Once upon a time, Agenda was the hippest computer conference of them all. Organized by Stewart Alsop, technology magazine publisher turned venture capitalist, it brought together the best and brightest of the personal computer world to talk about what they thought the coming years would bring.
“There was something historically irreproducible about the original Agenda,” says James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, who took over last fall as executive producer of Agenda 2002, held October 4-11 at The Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, Ariz. “It emerged at the time the personal computer was emerging. In the very early days of this conference, it was a little club of people like Bill Gates and Scott McNealy who ran little companies, were in their 20s, and all knew each other.” As the saying goes, that was then, this is now.
One supposes it was inevitable that one day people in the tech industry would feel nostalgia for the good old days of double- and triple-digit growth, back when Gates was still a certifiable geek and Michael Dell was a kid selling computers out of his dorm room at the University of Texas. According to Gary Bolles, contributing editor of Conferenza.com, an online newsletter about the tech conference business, there are still people who attend Agenda clinging to the idea that personal computers are a fast-evolving growth business. But the truth is, it's not. And Agenda, once a forum for discussing the strategic implications of one new technological development after another, had been getting stale.
“I felt the conference had become too insular,” says Lia Lorenzano, president of San Mateo, Calif.-based IDG Executive Forums, the unit of Boston-based International Data Group that owns Agenda. “It was the same people talking about the same issues every year.” She had been proud of Agenda's reputation for strong — even fierce — audience involvement. “But then something happened,” she says. “People began to ask questions because their PR people had advised them to.”
Marching Orders: Find a Star
Lorenzano's suspicions that Agenda had lost its freshness were confirmed when Bob Metcalf, who had been executive producer for the conference for four years, announced his intention to resign. “If Bob didn't enjoy it anymore … maybe it was time to take a longer look at what we were doing.” Lorenzano's bosses agreed that it was time to shake things up. They had been through this once before, when Metcalf replaced Alsop in 1997. The way to restore Agenda's luster, they said, was to find a new executive producer who could think about the conference creatively and would bring a little cachet of his own. “The message from IDG was: ‘Find a star or make a star,’” says Lorenzano. “They were right. We believe this is a talent-based business.”
After a nine-month search, including a couple of near-misses with producers who were nixed by IDG for having uncomfortably close ties with the competition, Lorenzano found James Fallows. “I thought he was a star in his own right,” says Lorenzano of the veteran journalist and editor whose lengthy résumé includes more than 20 years at The Atlantic Monthly, a stint as editor of U.S. News & World Report, work as a commentator on National Public Radio, and serving as chief speech writer for President Carter.
Why ask someone who writes about politics and economics to produce a PC industry conference? Because Lorenzano and her cohorts at IDG realized that Agenda had changed because the business it served had changed. Personal computing was no longer a glamour business. It was a business like other businesses, and it had to start paying attention to politics and economics, just as regular businesses did. In fact, Fallows had given a talk at Agenda a few years back on this very subject.
“It's a speech I'm actually proud of,” says Fallows. “The theme was that the tech industry was about to become a normal industry, and all the things that happened to normal industries were about to befall the tech industry: political problems, layoffs, and boom-and-bust cycles.” It didn't hurt that Fallows had some reputation as a ground-breaker on the subject of the personal computer; a story he wrote for The Atlantic Monthly in 1979 was probably the first in a general-interest magazine about PCs.
An Amateur at the Helm
Fallows admits to having no particular interest in the conference business or how it works. “I don't feel capable of talking about the larger anthropology of conferences,” he says. He's been to Agenda before, he attended a conference organized by tech guru Esther Dyson, and he's been in the crowd at Comdex a few times. This lack of experience with the tech-conference business worked to his advantage as far as Lorenzano was concerned. “He brought an incredible perspective,” she says. “There is a kind of journalistic curiosity that was needed.”
Besides, IDG Executive Forums is organized to allow executive producers to concentrate solely on creativity. “We have infrastructure in place so the executive producer can concentrate on the creative and not worry about the logistics and the business,” says Lorenzano. “There is a program director who was Jim's liaison between him and the rest of the company, who contacted speakers, set up conference calls, and generally ran interference for him. I firmly believe the creative and the business side need to be kept separate.”
To hear Fallows tell it, being an executive producer is pretty straightforward. He took the job, he says, because he wanted the chance “to interview people who were of influence in a field I'd always cared about, and ask them the questions I'd always wanted to ask.” To this end, he changed the meeting format into a kind of “live magazine.” He was on stage more often than not during the conference, acting as an interviewer and passing along audience questions.
