THE BLOG

Rome Diary: Metaphysical Slogans, Half-Full Restaurants, Giving up Texting for Lent, and Dinner with the Italian King of Soy

Ciao from Rome, where I have come to speak at a media conference. The theme of the conference is Tutto Cambia. Cambiamo Tutto?, which translates as "Everything Changes, But Do We Change Everything?" Very metaphysical.

As soon as I got off the plane, I was greeted with a driver holding a sign -- not with my name on it, not with the name of the organizers, but with the conference slogan. Just the kind of question one longs for after a 12-hour journey. Are we in the grip of inexorable forces or are we in control of our own destiny? I asked the driver which side of the debate he was on. He said he believed in predestination - but I noticed he had a GPS in the car. Just in case.

On the ride to the hotel I read Kara Swisher's post on the conference and learned that a local Catholic diocese is asking its parishioners to give up text messaging for Lent. I guess abstaining from meat on Fridays from now until Easter is so 16th century.

There was just enough time for a shower before joining the other conference speakers for dinner at La Terrazza dell'Eden, the restaurant located on the top floor of the hotel Eden. The room offers a spectacular 180-degree view of Rome, including a breathtaking perspective on St. Peter's Cathedral.

I was seated next to our host, Lorenzo Sassoli De Bianchi, the tall, elegant head of the ad association -- and the soy king of Italy.

He regaled the table with stories about his early days bringing soy products to his country. When he was first starting out, he didn't have enough money to pay for advertising. So he approached Silvio Berlusconi, the three-time Prime Minister of Italy, who at the time was focused on running his string of television stations.

De Bianchi asked Berlusconi if he'd be interested in a deal: put my ads on the air, at no cost, for three years, and I'll give you a cut of my profits. Berlusconi agreed -- and the Soy King was launched.

The relationship must have soured over the years because when he told me about a dinner Berlusconi is holding with the nation's bankers tonight, he said that while it is ostensibly to get the bankers' views on the economic crisis, it is more likely about getting additional advertising for the prime minister's media empire. "If you have a business proposal for him," he added, "Berlusconi always has time to see you."

Berlusconi has said that "in the near future we will live to 120 years in good health." De Bianchi suggested that since the Italian left has basically self-destructed, the Prime Minister, who has held the office from 1994 to 1995, from 2001 to 2006, and again since 2008, might just remain in power until he's 120.

Italy is lagging a bit behind the U.S. in terms of feeling the effects of the economic crisis, with an unemployment rate of 6.7 percent. Nevertheless, the restaurant, which, I was told, is usually packed was only half-full.

Our party took up two tables. Among the other guests was Kara Swisher of AllThingsD.com, who interviewed me as part of the conference; LinkedIn founder and CEO Reid Hoffman, who told us his network has just hit 36 million users and was signing up a million new members every 17 days; and Jack Trout, co-author of the marketing classic Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, who is working on the sequel, titled (appropriately enough) Repositioning.

Trout is speaking on Thursday after I leave, so I asked him to give me a taste of his talk. He said, "I'll give you my opening line: 'It is time to be terrified.'"

LinkedIn's Hoffman, on the other hand, was surprisingly optimistic -- especially about the prospects for online businesses, which he feels will better survive the economic crunch because they are dealing with forward thinking, growing industries. "The way to accelerate our way out of the recession," he told me, "is through investing, not through spending. Investing builds the new economy; spending often props up defunct industries."

Another of the guests was Andy Sernovitz, author of Word of Mouth Marketing. He had some very interesting thoughts about the banking crisis, saying that one solution not getting enough attention is credit unions. He pointed out that credit unions got their start during the Great Depression and are doing great. 88 million Americans are members of credit unions, non-profit community banks that provide all the same services as banks, but without the gaming the system nonsense.

He sent me the link to a blog he wrote about credit unions (which we've cross-posted on HuffPost), in which he writes: "This is one of those rare moments in history when entire markets are shifting. If credit unions were doing a decent job of marketing, they could grab a massive percentage of the market from banks. Think iTunes vs. CD sales."

There was much talk during the dinner about Beppe Grillo, the most famous blogger in Italy, who was profiled last year in the New Yorker. Grillo, who mostly blogs about the crookedness of Italy's politicians and institutions, is a cultural phenomenon, named Italy's second most popular political figure and rated the 9th most powerful blogger in the world. Two key Beppe facts: he has won more than a dozen libel lawsuits brought against him and once organized a rally of approximately 100,000 people protesting the 24 convicts in the Italian senate and parliament.

When the conversation inevitably turned to new media, De Bianchi weighed in on the state of the Italian newspaper industry, saying that the two big papers, La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera, were still having trouble adjusting to new realities -- both still have separate ad and editorial teams for their print versions and their online versions. "They haven't integrated their organizations," he said. Online is clearly still the ugly stepchild as it was, after all, for many years in the States. One reason for the delay is the fact that while 60 percent of Italians have Internet access, only 16 percent have broadband. Meanwhile, there are 58 million people in Italy but over 78 million cell phones. So, note to HuffPost's international expansion team: mobile delivery is clearly the way to go after the Italian news market.

The conference is being held at Auditorium Parco della Musica, the exquisite public music complex on the north side of Rome designed by Renzo Piano, who also designed the New York Times building. The place is an acoustic marvel, with interiors made entirely of cherry-wood. "Wood is fundamental," Piano once explained. "Wood is music itself. Just remember Steinway, and Stradivari." Only one problem: there is no cell phone reception inside, so you can't multi-task while listening to the speakers. At least it reduces temptation for those who've given up texting for Lent.

I arrived at the Auditorium in time for the scheduled 9:45 start of the conference. It didn't get started until 10:15 -- the laid-back approach made me feel as if I was back in Greece, where nothing starts on time.

Everyone was given a button to wear, reading "Io Ho Fiducia" -- "I am confident." I guess the organizers haven't been keeping up on the U.S. bank bailout.

Other than the guest speakers from America, the whole conference is in Italian. But many of the attendees refuse to put on the headsets offering simultaneous translations when English is being spoken. "It goes against their vanity to admit they are not fluent enough in English to do without the translation," one of the conference organizers told me. "So, if you see anyone in the audience who seems lost while you are speaking, you'll know why."

Good to know. But this could be one case where my accent will actually help people to understand me. "Io Ho Fiducia."