It's hard to find a self-respecting captain of industry who has not plunged headlong into the media business. Michael Armstrong has taken AT&T into the thick of entertainment with the acquisition of TCI; Michael Jordan's Westinghouse bought and became CBS; Edgar Bronfman drove a highly profitable liquor-and-chemical business into the doldrums of the movie business; Bill Gates is facing the breakup of his company in part because he wanted to be a media mogul as well as a software king.
Last week, I went to a press luncheon for a technology company -- a pipes-and-wiring-and-conduit-technology company -- where the CEO said, "Make no mistake, this company is the media company of the future." This morning, I was reading in the Times about a friend of George W. Bush's, Dennis "Wemus" Grubb, an oilman turned "entertainment promoter." Indeed, W himself, with his ownership of the Texas Rangers, is in the entertainment business.
This rush to be part of a glamour industry -- to be hip, powerful, now -- is also very fertile ground for the consulting industry. Firms like the Boston Consulting Group, Mckinsey, and Booz-Allen & Hamilton thrive in the crossover world of businesses entering into other businesses that they know little or nothing about. (Although what consultants know about entertainment is not exactly clear.) Indeed, for me, the most confounding part of the convergence of all businesses into the media business is that the person advising many of these moguls on the new science of "entertainmentizing" is a consultant with my name.
I get his mail and telephone calls and get asked to make his television appearances. People want me to tell them how they can turn their businesses into media/Internet/entertainment plays. Even my friends tell me we really think alike. Could that be? Are we the two Darren Stevenses of the media business? (When I unravel the confusion on one television show, that it is not me they want but the other Michael Wolf, the producer says I will do anyway.)
The consultant with my name -- he is Michael J. Wolf -- works for Booz-Allen and has recently published a book with Random House titled The Entertainment Economy: How Mega-Media Forces Are Transforming Our Lives. In it he decrees that the economy is driven by fun, by the pleasure principle -- the "E-factor," he calls it. People won't buy your services or products unless you entertain them, he maintains.
As it happens, his book is ghastly -- unfortunately for me, or perhaps fortunately (would I feel better or worse if it were good?). "Hilfiger realized it's not about clothes; it's about being cool" is one analysis he offers. "Case had seen the future, and the future was online," he says in an effort to explain the foresight of the AOL chief. And he has never met a mogul he didn't like. "Like the conquistadors of the Age of Exploration, the heads of the major media companies are planting their flags everywhere," he tells us.
While a world based on entertainment doesn't sound like such a bad thing, his version of entertainment is the singing chicken at Stew Leonard's superstore supermarket. (He is confusing kitsch with entertainment -- a common but fatal mistake.)
"I had a blast trying out a mountain bike on the 470-foot biking and hiking trail," he says about a store he visits in Seattle (I have been to this store and you have to wait on line, and the salespeople would obviously rather you not try the mountain bike). Describing Ralph Lauren's flagship store on Madison Avenue, he says: "When I visit that store I feel as if I'm making a visit to an exclusive British club, that somewhere between the underwear counter and the neckties I might bump into the cast from Upstairs, Downstairs or Remains of the Day." It is obviously not true that he feels this way. It's just P.R. talk. He is marketing the marketing. Indeed, he doesn't seem to distinguish between marketing and entertainment.
He points to the Citibank ad campaign "Who Says a Bank Can't Rock and Roll?" as a sign of the bank's hipness and inherent belief in the power and value of entertainment. The next insanely great thing, he says, quoting Steve Jobs, will be the "entertainmentizing of the economy." (His italics.)
While this is certainly not a book that anyone will ever truly read, it will nevertheless surely be an important and influential book by virtue of the author's client list, which also includes Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middelhoff (Bertelsmann owns Random House), Pearson chief Marjorie Scardino, Virgin king Richard Branson, Hearst head Frank Bennack, Jr., Paramount's deposed CEO Martin Davis, Hasbro chairman Alan Hassenfeld, Universal president Ron Meyer, and a host who need no introduction, Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone, and Barry Diller among them.
Am I envious?