Fast ’n’ Hot

The most surprising thing about Mort Zuckerman’s media career – perhaps the most surprising thing even to Mort Zuckerman – is that it is going to make him an incredible amount of money. What he stands to make in the media business may surpass even his margins in the real-estate business.

It might or might not be ironic that the media property that is going to make him all this money is the one he has had the least to do with. Zuckerman, whose properties include the Daily News, U.S. News & World Report, and (until its sale a month ago) The Atlantic Monthly, went into the media business, like many rich men before him, to increase his social cachet, celebrity standing, and political power. The property, however, that is going to make him all this money – it is for sale with an asking price of as much as $200 million – is one that is uninterested in (even ignorant of) the chattering classes, deeply resistant to celebrity culture, and blissfully uninvolved with politics.

In fact, that’s the formula – eschewing cachet, celebrity, and politics; the Zuckerman antidote, you could almost call it (“Don’t believe all the recent buzz about the rise of the individual. As we move into the next century, both our work and leisure activities will require stronger team, organizational, or community affiliations,” proclaims the magazine, quoting psychologist Maureen O’Hara) – that has made the Zuckerman-owned Fast Company the hottest magazine in the country. Quite possibly there is no one more shocked by Fast Company’s unlikely success than Mort Zuckerman himself.

Actually, there is probably at least one other person who is as shocked, and that is Tina Brown.

Talk, of course, was supposed to become the year’s hot magazine by applying the Tina formula: highlight and exalt those individuals who by dint of audacity, originality, beauty (or even ugliness; remember her famous profile of the Manhattan dominatrix), obnoxiousness, perversity, brutishness, brilliance, lineage, and/or wealth have risen above the rest of us. All well and good. But if Fast Company is hot – its current issue is a Vogue-size 450 pages – and if it has gotten hot by creating a world where social class doesn’t exist, where hierarchies are flattened, where no one is edgy or ironic or even all that verbal, where the group replaces the individual, and where you can be really, really successful, even billion-dollar successful (success is ultimately the point about Fast Company as well as Tina Brown’s magazines) without having to become Ronald Perelman, well, you can see how it might be hard for both visions of success to be hot at the same time.

Hot is not so much a description of a magazine as a status. Although it is less codified than “best-seller” for books, or “hit” for movie, or “front-runner” for politician, it is no less meaningful. Achieving heat is how a magazine without limitless resources (i.e., a consumer magazine not published by Time Inc., Hearst, or Condé Nast) survives its start-up phase (there are many other, potentially mortal, issues that occur after that phase).

Heat happens quickly, customarily within a magazine’s first year – that is, before its numbers (circulation, renewal rates, demographic profile) are audited and disseminated to the advertising agencies who will or will not put the magazine on a media schedule. Heat, in other words, is not reality – but heat helps create reality. Heat is a big first weekend. Heat is an unexpected showing in the Iowa caucuses. Heat is the Big Mo.

“In the Fast Company world, everyone works for a rational, progressive, evolving company, is approximately the same age, and is involved in a gratifying personal economic leap forward – except you.”

Heat starts at the newsstand. A really successful magazine, reliably positioned up in the front even with special racks, sells only half the copies it puts out. So when, for instance, Wired, in 1993, sold out its first issue, then the second, then the third (although the total number of copies sold was a fraction of an established magazine’s), rumors of heat began. Then there’s the mail drop: the first 250,000 or so subscription offers sent to a list of names of people who have bought other similar magazines. A “soft offer,” that is, “no risk, no obligation, first three issues free” (as close as it comes to “we pay you”), customarily entices 1 and 1/2 to 3 percent of recipients to return the no-postage-required card (less than half of whom will ultimately write a check), so when word began to circulate that Spy, in an early drop, was hitting 7 and 8 and 9 percent, that was hot.

But most of all, the estimate of heat lies with a group of recent college graduates employed by multinational advertising agencies who are known as media buyers. It is their taste and hankerings and inclinations and general feeling for the Zeitgeist (and sometimes what parties they have been invited to – although the Talk party does not seem to have helped Talk) that most of all determines the temperature of a new magazine. “God, you are so ass-kicking hot!” said a young woman with a name tag that put her in the media department at a worldwide ad agency to Alan Webber, the former Harvard Business Review editor and nebbishy co-founder of Fast Company. We were sitting together on a magazine-industry panel where I was ignoring him (and what I thought, at the time of its sixth or seventh issue, was his pretty lame magazine) to talk to one of the Wired art directors. (In another instance of missing this particular next big thing, I commiserated with the father of my high-school classmate Bill Breen, who took a job as senior editor at Fast Company after his stint at the short-lived environmental magazine Garbage. I agreed with his father, a television career man, that it was almost impossible to make a career in the magazine business outside New York.)