Fallows knew that putting together the conference would require far more than simply consulting his Rolodex. “When we started planning this year's meeting, we had to recognize that the central reality was the slowdown of the tech economy,” he says. “Our challenge was to put that in the most valuable and useful perspective.” His goal was to find speakers who could talk about the lessons of past economic downturns as well as point out the sources of new technologies that might lead to an economic revival of the PC business. In fact, his ambition was to find “people from complementary fields whom the attendees wouldn't know they cared about until they heard them; people who would be interestingly off-topic.”
A prime example was Ralph Szygenda, chief information officer and group vice president, General Motors. “Fifteen years ago, it would have been considered bizarre to have someone from GM at Agenda,” says Fallows. “Now it makes sense. Not only was this guy a 20-year veteran of Texas Instruments before going to GM six years ago, not only was he the biggest customer for most of the people in the room, but he had two issues to discuss which were of genuine interest. One was that GM, which is 100 years old, has been through many, many times what the likes of Microsoft, Sun, and Cisco are now facing for the first time: adjusting to changes in the economic landscape. The other was that GM, under this guy's watch, was trying to become more of an information services company.”
Speakers like Szygenda constituted about a third of the two dozen speakers at this year's Agenda. Another third was more orthodox: representatives from Microsoft, IBM, Siebel, Adobe, and other major PC industry players. The final third included speakers who addressed the larger economic and technological environment, including Jim Glassman, author of the famously optimistic Dow 36,000, who presumably had a lot of explaining to do.
Because the conference took place just a month after the terror attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., at the last minute Fallows put together a panel on the implications of what he calls “the post-terrorist world” for the high-tech universe. For example, Fallows brought in an Israeli high-tech venture capitalist to talk about what it was like to go to work every day knowing that a terror attack could happen at any time. “While we had large sections of the conference planned well in advance,” says Fallows, “we also wanted to make sure it would be relevant and flexible. We had no idea this kind of flexibility would be called for!
“I felt as if we put together not a perfect conference, but an interesting range of material that covered various aspects of the current tech economy,” he says. “What I think is the natural evolution of a conference like Agenda is the world of technology-driven agility; technology-driven growth in worlds that transcend the straight PC world. That's what's interesting to me; I can speak only for myself.”
a Reluctant Star
Asked whether IDG Executive Forums was trading on his reputation as a journalist to promote Agenda 2002, James Fallows, first-time executive producer and veteran journalist, says no. “On the contrary. A very small minority of potential attendees had heard of me in the journalistic world. If you look at the promotional literature for the conference, it's about themes in high-tech. The marketing attention was on the themes, not me.”
To Lia Lorenzano, president of IDG Executive Forums, which owns Agenda, Fallows is “a star in his own right.” She cites his long experience as a journalist, his (well-received) appearance at the 1998 Agenda meeting, and his skills as a live interviewer. “He's so good on stage — he had them enraptured,” she says. “That's not easy with this audience; they're a tough crowd.”
Fallows was an important presence in the early stages of promotion for this year's Agenda, says Lorenzano. “We held a series of cocktail receptions in Palo Alto, San Francisco, Boston, and New York City to introduce him to industry people. They were useful not only as promotional activities but as opportunities for Jim to meet with potential attendees and ask them what their concerns were.”
As much as Fallows may discount his role in promoting Agenda, there can be no doubt that he has achieved a kind of star status in the aftermath. For example, visitors to the Agenda Web site can order “Jim's Top Ten CDs.” Says Lorenzano, “He got really interested in the walk-on and walk-off music. We don't usually see executive producers work at that level of detail. But he was into it, and now people can order the CDs the music came from.”
The Impact of 9/11
Agenda 2002 was one of the first big tech industry meetings to take place after the terror attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. The incident took a toll on attendance for the October 4-11 event, says Lia Lorenzano, president of IDG Executive Forums. “Ordinarily, we cap attendance at 450, with a waiting list. By September 9, we were on track to sell out in two weeks. After September 11, registrations all but dried up. In the end, we had 380 paid attendees.”
In fact, some attendees who canceled reregistered after IDG sent out an e-mail outlining new security arrangements, according to Bob Bruce, operations director for IDG Executive Forums. “Some of them [the reregistrations] weren't because the attendees needed reassurance, but because their families did,” he says.
The e-mail explained that Agenda would require a photo ID as well as a name tag for admission to conference areas, and there would be inspection of all handbags and backpacks. “After the first half-day, people came up to the doors with their bags half-open,” says Bruce. Some people thanked us for the security arrangements.” Bruce also hired off-duty police to patrol the area and notified the local FBI office that the meeting was taking place.
Host resort, The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz., helped out by installing additional security cameras and by agreeing to close off the back entrance to the hotel. Bruce also met with the hotel general manager and security people to address issues that might come up. “We weren't so much worried that anything would happen at the conference, but that an incident somewhere else might cause the airlines to shut down,” he says. “Fortunately for us, The Phoenician had experience with this, having had a conference in-house on September 11.”