Craig Newmark has a bright future in advertising, and Spotme is still cool

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Craig Newmark is a big fan of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, which aims to fight the insanity of the beauty-industrial complex while selling lots of cleansing products. Such a big fan that he says he’s offered some advice to the people at Unilever/Dove and its ad agency, Ogilvy and Mather:

Take an ad in a fashion magazine, like Vogue, and say, “This Magazine is a Lie.”

Ogilvy global managing director Mike Hemingway didn’t appear ready to get quite that genuine. He and Craigslist Craig were on a panel this morning at the Brite (for branding, innovation, and technology) conference at Columbia. I only stayed for the first panel, but somebody named Amanda Mooney is Twittering the whole event for the world’s untold millions of marketing-conference addicts, in case you’re interested.

Hemingway said lots of Cluetrain Manifesto-ey things about how the Internet was bringing genuineness back to marketing. “Creativity is back, humility is back, respect is back,” he intoned at one point. I liked Newmark’s version better. He mentioned Full Frontal Scrutiny, the new Consumer’s Union/Center for Media and Democracy effort to expose “astroturf” corporate front groups, and said, “It’s gonna be harder to be phony.”

I wasn’t actually at the conference to hear Newmark or Hemingway, though. I was there to see Bänz Ledin and play with the latest generation of his Spotme handheld devices. They’re designed especially for conferences, and allow you to look up everybody else who is at the conference, see what they look like, check if they’re sitting next to you, and even set things up to alert you when somebody you want to meet comes near. They’re a remarkable mix of online social networking and actual physical social networking.

I was present at the very first conference where Spotme was used, in Switzerland in 2001. I wrote about it for my bloglike column London Calling, which in its infinite internetty wisdom Time Inc. has long since erased from the Web. (I’ve been able to find references to it on the Wayback Machine, but never an actual London Calling page.) I do still have most of the actual texts on my computer, so whether you want it or not, here it is again:

I can’t decide whether this was really cool or just weird. So I’ll describe it: I’m sitting on a bench at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland last Friday, checking out who’s around me. There’s a guy from the American Stock Exchange, a couple American students, a St. Gallen student, a Swiss banker. I know all this without even looking up–the information on the screen of a little device called spotme that made its debut at St. Gallen’s annual big event, something called the International Students’ Committee Symposium.

The spotme tells me who’s within range of its “radar”–dividing them into those one to three meters away from me, three to seven, and seven to 20–and lets me look up their photos, job titles, and addresses. I can also put it on the lookout for someone I want to find, and the device will start shaking when they get close.

None of this technology works perfectly yet: You usually have to click on “radar” a couple times before you get an accurate reading, and the shaking-when-it’s-found-somebody function is less than reliable. And, of course, everybody around you has to be carrying a spotme for it to work at all.

But still, for a 10-employee company from Lausanne (it’s called Shockfish, that I doubt spent much more than a million dollars developing the thing, it’s pretty impressive. Especially since my one experience with anything remotely similar was down the road in Davos in January, where Compaq, Microsoft, and Accenture equipped the movers and shakers at the World Economic Forum with iPAQ handheld computers with wireless connections over which you could send messages, check your personalized conference schedule, and even, of you knew how to hack past the conference software, browse the Web.

The iPAQs clearly did a lot more than spotme (although Shockfish is hoping to add messaging and personalized schedules before long). But they were also a loss leader. The companies involved spent millions of dollars (2,000 iPaqs at a $500 each adds up to $1 million right there, and that doesn’t count the servers, wireless transmitters, and brigades of guys and gals standing ready to help when yours crashed) in an effort to make the world’s top executives familiar with the possibilities of a new product, one that they were allowed to take home with them after the conference.

Shockfish’s business plan, on the other hand, is to rent its devices out to conference organizers (and maybe cruise-ship operators) and make enough money doing that to pay the bills. I know that because I sat through an remarkable session at the ISC Symposium where the company’s co-founder and chief operating officer, Bendicht Ledin, sat next to one of its angel investors, Heinz Winzeler (who runs a private equity firm called M2 Capital Partners, but has invested his own money, not his clients’, in Shockfish) and the two of them talked about their plans and hopes.

Ledin spoke pretty eloquently of the company’s philosophy of keeping its product as cheap and simple as possible, and of how for the moment it’s avoiding standards like Bluetooth and the Palm OS because he and his colleagues simply want to focus at first on creating a product that people will use, and adhering to such standards would only slow that process down. Then Winzeler told how he’d been impressed by Ledin and his colleagues because they didn’t overpromise–and so far they’ve delivered.

A skeptical questioner from the audience (an old friend of Winzeler, it turned out) pretty quickly hit on an obvious conflict. Renting out spotmes at conferences might be good little business, but it was never going to be a huge one, which meant it would be hard to take the company public. And wasn’t taking a company public the goal of all self-respecting venture capitalists and even angel investors? Winzeler’s initial response was a bit defensive–he said he assumes Shockfish will eventually come up with more products, then reminisced wistfully about the IPO market of 18 months ago. Then he admitted that, yeah, this was an issue. But so far Shockfish’s management team has met every target it set a when it got funded a year ago, Winzeler said, adding that before too long the company’s founders might be able to afford to just buy their investors out.

I asked a bunch of questions during the session, and when a couple hours later I ran into Shockfish COO Ledin in a hallway, he seemed very eager to talk to me. At first I figured that was because I’m a business journalist and he wanted publicity. That’s what all tech startups want, right? But no; I’d let slip that I’d used one of those iPAQs at Davos, and Ledin wanted to know, in great detail, how the thing stacked up against his spotme.

Let me get this straight: A tech company of very modest ambition, with an angel investor who’s not expecting a big score and a top executive who seems obsessed with finding out what customers actually want. Now I don’t know if all this is a post-crash thing, or a Swiss thing, or a Heinz Winzeler and Bendicht Ledin thing, but I have to say I like it.