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On Autumn of The Moguls, lessons for IT

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Autumn Of The Moguls
My Misadventures With The Titans, Poseurs, and Money Guys Who Mastered and Messed Up Big Media
Michael Wolff. Harper Business, $25 (272p) ISBN 0-06-662113-5W

Michael Wolff, famous for Burn Rate, which i must admit i have never read, has nailed Big Media’s obsession with getting bigger. Big Media is run by Big Moguls, and Wolff makes clear just how febrile and personality-driven industry consolidation can be.

The preening egos – the absolute certainty of these folks that they are smarter than anyone else, the testosterone driven acquisitions, switchbacks, betrayals. Sound like any other industries you know? Suffice to say AOTM should be required reading for any silicon valley CEO.

Michael Wolff sees the world through the lens of the personalities that drive the industry he watches–The Media. But then again don’t we all? Just look at the US election…

The IT industry also has its titans – Dell, Ellison, Jobs, Gates, McNealy – characters with egos strong enough to match any of the protagonists in AOTM. One big difference is that the IT industry seems to have more headroom left for organic growth.

Or does it? In puncturing the pretensions of “The Media”–or as we say in Britain “meedja”– and the fabled holy grail of “synergy” Wolff also nails some of the long term challenges facing the IT industry.

If I ran a big software company and read this paragraph I think I’d feel like someone just walked over my grave:

“It is hard to imagine a more profound business crisis. You’ve lost control of the means of distribution, promotion and manufacturing. You’ve lost quality control–in some senses there has been a quality control coup. You have lost your basic business model. What you sell has become as free as oxygen.”

Microsoft’s anti-Linux campaign, Get The Facts, often looks like a response to what must be a similar feeling of loss of control. Software is becoming more free every day. It’s not just Linux; its Apache, Derby, Eclipse, JBoss, mySQL, SugarCRM, ObjectWeb, Zope. And the beat goes on. The Danish Government chose JBoss over Microsoft BizTalk, this after seducing Microsoft into opening its Office formats.

One of the best moments in the book grows out of what at first looks like innocent comment but is actually more like a cactus to sit on. At a session titled Media Conglomerates – The Burden Of Scale Wolff asks the assembled big cheeses of Content and Delivery:

“Do you guys, like, have TiVos?”

It’s a set up. They can’t say no so they don’t. The guys dissemble- and end up disassembling their own pretensions. Terry Semel (Yahoo), Peter Chernin (News Corp), Jeffrey Bewkes (AOL Time Warner). Not one of these guys running huge media companies has any idea how the “consumer” is interacting with their content. No ads? No unwanted shows? Its a different world and the people running it are as far removed from their customer base as they could be. No clue.

Wolff is great at the feeling of vertigo in a business, of everything teetering on the brink. He is a firm believer that Media is on the verge of collapse. I am pretty sure many industries feel like this.

Wolff powerfully argues that it makes little sense to describe Media as an industry at all–rather it actually consists of a bunch of different business mashed lumped together–television, music, publishing, video, cable and satellite TV etc. But the description stuck and the Media of course has long since taken on a life of its own, the metaphor has taken over the asylum. Wolff’s book describes tits inmates cheerfully, and or with malice. He can’t help liking Rupert Murdoch, the man responsible for bringing the world Fox News, although he fantasizes about him being kidnapped. Murdoch comes off sympathetically, perhaps because he seems the sanest of the bunch. Wolff loves Martha Stewart. Yet he brutally assassinates Tina Brown, turning her into a bag lady. While i read the book i played a game of trying to work out who equivalents in the IT industry would be…

Even the industry analyst sector (an industry feeding on an industry) has its share of moguls – think Gideon Gartner, who created not one but two of the sector’s biggest names–Gartner and Giga. By acquiring Giga, George Colony, Forrester’s CEO, showed he has an eye for the deal, the kind of expansionary urges which mark him out as a mogul. Dale Kutnick in many respects, is Meta. Or is it the other way around?

Wolff is a quote machine:

“It is both bad form, but entirely impossible to avoid, presenting others ideas as our own”

But it’s the narrative, personalities and limpid brutal gaze on an industry in crisis that really keeps you reading. The moguls themselves are interesting, and in Murdoch’s case, strangely likeable. This guy is responsible for bringing the world FOX!!?

Wolff seems to have mastered a terrific trick, achieving a kind of insider outsider status that allows him to do something rather extraordinary. that is, Wolff is the master of being inside the tent pissing in…

He does miss a trick or two- he is seemingly not a big sports fan. There is a content linked to distribution play that has payed off in spectacular style for good old Rupert again – as a British TV executive once remarked: “Football is the battering ram of Pay-TV”. Even problem sectors have their profitable niches of course.

What is the equivalent of watching sports in the IT industry?

Perhaps the best proof of Wolff’s thesis, that content is collapsing in value would be the cost of his own book? came when i went to Amazon – because i was recommending the book to Andy Lark, i figured why not just send him the link. so i did. and you know what? this book that i paid about $15 bucks for, the paperback is available new, not used, for 86c on amazon.com…..

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