My theory is that a hot magazine is like a motivational speech (Fast Company is sort of Harvard Business Review-meets-Montel Williams). The hot magazine defines a world and then convinces you that it’s your duty to be part of it – most often by suggesting that you are the only one who isn’t already part of it.

In the Cosmo world, everyone was maniacally and euphorically dating but you; in the Playboy world, everyone was having sex but you; in the Rolling Stone world, everyone was in the counterculture but you; in the Vanity Fair world, everyone was a celebrity (or at least knew celebrities) but you; in the Wired world, everyone got it but you.

Each of these magazines created an entirely coherent, fully operational, minutely detailed fictional world into which the magazine itself was the only door.

In the Fast Company world (which emanates from a colorful, open-plan, architecturally nuanced office in Boston’s North End – rather like the office of the magazine in the television show Suddenly Susan), everyone works for a rational, progressive, evolving company, is approximately the same age, and is involved in a gratifying personal economic leap forward – except you, the reader, who still works with no equity for a bunch of old-fart jerks at a Paleolithic top-down company.

“Work is personal,” declares Fast Company. “It is the ultimate promise of the new world of business – a world in which people work not only to achieve material comfort but also to have a sense of mission and fun.”

Unlike Wired, once the bible of the techno-hip but increasingly a Fast Company imitator, it’s not about who’s smart and who’s not; it’s about just joining – and anyone can join (if you’re a joiner). “There has never been a better time to make a radical career change – to transform yourself from a prosecutor into a video-game producer, from a jazz musician into a business consultant,” advises the magazine.

Fast Company is the opposite of Manhattan, inc., the breakthrough cultural cross-over business magazine of the eighties. Where Manhattan, inc. transformed business journalism, deifying the individual executive, entrepreneur, and CEO – creating the notion of the business celebrity – Fast Company, populated by people who say things like the best use of their time is to “just listen to others,” celebrates the group and is disdainful of the lone wolf. Helena Cronin, a “neo-Darwinist” who is profiled in the magazine’s current issue, takes issue with Andy Grove’s famous credo “only the paranoid survive,” saying that today competition favors the generous (although it does seem that her point about altruism is that it gets you what you want).

Fast Company, which has never put a celebrity on its cover, is about as far as you can get from Vanity Fair – there is no New York or Los Angeles in the Fast Company world; there are no dinner parties; there is no décor; there is no gossip; there is no power or power center or power people in a disintermediated, disaggregated, and distributed world.

And yet, it succeeds, becomes hot, on the same basis as those other magazines. It creates a strikingly catholic, homogeneous, uncomplicated fictional world. I know it is fiction, because I know many of the sensitive, honor-the-group-dynamic, new-economy executives you find in Fast Company’s pages – and in real life they are serious motherfuckers.

But that is hardly the point – or it is the point, to be able to turn reality on its head. In the Fast Company world, you can believably climb great economic mountains without being corrupted, without offending anyone, without losing your friends, practically without leaving your dorm room. Indeed, for a magazine that proclaims itself to be about change – a handbook for the new economy – it is most fundamentally about how you can remain as you are. Arrested adolescent development, in other words. “The magazine for the Friends generation,” says Advertising Age columnist Randall Rothenberg.

My wife, who carries a grudge against many businessmen and their bad behavior, now quotes from Fast Company, and, ever-so-annoyingly, marks articles with Post-it notes for me to read.

The question that is most frequently asked is not why Fast Company (which is not much read by the New York media set) is succeeding but why Talk is failing. These are, though, I think, the same question.

Tina Brown’s idea of success and glamour seems suddenly – overnight, practically – hoary, creepy, and seriously out of touch (Liz Taylor and Arnold Schwarzenegger? Huh?). In the world of Tina Brown – and that of Fast Company’s chairman, Mort Zuckerman – a mogul is the sexiest thing. In the Fast Company world, it’s middle managers we get goo-goo-eyed over. Now, these worlds are not necessarily that far apart. Mort and Tina’s world is the world of the old yuppie; Fast Company’s is the new yuppie. But the old yuppie wanted to separate from the pack (big house, prestige car, trophy wife), whereas the new yuppie is very much a group animal (kids move in groups, as every trend-spotter knows), hanging with his office buds (each as rich on stock options as the other).

Obviously, the central fantasy about success – who is one and who isn’t one, who will be one and how might I become one – hasn’t changed. But in a relatively short period – no more than 24 months, really – the context of success, and its style, and its faces have changed profoundly (and comically). The Dilbert cubicle-Diet Coke-technopark-networking-business plan world has created wealth in such vast proportions that it makes the Mort-and-Tina-Hollywood-Hamptons version of success look shabby and worn.

Which, of course, brings us to Martha . . .

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Fast ’n’ Hot