Note: I read this book when it was first published and recently re-read it, curious to know how well its core concepts have held up since then. My conclusion is that they have held up very well. If anything, Wolf’s insights are more valuable now than they were then.
According to Michael J. Wolf, “Locally, globally, internationally, we are living in an entertainment economy.” In fact, that is the title of his new book that consists of ten chapters that proceed from an introduction to the “entertainment zone” to a “view from tomorrow.” In between, Wolf carefully examines a full-range of business situations in which entertainment plays an increasingly more important role. For example, he focuses on the fun-focused customer, the e-factor (“there’s no business without show business”), the battle for attention, the struggle for world domination, the genesis of a phenomenon (i.e. whatever redefines “success”), what he calls “enteractivity”, brand empires, and the role of sponsors.
Wolf observes, “Within its home turf…entertainment is in many parts of the world the fastest-growing sector of the economy. This is as true of developing countries as it is of mature ones. But of even wider impact is the way entertainment content has become a key differentiator in virtually every aspect of the broader consumer economy.” Moreover, “…where America’s entertainment economy goes, the rest of the world is not far behind.” Although he does not state it explicitly, Wolf views “entertainment” from two quite separate perspectives: entertainment as a commodity (films, videos, radio and television, concerts, athletic events, etc.) and entertainment as a strategy (e.g. to create a sense of being “entertained”). As Wolf explains, not all commodities are inherently entertaining but it is possible to nourish the appeal of virtually all commodities by use of appropriate entertainment principles.
In this respect, Wolf seems to agree with Bernd Schmitt and Alex Simonson, co-authors of Marketing Aesthetics. Consider Williams-Sonoma which attracts customers to its upscale stores with the aromas of fresh-baked bread and fresh-brewed coffee, produced on-site by appliances it sells. Schmitt and Simonson assert that marketing is most effective when it appeals to most (if not all) of the five senses. Wolf would no doubt confirm that the nature and extent of that appeal will usually determine the nature and extent of a consumer’s sense of being “entertained.”
Every retail merchandiser should ask, “Who buys what we sell? Which images will be most appealing? Window displays, posters, counter-top promotions? Which aromas will be most appealing? Gourmet coffee, popcorn, chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Which sounds will be most appealing? Bach, Hole, Dwight Yoakam, Celine Dion?”
Wolf characterizes Ted Turner, Michael Eisner, Sumner Redstone, and Rupert Murdoch as “the conquistadors of modern business.” Why? Because they and their associates understand so well that entertainment (both as a commodity and as an influence) has an almost unlimited global audience. To Wolf’s credit, everything he says is directly relevant to almost any organization, regardless of size of nature. If an organization does not understand The Entertainment Economy, it probably doesn’t have much of a chance of survival. Those interested in this book are urged to consider, also, B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore’s The Experience Economy and Schmidt’s Experiential Marketing.
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As the great Nebraskan Fred Astaire (born Frederick Austerlitz, Omaha, 1899) used to sing, “There may be trouble ahead…” An article in the latest issue of Academy of Management Learning and Education reports that over the past 25 years college students in the U.S. have scored steadily higher on tests for narcissism. Professors Bergman, Westerman and Daly note that “the mean narcissism score of 2006 college students on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) approached that of a celebrity sample of movie stars, reality TV winners and famous musicians.”
Fabulous. If that weren’t bad news enough, “Narcissism in Management Education” (Academy of Management Learning and Education, 2010, Vol. 9, No. 1, 119-131) also cites research indicating that “narcissistic tendencies such as materialistic values and money importance tend to be particularly evident in business students.”
Most studies of narcissists in business focus on their usually awful eventual effect on co-workers. To ride along with them can be energizing, even inspiring at first, but frequently ends in tragedy. As I was reminded last week when I caught one of the last New York performances of Lucy Prebble’s “Enron,” which pretty much reduces that company’s rise and fall to a story about Jeff Skilling’s increasingly delusional hubris. (A hit in London, the play bombed in Babylon on the Hudson, which already has enough challenges to its own hubristic tendencies these days.)
In a terrific 2001 HBR article, Michael Maccoby argued that a “productive narcissist” can be good for a company — setting out a vision, rallying the troops to achieve it. (As examples he cited Jack Welch and George Soros.) But in my observation, narcissism in strategy-makers almost always represents an invitation to disaster.
This for at least two reasons. Narcissistic executives usually create around themselves a miasma of distrust. They take credit for other’s work, value no one else’s ideas as highly as their own, and are so busy looking after No. 1 that they can be oblivious to the welfare of others. This makes it tough to develop a strategy in consultation with colleagues, who usually know more about vital details of the competitive situation than the Great One. And even tougher to actually carry the strategy out, except under the narcissist’s lash, which most talented people quickly lose a taste for.
The more fundamental problem may be that with sufficient feeding of their grandiosity, narcissists deteriorate in their ability to do what psychologists call “reality testing,” being able to spot the difference between the movie they’re playing in their heads (guess who the star is) and what’s actually going on in the world.
The classic posterboy for this syndrome: John De Lorean, father of the Pontiac GTO, who when he wasn’t hanging out with movie stars or marrying again was going to set the automotive world on fire with the De Lorean Motors gull-wing doored DMC 12. The entrepreneur’s arrest for drug-trafficking — allegedly to raise money for his failing company — put the finishing touches on that endeavor; even though he eventually beat the charge, he would spend the rest of his days bouncing down the stairs, eventually into personal bankruptcy.
In the face of what may be a rising tide of MBAs with, how shall we say, narcissism issues, and the chance that some may climb into strategy-making positions, the news of Britain’s new coalition government comes as all the more intriguing. Here you have two politicians, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, heads of rival parties, who, admittedly under serious pressure, manage to quickly form a partnership that has at least some observers suspecting that the country may have lucked into a governing solution better than any one party could have afforded.
For all the usual bromides about how “you can’t run a company by committee” and “you gotta have clear lines of authority,” partnerships have worked remarkably well in running a few fabled companies, including in setting their strategy. The modern Walt Disney Co. was at its best when Michael Eisner was complemented by Frank Wells. Coca-Cola’s patrician, aloof Roberto Goizueta wouldn’t have accomplished nearly as much without the consummately personable Donald Keough presenting a smiling corporate face to the world. Some of us wonder whether Goldman Sachs would be in the doghouse it is today if it had stayed with its tradition of two-headed leadership — John Weinberg teamed with John Whitehead, Robert Rubin with Steve Friedman. Astaire wasn’t the only Nebraskan who appreciated the value of a good partner — to every Warren Buffet, his Charlie Munger.
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Walter Kiechel III is the former Editorial Director of Harvard Business Publishing, former Managing Editor at Fortune magazine, and author of The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World. He is based in New York City and Boston.