Pantheon removed from WCUS sponsorship: what you should know

Pantheon was removed from WordCamp US sponsorship the night before the event started. It was the result of a series of disagreements and discussions that led to a fairly drastic result.

The price to sponsor WCUS was $100,000 for Pantheon. Additionally, they have paid $100,000 to be a multi-camp sponsor throughout the year. They brought about a dozen employees, swag, and spent many hours planning their marketing strategy prior to the event.

One of those strategies was to work with the official WordCamp hotel to secure branding for the elevators and registration desk. It was a surprise for the WordCamp team to see Pantheon’s branding, and they asked Pantheon multiple times to take it down. The disagreement around these signs and the conversations that followed led to Matt Mullenweg making the decision to remove Pantheon as a WordCamp sponsor.

I have spoken to Pantheon co-founder Josh Koenig, Pantheon Vice President of Marketing Matt Stodolnic, Matt Mullenweg, and multiple WordCamp US organizers with various degrees of direct knowledge of events.

The key point of this conflict — but not the only thing — was around the disagreement between Pantheon and the WordCamp organization over whether the signs were appropriate for the hotel. While I know Pantheon’s side of the story in full, I have received limited but relevant information from Matt and the WordCamp organization.

Matt Mullenweg said that the entire thing could’ve been easily avoided; and based on my conversations with the Pantheon team, I think it’s true that they were pushing historical boundaries in terms of what’s “normal” for WordCamp marketing, but not unusual in terms of how a corporation would run marketing at a more typical commercial conference (think Dreamforce, etc). Pantheon was spending a lot of money on marketing through this WordCamp, and wanted to make the most of it. The hotel branding was a part of that.

As far as why the hotel branding became an issue, it appears to be around whether or not the hotel counts as part of the venue, nor was the marketing in the spirit of a WordCamp sponsorship. Matt said that the official hotel is part of the venue, whereas Pantheon noted to me that they checked with the hotel about what branding packages they had, and since they were not already taken by someone else or WordCamp, they moved forward with the hotel on the advertising campaign.

Using unofficial marketing avenues are standard fare for most conferences. For example, at some events, companies rent taxi signs, billboards, and other items around town for additional exposure. I spoke to other hosts that said this is extremely common at other events where they participate (though they didn’t specify events around open source projects). At least one prominent host representative told me that they have frequently squashed conversations of add-on marketing at WordCamps when they’ve come up in-house at their company — due to what they understand about WordCamps and how sponsorship typically works there.

Pantheon pushed back when the WordCamp team asked them to take them down. They say both sides of the conversation were polite, and that everyone attempted to deescalate the situation, but Pantheon held strong on the fact that they had the right to privately contract with the hotel.

They were blindsided, they tell me, when the WordCamp organization sent them an email — after a couple of rounds of asking to take it down and them saying no — citing that they have been removed as a WordCamp sponsor, would receive a refund, and would have their marketing materials at the main venue taken down and returned to them. They said if they would’ve had that expressed to them, they obviously would’ve removed the signs, though still disagreed with the decision.

And this is where I believe the biggest discrepancy exists between the WordCamp organizers and Pantheon. I think Pantheon’s description of events, at least in terms of what happened, are true. However, it appears that the conversations surrounding taking them down were what caused Matt to pull the plug on the sponsorship.

I don’t know exactly what was said in these conversations, and exactly who was involved. But many members of the WordCamp team are in support of Matt’s decision, and it’s obvious that from the WordCamp point of view, some conversation must’ve been out of bounds, and they caused Matt to pull the plug.

After the sponsorship ban from WordCamp, the Pantheon team still came to the event, and sent a tweet from their main account that I think escalated the conflict. I was asked by dozens of Post Status members what was going on, and the whole thing has been a pretty big distraction from the broader WordCamp.

By the end of the day, the WordCamp organization posted on the WordCamp US blog that a sponsor had been removed because, “this company did not act with respect, good faith, and responsibility within the code of conduct with their treatment of the WCUS team. Our code of conduct clearly states that abuse and rudeness is not acceptable — whether you’re a company or individual, and we take that to heart.”

Pantheon was very surprised by this blog post, and were especially concerned about the code of conduct accusation. The post has since been removed, and that occurred after a conversation between Matt and Zack Rosen, Pantheon’s CEO whom he considers a personal friend. Pantheon told me they were told it was due to a terms of service breach with WordCamp guidelines, not that it was a code of conflict violation.

However, it appears that some form of rudeness and a lack of respect — or at least the perception of it — when brought to Matt’s attention, triggered the ban. I don’t know what was said, and I don’t need to know. Those conversations are private. I just want readers to know what triggered the sponsorship removal. The two sides of this conflict obviously aren’t seeing eye to eye, but both express their desire to move on without any long term effects on Pantheon’s role in the WordPress community.

This entire debate is unfortunate, and I don’t think it sends a great message for welcoming other companies into the community. I see the WordCamp organization’s side here; we should fiercely defend our teams we work with if we feel they are being disrespected. I also see where Pantheon is coming from. I wish the communication between the two parties would’ve gone better, and the situation could’ve been resolved without any of this ridiculous drama.

The much more important thing about WordCamp US is that we’re about to hear from Matt regarding the future of the platform, and I don’t want this issue to distract any more than it already has. We don’t get a lot of opportunities for overall product direction, and every year Matt’s State of the Word has a huge influence on the year and years that follow. I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to say, and will be happy to see this Pantheon story fade away. Hopefully all sides learned a thing or two and can get past it.

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