Benioff gives a PR master class

November 24, 2010: 9:22 AM ET

Salesforce.com's Marc Benioff shows that he knows how to work a room, at Larry Ellison's expense.

I'm convinced that the ability to promote one's self or one's company is an innate rather than a learned trait. That doesn't mean someone can't try. But they'll never be as good as the born showman, like, for example, the chief executive of Salesforce.com (CRM), Marc Benioff. (To many, he's still The Big Benioff, as Fortune.com Managing Editor Daniel Roth dubbed him way back in 2004, three jobs ago.)

Benioff appeared last week on a panel at the Web 2.0 Summit that easily could have been a big snore. (Watch it here.) It was about cloud computing and featured Benioff; Paul Maritz, CEO of VMware (VMW); and Andy Jassy of Amazon (AMZN) Web Services. Benioff was so sick with a head cold he could barely speak. This didn't stop him from taking a simple and substantive question from moderator Tim O'Reilly -- who isn't getting the cloud? -- and hijacking the panel.

The sickly CEO used the question as an opportunity to plug his company's upcoming user's conference and offer a discount to attendees of the Web 2.0 conference. When O'Reilly had the presence of mind to remind Benioff that he hadn't answered the question -- though it would have been even better to have offered Maritz and Jassy the opportunity to plug an event too -- Benioff then gave the best substantive answer of the panel. He took a shot at Larry Ellison for Oracle's (ORCL) approach to the cloud, which involves selling an expensive piece of hardware. (This is not a new trope for Benioff.)

The lesson was clear. Audiences love controversy. Nobody will ever get penalized for being playfully shameless. And only someone with a gut feel for how to pull off this serious silliness can ever really succeed at it.

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Adam Lashinsky
Adam Lashinsky
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune

Adam Lashinsky is a San Francisco-based editor-at-large for FORTUNE, covering Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Lashinsky joined FORTUNE in 2001, after two years as a contributing columnist. Prior to joining FORTUNE, Lashinsky covered Silicon Valley for TheStreet.com and The San Jose Mercury News. A Chicago native, Lashinsky holds a B.A. in history and political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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