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Facebook's Sandberg: We Won't Put Ads In Messaging, Oculus Is A Bet On The Future


CANNES, FRANCE -- As far as opening questions go, Ad Age Associate Publisher and Editorial chief Abbey Klaassen asked a questionable one upon introducing Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg during one of the big interviews at the Lions Festival here Wednesday. Noting that three years ago she was interviewing Sandberg’s “boss” Mark Zuckerberg on the same stage, Klaassen quipped, “Either I’ve come down in the world or you’ve come up.” Instead of leaning into that question, Sandberg sidestepped it and began doing what she does best: talk about Facebook.

She focused on Facebook’s shift to mobile, noting that if it were created today, it would have been a mobile-first platform, because that’s the way its users use it the most.

Sandberg trumpeted the potential of one of Facebook’s most popular mobile apps -- photo-sharing platform Instagram -- playing to the sensibilities of the creative representatives of the ad industry delegates in the audience.

“I think this community understands the power of an image,” she said, “and when you have what people are doing on Instagram, which is sharing an image, that’s a pretty powerful thing.”

In one of the stronger parts of the interview, Sandberg talked about the power of Facebook to bring people’s stories to life and influence positive changes in the world. She cited a couple of examples of how people in different cultures around the world have done just that -- including a man in the Philippines who posted images of children who live on an island community swimming to school one morning in order to raise money to buy them a boat.

She also singled out the “Stealthy Freedoms” page that women in Iran created to post pictures of themselves without their head scarves on -- an offense that could land them in jail in that country. Speaking about the grassroots movement, Sandberg cited one of the mothers involved in the project who said: “I wanted my daughter to feel the wind on her hair before she turns grey.”

It is the power of those personal stories and the ability to associate them with “real identity,” Sandberg said, that makes those posts a powerful force for good.

“It was seeing the children -- it was seeing the pictures -- that motivated people to help” buy a boat for the Philippine schoolchildren, she said.

Asked about a recent spate of “agency deals” that have made headlines in the trade press, Sandberg indicated they were more than just press releases and reflect the strong sense of partnership Facebook feels with the agency community. She cited recent deals with Omnicom and Publicis involving Instagram and other projects, but said there are many more that are done quietly and have not been reported on.

“I think, more broadly, the question for us is how we work with agencies,” she said, adding, “Agencies are hugely important to us, because of the storytelling.”

Ad Age’s Klaassen then invoked her previous interview with Facebook CEO Zuckerberg a second time, asking Sandberg yet another awkward question about how he has grown into a “better CEO than people thought he would be.”

Sandberg demurred, shifting the focus to the fact that he was only 23 when she first started working for him and that he just turned 30. On a more substantive note, Sandberg shared an insight about Zuckerberg: “I think people did originally underestimate him, because he’s so shy.” But she added that his strong suit is that “he’s one of the best listeners in the world” and that he’s “an optimist” and “believes in the power of individuals.”

The conversation also covered some of Facebook’s high-profile recent acquisitions, including peer-to-peer messaging service WhatsApp and virtual reality headset Oculus Rift. Sandberg said personal messaging -- whether it is Facebook’s homegrown messaging platform or WhatsApp -- are some of its most powerful features and vowed not to put ads into messaging.

As for Oculus Rift, she did not exactly give it a strong personal endorsement, noting that when she tried it on, it was “so good that I got motion sick.” She also said it made her “look ridiculous.”

But she nonetheless called it a “pretty unbelievable” technology and said it represented a “near-term” gaming opportunity for Facebook, but in the long-term, “it’s a bet on a future communications platform that brings life to life.”

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