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Stephen Colbert replaces David Letterman. Please help us figure out what this means!

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This just in.  We learned moments ago that Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman on late night television.

We can identify the cultural significance of David Letterman .  He came to prominence on the back of a cultural trend, the Preppie revolution.   Letterman was the guy who liked to stand in a window in Rockefeller Center and proclaim through a bull-horn, “I’m not wearing any pants.”   This was preppie humor, a frat boy prank.

Below is my cheat-sheet treatment of the Preppie revolution as it appeared in Chief Culture Officer.

I would  love it if people would give offer a brief account of the cultural movement that brought Stephen Colbert to prominence and the shift in culture  his rise represents for us.  Don’t feel obliged to give a detailed account.  We can make this collaborative.  Just take a different piece of the puzzle and I will try to piece together when all “results” are in.

Here’s the passage from my Chief Culture Officer:

The preppie convergence began to form visibly and publicly around 1980, but we if we were astoundingly well informed and gifted, we could have seen it coming ten years before.  Doug Kenney founded in National Lampoon in 1970 with staff from the Harvard Lampoon.  And we could have tracked the success of this convergence as this publication began to scale up.  National Lampoon published parodies of Newsweek and Life, the 1964 High School Yearbook Parody (1974), and a well received issue entitled Buy this magazine, or we’ll shoot this dog.  By the end of the 1970s, Lampoon circulation had reached nearly a million copies per month.  And by this time even the dimmest trend hunter had it on their radar.

Sales is one thing.  We should also be alert to the migration of talent.  In the case of the preppie convergence, we needed to be paying attention when the world started raiding the Lampoon for talent.  Kenney left to write movies.  Michael O’Donoghue left in 1975 to become head writer for Saturday Night Live.  P.J. O’Rourke left to write for Rolling Stone.  The National Lampoon spoke with the voice of the ruthless private school boy.  Apparently this was now in demand.

We should have noticed when the preppie convergence began to colonize the movies.  We should have been paying attention when the preppie thing migrated to the movies.  Kenney created Animal House in 1978 and Caddyshack in 1980.  The first featured Tim Matheson, the second Bill Murray.  The prep also appeared in Bachelor Party (1984), played by Tom Hanks.  Perhaps most famously, the prep turned up in the 1982 NBC series Family ties in the character of Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox.  He also appeared in the 1982 late night comedy show in the person of David Letterman who gave voice to prep form by standing in a window of Rockefeller center and announcing with a bull horn, “I’m not wearing any pants.”  (Preps loved to be vulgar and clever at the same time.  It’s a frat thing.)

Everyday language began to vibrate with new phrases: “go for it,” “get a life,” “get a grip,” “snap out of it.”  It was easy to see how these spoke for the new convergence.  People were impatient with the old pieties.  That was 60s idealism, and people were done with that.

Convergences must shake the webs of the publishing world.  (Or they cannot be convergences.) One of the best sellers of the period was Lisa Birnbach’s The Preppy Handbook in 1980. This was 200 pages of detailed instruction: what to wear, where to go to school, what sports to play, what sports to watch, what slang to speak, how to be rude to a salesperson, and how to mix a Bloody Mary.  If the National Lampoon had supplied the new character of the decade, here were instructions of a much more detailed kind.

The consensus was visible in public life.  Suddenly Harvard Yard, never especially presentable in its architecture, appointments, or personnel, filled with glossy teens in down vests, Norwegian sweaters, and Top-Siders, all newly minted by L.L. Bean.  Some of them were the children of Old Money following ancestral footsteps into the Ivy League.  But most were kids from Boston University who believed that the Yard was a better lifestyle accessory.

The convergence began to recruit ferociously.  A young woman remembers.

As a teenager [my mom] was pulling The Preppy Handbook out from under my [sleeping] cheek.  These were the mid-80’s, and I just lapped up all that puppy/yuppie/J. Crew catalogue/Land’s End stuff.  I didn’t want to live in Wisconsin; rather, I wished my parents played tennis and would send me away to Phillips Exeter.  In fact, I waged a two-year send-Ann-to-Exeter campaign (“or, hey Choate would be O.K. C’mon, at least consider the University School of Milwaukee!”).  I wished we summered on Martha’s Vineyard and wore penny loafers without socks.  I wanted to ski in Vermont during Christmas vacation like my copy of The Preppy Handbook recommended.  […] I wanted to live far away from Wisconsin and my family and come home only at Christmas.  As pathetic as it sounds, deep in my soul I wished I owned a navy-blue blazer with my school’s crest embroidered on the lapel and wore grosgrain ribbons in my hair.  I daydreamed about the day when I would go to East to college, and I believed I would.⁠1

The preppie convergence would sell a lot of cars for Chrysler (Jeeps) and, eventually, a lot of SUVs for everyone.  It would sell clothing for L.L Bean, Land’s End, J. Crew, Ralph Lauren, and eventually Tommy Hilfiger and the Gap.  It would sell a ton of furniture for Ethan Allen and eventually Sears.  Downstream, it sold a lot of watches for Rolex and a lot of cars for BMW.  Eventually, it would serve as the foundation for Martha Stewart and her brand of status.  It would shape and still shapes what boomers wear on the weekends.⁠2

The tide turned again.  Repudiation was coming.  We might have seen, as I did, graffiti on a Tom Cruise movie poster that read, “die Yuppie scum.”  Another was Gordon Gecko in Wall Street (1987), a film Roger Ebert hailed as a “radical critique of the capitalist trading mentality.”  The prep hero was now tarnished.  (Life soon imitated art, with the fall of Michael Milken, the junk bond trader indicted in 1989 for violations of federal securities and racketeering laws.)  The third was the movie, Heathers (1989) in which teens excluded by snobbery take a terrible revenge against the preps.  The fourth was the publication of American Psycho in 1991.  This was, among other things, a vilification of the prep.  At this point, the big board should be flashing with warning signals.  Something new had made it up out of the college campuses of the world, past all the little gates, and on to the big screen.  Pity us if this is our first warning.

