The event -- now in its third year, began as a gathering mostly for the company's major AdSense partners, the small sites that were earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year using Google's ad-matching technology. But today the audience is peppered with more suits and CEOs, a trend thanks not only to Google's increasing success among ever-larger marketers and publishers, but also to the lofty agenda that included interviews with several CEOs, from Cisco to Patagonia, a former president and Google CEO Eric Schmidt interviewing his counterpart at Time Warner, Dick Parsons.
About 400 people descended on the campus last Oct. 10 and 11 -- munching on snacks and hobnobbing with everyone from newspaper CEOs to Judson Laipply, the creator and star of infamous YouTube video "Evolution of Dance." An espresso bar served up drinks called "The Zeitgeist " (a double espresso) and Search A-Lattes; attendees could check out a rechargeable car or have Google employees show them how to trick out their Gmail accounts.
Google's not the only company to host advertisers for an event that doesn't outright push the company's own products. Microsoft hosts its biggest ad clients at an event called Strategic Account Summit, or SAS. But if Microsoft's tends to be more marketing-industry centric, Google's, by contrast, could only be described as more world-centric.
The result? Big ideas that inspired lots of deep thinking, but left attendees with less practical takeaway. Said Google CEO Eric Schmidt at both a dinner Wednesday night and on stage the next day: Zeitgeist "is not about Google but the world."
The conference was organized around several specific themes -- collaboration and connectivity and a sense of responsibility -- and not surprisingly, there was lots of talk about environmental responsibility, social responsibility and the need to reduce poverty.
Cisco CEO John Chambers talked about the flattening structure of his company, which has distributed decision-making and product responsibility among an ever-wider group of people, and encouraged greater collaboration, going so far as to base compensation on peer review. The internet is enabling much of that collaboration through social networking-like technologies. The company "used to run with the top 10 to 20 people," he said. "Now we run with the top 300 and we're on our way to running with the top 3,000 and then maybe all 67,000."
FedEx Chairman-CEO Fred Smith talked about technology's effect on his business and how FedEx's real service is in tracking items, not merely shipping. "The central feature of modern logistics systems," he said, allows you to "see inventory at motion and at rest."
Lessons from Patagonia
Perhaps the most entertaining part of the programming was Tom Brokaw's interview of Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard, who claims unfamiliarity with the term BlackBerry, to be cell-free and to have never touched a keyboard. His explanation: "Behind every Luddite is a woman with a computer." The curmudgeonly rock climber bemoaned globalization, environmental destruction and taking the easy way out. CEOs that climb Mount Everest with guides, a Sherpa in front with 3 feet of rope pulling and a Sherpa behind pushing can't claim the same benefits as those who train, do their own work and can feel a true sense of accomplishment. Instead, "they're assholes when they go up and assholes when they come down," he said.
Later that day, former President Bill Clinton addressed the audience via live video conference. And lest one assume Google only invites Democrats, it should be noted that Colin Powell spoke last year and the head of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron, spoke Oct. 11.
Wednesday night's four-course dinner, which included duck confit and cardamom-braised short ribs, was held just up the street from the Google HQ at the Shoreline Amphitheater, where organizers had erected the largest video-projection dome (or so the program claimed). Several projectors cast images onto the interior surface of the dome, a series of changing naturescapes that began with the Arctic, proceeded through the tropics and ended with the night sky. (The initial thought, as that Arctic scene morphed into a desert one, was that attendees were being treated to the visual evolution of the melting polar ice cap.)
And speaking of melting ice caps, Al Gore did make an appearance, which had to be moved up a day -- for a good excuse. From Mountain View, the former vice president flew off to Asia, where he made his way to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
Talk about a power lunch ...Very much the picture of casual Silicon Valley icons in jeans, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were alternatively grave and light-hearted as they met with a group of reporters -- an unusual event to say the least -- over a meal during Zeitgeist. The table talk ranged from discussions of privacy and ecology to Mr. Page occasionally jumping in to josh his co-founder about his parking abilities and his recent move to reduce the snack consumption at Google.
The pair's take on the important privacy issues tended toward reputation management and libel concerns rather than the data-collection concerns many consumer-privacy advocates emphasize. They talked about concerns that websites might publish untrue things about people and the worry that those untruths can be more easily found thanks to search.
"The practical issues with respect to people's privacy are different than the ones that get debated," said Mr. Page. "We're generally debating about hypothetical [things]."
"Privacy," said CEO Eric Schmidt, "is an evergreen story with [the press] and the fundamental conflict we'll see in next five to 10 years is in this space."
Occasionally the parental role Mr. Schmidt has been said to play showed through. When asked about how the co-founders feel about the Patriot Act (they went to court to oppose the government's request for customer data), Mr. Brin began by talking theoretically about the Act, when Mr. Schmidt interrupted him.
"The best way to answer this is it's law of land and we have to follow it," he said. But he emphasized that Google depends on the trust of its users. "It would be a disaster for the company if that privacy were compromised by a privacy leak or some very bad government action that we couldn't stop under threat of tanks."
One of the last major hurdles slowing YouTube's revenue growth is implementing an automatic copyrighted-content-detection system. Mr. Schmidt talked about YouTube's recent monetization announcement and said soon the company would introduce an automated system to help identify content. "Those two issues, once resolved, create economic conditions for huge growth," he said. He warned, however, that anyone expecting a foolproof system would be disappointed -- those don't even exist in other media he said, citing the example of illegal cable subscribers. "The question is, can we get to 80% or 90%?"