Welcome to Benioff-force 2013

There was a slightly sad air circling the Moscone Centre at Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce conference.

I have been attending since 2009 to cover the news coming out of the event; an event that has grown bigger and brasher over the years, with CEO Marc Benioff boasting as many as 130,000 registrations in 2013. But this year it felt different.

Dreamforce always had that vibe of an exciting and new conference filled to the brim with announcements that even the best journalists struggled to keep on top of. Salesforce itself was founded within a year of Google and was part of those select firms that came out of Silicon Valley in the late nineties and managed to manoeuvre their way through the bubble bursting which killed so many others.

These types have always garnered much respect in this part of the world but also managed to keep a cool façade, even if their founders have started to cover up the greys.

Yet this year, the almost cult status the company had achieved seemed to be sacrificed. Instead it became the Marc Benioff show and the technology that made the man took a cheap seat right at the back of the vast keynote halls.

I am somewhat of a cynic about the philanthropy of the world’s richest, grateful of course when they make contributions I could never dream of giving, but feeling uncomfortable when they are used as a branding tool.

In the opening keynote, a large portion was dedicated to Benioff’s personal philanthropy and in some cases it felt horrendously awkward. There is one thing deciding the children’s hospital he was funding needed to be named after him, but I didn’t know where to look when a picture with Haitian children writing ‘Merci Salesforce’ came up on the screen and the Prime Minster of Haiti stood up and thanked the CEO for his help and his cloud platform. It just seemed like the world had gone somewhat topsy-turvy when a world leader was puckering up to a Silicon Valley executive.

The rest of the conference continued in this vein. Even when it returned to the corporate customers rather than the charities, CEO after CEO was trawled out to tell Benioff what a wonderful man he was, how much he had changed their lives, and that was just from the president of WholeFoods.

Benioff has never been a shy guy and his presentation style has always been confident. He tried to make a joke of how in the connected world we lived in, it was crazy that every shop, airport or organisation didn’t know who he was when he walked in and use it to their advantage. But this little diatribe sounded like more of a “Don’t you know who I am?” rant you’d expect from a D-list celebrity in the queue for a new nightclub.

Then during a Q&A with the press, the mask of a man who cared about his customers and innovation in technology didn’t so much slip as fly off, when he admitted he wanted to make as many products as possible to “ram down the throats” of his users, whether they needed them or not.

Yes, Dreamforce is always a great excuse for the UK technology press and customers to travel across the Atlantic, take advantage of hospitality in one of the greatest cities in the world and watch the likes of Metallica and Green Day with a free pint in hand. But there has always been an excitement around the technology, the feeling people were really getting what they paid for and that new innovations were just round the corner – which is what kept us coming back.

This year, the only announcement anyone was talking about was one with HP, which seemed to backtrack on the cloud-dream Salesforce had always stood for.

Salesforce is alive and well, revenues are coming in at vast rates and there is no doubt it will continue to be a success for some years to come. But the enticing company you always looked forward to getting a call from with its next big adventure has gone – and Benioff has taken his seat next to the Ellisons, Ballmers and Chambers of this world as an old, established, rich, white CEO rather than the new, refreshing innovator his cult company could have allowed him to be.