate display of his humility, his earnestness and accessibility. Looking back, this seemed to be the moment of peak delusion.

The reality of Dreamforce ran remarkably counter to Benioff’s hokey closing testimony. The event is an incredible demonstration of crowd-management, the likes of which San Francisco probably hasn’t seen since the entire Pacific Theater of World War II funnelled through town in the ‘40s.

Salesforce ambassadors in branded shirts were stationed at street corners across the SOMA streetscape, directing attendees to sessions which took place in 19 separate buildings. (Curiously, these helpers referred to paper printouts when answering questions. Go figure.)

One hundred and fifty thousand people were cycled through mealtime and work-time and party-time and sleepytime for days on end. And people are generally harder to wrangle than cattle. 

Even the press was effectively marshalled. The press lounge was mysteriously closed during the two-hour keynote on Wednesday, harried reporters flushed out of their quiet warren and into the audience. Salesforce PR folks holding signs that said simply “Press” led them to their seats.

On Thursday night an estimated 35,000 people were loaded onto buses and taken a few miles away to the derelict shipyards of San Francisco’s Pier 70. After disembarking, the teeming horde was herded through cattle gates and a security check to feed at the trough of fun, in the form of the three-stage Dreamfest featuring the Foo Fighters, the Killers and Gary Clark, Jr., jumbotrons, lasers and untold quantities of complementary beer, wine and food. None were trampled, and nearly all were rounded back up unto buses before the clock struck twelve. Some, myself included, managed to escape onto the city streets, but it wasn’t easy and

The ghosts of the shipbuilding immigrants who faced down armed union-busters at Pier 70 in days past looked on in glossy-eyed confusion. The temporary army of salesfolk gobbled up the food, swilled the beer, sang along with the rock ‘n’ rollers.

Once again the conference was a stunning success. As the lights went up after the casual Q&A on Friday, thousands of white people in sensible attire chatted merrily, recapping the week’s delights and successes, as they were ushered back to reality by dancing Salesforce contractors in branded blue T-shirts shouting and motioning towards the exits

Sure, there were traffic jams emanating outward from SOMA all week, no hotel rooms to be had across the city, price-gouging on Airbnb, some corporate graffiti kerfuffle and nocturnal drunken douchery in spades (visitors to the Dreamboat were exhorted to "Work like a captain, play like a pirate"). Some Dreamforce attendees vented frustrations on the Dreamforce app. A few angry NIMBYs decried the use of a Celebrity Infinity cruise ship for overflow accommodations on the waterfront. Angry artists with bullhorns derided the docile crowds from their studio windows as they shuffled towards the Dreamfest. A few Salesforce competitors mounted adversarial ad campaigns.

But in all, there was no resistance of note, from outside or within. Salesforce was able to convey its sense of its stature to millions of people. Dreamforce is not a tech conference. It is a sales conference. And it made the sale.