What Agency Exec Ben Palmer Will Ask Julian Assange at SXSW

And What Brands Might Learn From the Exchange

By Published on .

Julian Assange
Julian Assange Credit: David Evans/Bloomberg

Barbarian Group Chairman Benjamin Palmer and his team wanted to host a SXSW event that would explore the current state of Internet culture. So they asked WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, who's been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for over a year, if he'd do a virtual Q&A. He said yes.

If you can't get into the Q&A in Austin, Ad Age will be covering the event on the ground. In the meantime, Mr. Palmer gives Ad Age some insight into how he got Mr. Assange to do the Q&A, what he'll ask him about and what he wants brands to take away from the conversation.

Advertising Age: How did you get Julian Assange?

Benjamin Palmer: We were thinking about everything going on with Edward Snowden and people's feelings about information security and privacy on the internet. These are the kinds of things you have to think about if you're a regular person, and brands working on the internet have to understand the implications of the environment we're in. We said it'd be awesome if we could talk to Julian Assange. So we reached out.

They were a little suspicious of an ad agency, and then realized it would be an opportunity to have an advanced conversation in front of a really influential digital audience.

Advertising Age: What are the terms of the speaking arrangement? Are you paying him?

Ben Palmer
Ben Palmer

Mr. Palmer: We're paying a small fee. I think it's under $10,000. It's what would probably be travel fees, but he's doing a video conference.

Advertising Age: What will you talk about?

Mr. Palmer: I've seen interviews with him but it's always a reporter talking about what Wikileaks does in relation to a political agenda or news situation. I haven't seen a conversation [with him] that's more about Internet culture on a global scale. Whether you're for or against what WikiLeaks does, it's true they're operating at the highest level you can operate the internet at. In terms of distributing information, we're using technology to rally people. [WikiLeaks] is in the top percentile of using the internet to effect culture on a grand scale. I'm going in with that perspective. This is not for the general audience but for people who are tech-savvy.

Advertising Age: How nerdy will it get on the tech front?

Mr. Palmer: If you're starting out now, you're growing up in a post-WikiLeaks and post-Snowden [era] with that "Hey, wait a minute, they're tapping Google" way of thinking. I think there are a lot of questions around what comes next. I'd like to talk about open-source software where you share codebase. [For closed-sourced technology,] you can't have third-party people looking at how it's secured, so maybe it's less secure. Maybe only Joe wrote code and nobody looked and he made a mistake.

Advertising Age: Will you get into hacking technology?

Mr. Palmer: There will be some conversation about what the process is like.

Advertising Age: How will you address his impact on media and journalism?

Mr. Palmer: He's been on a mission to make government more open by leaking information he feels should be out in the open. There's a new media company Glenn Greenwald started, called The Intercept, that's kind of born out of Wikileaks and Snowden. Now there are media companies based on a new model. I'm curious -- does that apply to international companies? Does it apply to the Googles and Facebooks? Does it apply to the Coca-Colas or Time Warners of the world?

I'll also want to talk about how much of the operation he's still running. Could he hand over the reigns of Wikileaks to someone else? The difference between him and Edward Snowden is that Edward Snowden is on a solo mission. Julian Assange started an organization. It's a more anarchist version of The New York Times. If they treated him like a terrorist in the U.S., would they have to treat The New York Times the same way?

Advertising Age: What do you want attendees to walk away with? What's in it for brands and clients?

Mr. Palmer: I'm hoping we'll walk away thinking about things a little bit differently and with an open mind around a situation where somebody needs to go in and be really disruptive. If nothing else, brands will walk away understanding what living in a digital world and having a strong mission and point of view feels like.

Advertising Age: What's in it for Mr. Assange?

Mr. Palmer: I think it's an opportunity for him to have a conversation in front of an audience he doesn't usually talk to exclusively. These are the people who will make the next file-search app, chat app or social networks. They're all developers and creative people. If he's someone on a mission, I think he'd want to be in front of those people.

Advertising Age: Are you pro wiki-leaks?

Mr. Palmer: Yes, but with a question mark. I definitely think they are using the internet better than almost anyone else. In that sense I'm impressed and I'm a fan. I'm not in lockstep with all of their decisions. But I am glad they're out there. I wouldn't say design is their strongest suit, but with totality of what they're doing they're the most advanced. It's an organization that couldn't exist without the internet in every possible respect.

Advertising Age: Is it a risk for an agency like Barbarian to organize a Q&A with someone who has such a strong and often polarizing point of view?

Mr. Palmer: I'm really excited and a little nervous. But it would be boring if I was too scared to do something like this. This is inspiration for [the idea that] what comes next doesn't necessarily come from what other people are doing in same industry as you.

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