Main content

Dreamforce 2018 - Benioff takes no prisoners in activist call to arms

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan September 25, 2018
A tech conference keynote or an impassioned declaration of intent in a wider political climate? Benioff takes center-stage.



A lot of the mainstream media on day one of Dreamforce picked up on the Fight for the Future protest around Salesforce’s contract with the US Border Patrol. That’s fair enough - it was a good photo opp and a piece of peaceful activism, even if the number of protestors didn’t exactly pose any concern to the high level of security around the Moscone Center in San Francisco. 

Inside the hall, CEO Marc Benioff launched into his 16th keynote address to the annual gathering of the Salesforce faithful - and it’s fair to say that in 16 years of covering this event, I think I’ve rarely seen him so impassioned. Immigration was name-checked once in passing during a run-down of the sectors and businesses with which Salesforce works - with no emphasis on the borders controversy, but the point was made - but the opening chunk of this Dreamforce keynote was more akin to a tub-thumping declaration of societal and political intent than the opening address to a tech conference.

There were product pitches and demos a’plenty to come - Marriott’s Alexa roll out built around Chief Equality Officer Tony Prophet’s coffee preferences was particularly slick - but this began as something else. As one customer said to  me afterwards (on his first Dreamforce), had Benioff declared his candidacy for 2020, he wouldn’t have been totally knocked-for-six!

It was never going to be that of course, but this was the most ferociously-delivered ‘mission statement’ that I’ve heard from Benioff in quite a while. Was it the borders issue that inspired it? Was it the shifting power structure within Salesforce, with Keith Block now co-CEO and Prophet sharing the stage? Or was it a knock-on effect of the wider societal and political state of the US? Whatever the reason, the Salesforce CEO was taking no prisoners at the start of his most important speech of the year. Check this out:

This is a moment in time where there are many things on the table that we're all looking at and this is a moment in time when someone like me, a CEO and other CEOs, but really all of us, have to ask the question - what is really important to us? What is really important to us? What is the most important thing? What are our values? What are we going to stand for?

And those questions extended to the audience:

Each and every one of us has something to do. Each and every one of us knows we have a purpose deep inside us and that we will get further amplified and further expressed this week and I can see that in all of you.

One of the Benioff keynote trademarks, much copied in the interim, is his stepping down from the main stage and wandering through the audience. So far, so familiar this year, but with the added element this time of walking straight towards a camera and staring directly into it - and as such, the eyes of everyone watching in the room and those watching online (10 million apparently…).

It was a startling fierce image and a powerfully effective one as he called the audience, physical and virtual, to arms in the name of “inclusive capitalism”:

All of our brothers and sisters, regardless of race, regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation of religion, because we believe we have to break everyone in. Everyone has to come in for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It's inclusive capitalism. Capitalism means we're all going together into the future. We are leaving no-one behind.


That being so - and it’s a pretty bold, if admirable, aspiration - what does that mean in practice? According to Benioff, it’s about working out what we all stand for and understanding what the consequences are for those who don’t:

Don't forget to bring everyone into the Fourth Industrial Revolution…what is really important to us for each company? We have to listen and we're watching. We're watching for companies who are not listening to their key stakeholders, not listening to their customers, not listening to their employees, not listening to the kids. For them, you watch executives walk out, the employees walk out, the customers walk out, as a vote of no confidence against their values.

This leads to a familiar Benioff theme - trust:

As a community, we stand here and we say we are going to commit to a higher level. We are going into a higher level together to express our values. We know what the most important thing is to us…we’ve said it for years and we'll say it again - our culture is built on trust, the fundamental trust that we have with you, the fundamental trust that we have with our key stakeholders, with our customers, with our employees, with our partners.

Our trust is with you and we take that very seriously. It's our highest value, and we ask every company to ask, ‘What is your highest value?’. In a world where technology is taking us over and in a world where technology through the Fourth Industrial Revolution is grabbing us, realize that we all have a higher responsibility to ask that question, especially to see the gambits that are unfolding before us, especially as Artificial Intelligence gets released into the whole world.

These are big issues and big questions, he concluded, as he explained how Salesforce has set about putting its own house in order:

We must ask this question, ‘What is truly important to us?’. We've made a major change this year. We realized technology is not good or bad; it’s what you do with it that matters. We have restructured our company to have an Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology so that as our employees, our customers, our partners, can ask are we doing this? Are we aligned with our values? Are we moving forward? We can have a structured conversation, not just with our own employees myopically…We have to ask that question in the technology industry and every company and every CEO better be ready to answer to that question.

My take

On fire.

A grey colored placeholder image