Wolf(f) Like Me

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?

I am certainly curious about what it takes to get along along with these guys. What is he whispering in their ears? What mega-media strategies is he cooking up?

A Booz-Allen P.R. person returns my call and, following a pointed interrogation about my motives, invites me to breakfast at Lespinasse in the St. Regis to meet my double. In the consultant-banker-CEO world, breakfast and where you breakfast are significant. The choice of the heavily brocaded Eurotrashy Lespinasse suggests to me that he is a serious Hollywood type. (He says in his book he’s in L.A. at least once a week – he goes to Mortons on Monday nights, he says, when everybody’s there.) A kind of business-school Jon Peters is what I’m thinking.

But he isn’t Hollywood.

He is a small man with rimless glasses, parted hair, white shirt, and tie, accountantlike. The accountants are perhaps no longer going Hollywood; Hollywood is going accountant.

He is, in other words, a suit. Except for the Nurse Ratched P.R. person by his side, he is remarkably unassuming (why would he bring a P.R. person? Is she here to protect him or monitor him?). He seems like anyone’s father (surprisingly, he turns out to be 38, but could easily pass for an old-fashioned 50). It is kind of a visual joke that this is the person who has written a book about entertainment.

He doesn’t appear to want to dwell on the weirdness of the name thing (maybe he’s above it), so I dive straight into the interview: “What’s the argument you’re making?”

“Entertainment,” he says crisply, “is increasingly having an impact on business.” He gives the example of McDonald’s and Happy Meal premiums.

“Haven’t banks been giving out toasters for years? What’s the difference?”

“Now consumers,” he says proudly, “are making choices based on entertainment.”

“Can we talk about the implications of an economy based principally on entertainment, or, even more to the point, on hype?”

He hesitates over his scrambled egg whites. “Everybody,” he says, “has tried to copy Disney, but only the highest-quality products are successful.” In addition to not being particularly responsive, this is also surely not true – God knows my kids have had U-Hauls full of toys that instantly fall apart. Perhaps what he means is that only the most successfully marketed products are successful.

“Consumers,” he says, “are looking for fun in all parts of their lives.”

I can’t help wondering how much money this sort of worldview commands – I’d guess partners at big consulting firms are at the million-plus range.

But I suppose that’s not the point. His real job is to get along with moguls and their lieutenants, which takes, obviously, a rare talent. The consulting business is a business about “validation.” When the CEO is about to do a ridiculous thing, a prideful thing – like going into the media business – he needs the cover. Booz-Allen & Hamilton is completely behind the move, the CEO tells his board. Booz-Allen says anybody can be in the entertainment business – and everyone should.

I try to engage him in a discussion about the instant obsolescence of plush toys, the fading of the major television networks, and the deepening recession in Hollywood and suckiness of movies. (The only time the P.R. person says anything is to heatedly defend the movie industry.) I throw down the gauntlet: Here we are the two of us, in the same business, not to mention with the same name, but whereas I believe this spread of media into all walks of life is absurd and debasing, you believe we are in the Camelot reign of the mogul kings.

He says no, he doesn’t really think we are so far apart in our thinking. In fact, he says, he reads my column all the time and enjoys it immensely.

I am, pitifully, flattered.

“So what is it that you do, actually?” I ask. It is, of course, my real question, and, I suspect, the source of my envy, that he has found the way to get big money out of all these opinions we trade in. He gets paid for his bad ideas, whereas I get to fall on my face. He has influence, and I have enemies.

“My firm,” he says, “works with the seniormost managers of the largest entertainment companies to help them with their most important strategic decisions. How they should compete. How they should sell their products. And who their partners should be.”

But who and what and how, he won’t say.

“Can you tell me about a big success you’ve had?”

“I’m afraid that would not be appropriate.”

But before I depart he offers a significant crumb. He tells me he knows why people are consuming more media. “They’re sleeping less,” he says. “I have studies that prove it.”

Perhaps he is just another guy with his hand out in the entertainment economy – and, as such, any doppelgänger envy I might feel is misplaced. Oddly, I find myself thinking: Why would he be writing a book if he really had valuable things to say?

Still, I know that whether or not he is whispering sweet nothings or brilliant windfall business strategies into the ears of CEOs, he has clearly articulated an average business guy’s yearnings: Everybody wants to be in the media business.

To me, the entertainment economy represents the banality of fun, the homogenization of culture, the commodification of creativity. (As the other Michael Wolf says, “Consumers who are already well acclimatized to multitasking in their business and professional lives will look to products and services that include entertainment content as an additional part of their offerings.”) And I’d argue that in the end, it’s bad for business, too, that the entertainment economy is run by people who aren’t funny.

But that is obviously naïve. The new world entertainment order is not about entertainment; it’s about distribution, or economies of scale, or share-price multiples, or about some course some young dynamo took in business school. And it’s also undoubtedly about unfunny guys who want to do some strutting. (Once, an airline analyst explained to me that the industry was ruined by an influx of businessmen who knew nothing about airlines and flying but who liked stewardesses.)

At any rate, I figure there’s many a mogul who will unwittingly take my call.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Wolf(f) Like Me