WORLD: MEDIA ANALYSIS - Wolff makes bid to run with the hare and the hounds
Wolff targets media owners in his book, as he tries to be one himself.
There's no-one busier in US media right now than Michael Wolff.
The magazine columnist is bidding to buy New York magazine with the Interpublic Group's Donny Deutsch, he's in negotiations about starting his own chatshow on Fox News Channel and he's promoting his new book, Autumn of the Moguls (Harper Business).
"It's a shining moment for my career," he says, before immediately retracting the statement because he thinks it sounds too boastful.
Autumn of the Moguls is due out this month in Britain and media executives should prepare themselves for a tongue-lashing when Wolff hits the publicity circuit. To give you a taste, here's what he told Campaign recently about global agency networks.
They are "run by people who know nothing about advertising", he says.
"The idea that you will be able to get great work out of disparate agencies across the globe is just ridiculous."
Wolff, whose father used to run a New Jersey-based ad agency in the 50s, continues: "If you wanted to design a bad business, you would design an advertising agency."
Why is that? "What you create, the client owns. You are always in a subservient position and not only do you have to do these things but you have to serve as the client's bank." He concludes: "There is nothing rational or advantageous about the agency business."
That's the mild-mannered Wolff - he's not naming names. Yet.
In the US, he has already ripped in to most of the leading media players.
Fox News' Roger Ailes, the man he's hoping will give him his own TV show, is "one of the great creepy figures of the age".
Viacom's Sumner Redstone is "a vainglorious old-school egomaniac, who has an operatic personal life that has largely been kept out of the media, undoubtedly because he controls so much of it".
And pity "hapless" Tina Brown. Autumn describes her wandering into a hotel lobby in Manhattan. She seems slightly lost, Wolff writes. "Do you know the way to Madison Avenue?" she asks. "You are actually on Madison Avenue," Wolff replies, before the two part company.
Wolff marshalls all this vitriol to make a case: the media is about to collapse, he argues, and advertising agencies along with it. "The handful of companies that control the consciousness of our time are trembling and heaving, about to fall victim to internal weakness and external obsolescence," is how the book describes it.
Autumn hammers on about the notion that media consolidation has failed to deliver, that audiences are leaking away and that the holding companies are on the verge of disintegration, for the better part of 400 pages.
But it features relatively few facts. There's no statistical analysis, no number- crunching, no budgetary demonstration: in short, no proof.
It turns out Wolff's claim is more cultural than structural. Murdoch-type moguls are coming to an end "because they're old". He says: "They will die. And not in the long term, in the short term. There's no-one waiting to replace them. No-one who can replace them."
As for the financial angle, "not one of these companies has kept pace with the Standard & Poor's 500 over 20 years, so they're a bad deal for investors. Not one of the core businesses is stronger now than it was ten years ago," he says.
So why, with such a gloomy outlook, is Wolff trying to buy his own media business? "New York magazine is something of, if not a broken business, then a business that has not gotten the care and feeding that it should have," he says. "It requires some investment for sure, but you have a 35-year track record here. From the point of view of someone like Donny, he looks at this and says 'my God, this is an incredible brand'."
The Wolff-Deutsch connection came about only last September. Wolff had been thinking about ways to purchase New York from Primedia for at least three years. He once mentioned it to the late Jay Chiat (the Chiat/Day founder), who suggested Deutsch would be a perfect backer.
Last autumn, Wolff was jogging near his home on the Upper East Side when he remembered the conversation. He cold-called Deutsch, whom he had never met, at his eponymous agency. Deutsch took the call without knowing what Wolff wanted. "He just came on the phone and said, 'I understand you're buying a magazine. Would my deep pockets by any chance be of help?'," Wolff says.
Wolff and Deutsch's coalition also features the New York Daily News publisher, Mort Zuckerman, Cablevision's chief executive, Jimmy Dolan, the Miramax chairman, Harvey Weinstein, and the financier Nelson Peltz.
The bid is an arrival of sorts for Wolff. Despite his fame in Manhattan, he is nonetheless still considered to be something of an outsider. For instance, in many of the chapters he fails to meet the people he's writing about. So, given that Wolff sheds little more light on the inner thoughts of media moguls than can be gleaned from reading the business section of The New York Times, why does the world need this book?
"We have no idea who these people are," Wolff says. "They are relatively shadowy figures and they certainly don't receive the amount of attention commensurate with the fact that they are, without question, hands down, the most powerful people in the culture today. They are certainly more powerful than politicians."
British media executives: you have been warned.
WOLFF: THE FAME GAME
Chief executive Wolff New Media, a defunct dotcom that he sold for a seven-figure sum years before the internet collapse.
Author Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet, a book about his adventures at Wolff New Media.Wolff has written two other books, Where We Stand and White Kids.
Columnist Writer of This Media Life in New York magazine (1998 to present).
This article was first published on Campaign
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