I was doing research with teens in 1990 and, almost to a person, they were saying, “well, I guess you could say I’m a Prep, but I don’t really think I am.”  Or, more forcefully, “The last thing I want to be called is a Prep.”  This was coming from kids who were still wearing buttoned down shirts and Top Siders.  Teens were moving on, some to the emerging subculture of rap, some to a brief revival of the hippy regime, still others were taking an “alternative” turn.  We do not have access to this data, but we can assume that sales figures for Ralph Lauren, Rolex, BMW, and the other “flag ship” brands of the decade fell sharply.  Presumably, furniture and textile stores suddenly found it difficult to move their “duck” and “sailboat” motifs.  What convergences give, they take away.

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1 Stroh, Ann. n.d. The Preppy Handbook and other myths.  This document may be found at http://www.sit.wisc.edu/%7Exanadu/preppy_handbook.html.

2 For the connection between the prep or yuppie movement and BMW, see Greyser, Stephen and Wendy Schille. 1991.  BMW: The Ultimate Driving Machine Seeks to De-Yuppify Itself.  Harvard Case Study, 9-593-046, December 27, 1993.  Steven Greyser is an Emeritus Professor at the Harvard Business School.  Wendy Schille was a research associate at HBS at the writing of this case.

Burberry’s Angela Ahrendts and the next generation

She listens intently.  [She] has trained herself not to interrupt or seem rushed. Her eye contact never wavers, and while she insists she couldn’t function without her briefing folders, she never seems to need to look at them. [She] mixes folksy sincerity and laser focus […] effortlessly. Unlike corporate chiefs who favor an inaccessible, imperial style, Ahrendts seems comfortable with dissent; her executives joke easily with her, and aren’t afraid to press their points.

This is the stuff of managerial grace, isn’t it?  A boss who solicits staff opinion.  A boss who listens well.   

Listening is a good idea for lots of reasons.  It is the signature of corporations in which information moves easily and well.  it is the stuff of candor which is the stuff of transparency which is one of the vital signs of the corporation (Bennis, Goldman, and O’Toole).  

But listening well matters for Ahrendts especially because she is, as every CEO is, an exalted creature.  She travels and lives in a well upholstered, carefully modulated world. Limos, corporate jets, luxurious homes and hotels.  

This doesn’t matter much if you make electronic components, but it matters a lot when you are the CEO of a luxury brand.  Burberry has survived aristocratic lows, licensing lows, and it will flourish now only if it learns to run the rapids of contemporary culture.  

And the trouble is that there is some kid in Norway, or maybe it’s Cheng Du, working on music, software or a video that will help shift our culture.  This kid is extremely hard to see from the deep comfort of a corporate limo. 

Now, of course, Ahrendts is not without resources when it comes to staying in touch with culture.  Christopher Bailey serves as her brilliant Chief Creative Officer.  Her kids create and curate culture.  She lives in the American heartland so there is no island (i.e., Manhattan) captivity to worry about.  Burberry has experimented successfully with social media and cocreation. Plus, it sounds like Ahrendts can pick up the phone and call David Bowie any time she wants and that has to be quite a good thing.  

The trouble is it’s not just that kid in Norway.  The malls of America are a Petrie dish.  At the moment they are nursing a new set of values.  These values won’t matter directly to a luxury brand like Burberry, but they will matter indirectly and that’s the question in its fully difficulty. How will they matter? How will they concatenate into the world Burberry must master? America is having one of its periodic thinks on the ideas of fashion and luxury. This is hard to conger with from the inside the world of fashion and luxury (and a corporate limo).

And this is why it is so very critical that Ahrendts listens well.  Because she is surrounded everyday by a small army of young people who are a little less cushioned and a little more connected.  (It’s not perfect, but hey…as they say.)  But this body of information, opinion and pattern recognition is only available if you are the kind of boss who invites people to insist on what they know.  These kids are the aquifer out of which Ahrendts can and plainly does draw great things.

I believe it’s true that most corporations are a little less inclusive.  Most corporations ignore the great stock of knowledge that generations X and Y bring to work every morning. Occasionally, from the precipice of a decision, someone will say, "run this down the hall and see what the intern thinks."  Tthis is listening very badly indeed.  I keep hoping that new  generations will find a way to insist on their inclusion, that they will stage a palace coup if necessary.  Indeed, I hoped Chief Culture Officer might serve as a rallying cry. But so far I’m not seeing any evidence of a fifth column.  Just the noblesse oblige of a CEO listening well.  

References

Bennis, Warren, Daniel Goleman, and James O’Toole. 2008. Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor. Jossey-Bass.

Hass, Nancy. 2010. “Earning Her Stripes: Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts Balances Life and Work.” WSJ Magazine, September 9 http://magazine.wsj.com/features/the-big-interview/earning-her-strips/ (Accessed September 17, 2010).

Post Script

On the listening question, there’s a nice opportunity to compare Ahrendts’ style to that of another CEO in the garment industry.  Here’s how Paumgarten describes Mickey Drexler, the CEO of J. Crew.

His inquisitions have an auctioneer’s temp and a depositional intensity, but they also project an ease that derives from the pleasure he seems to take in them, and the pleasure, albeit of a wary and poised kind, that his employees seem to take in him.  Some combination of self-possession, insecurity, good humor, and good tailoring makes him approachable.  His command of a room is sneaky; it is unexpectedly fortified by curiosity and self-effacement.  

References 

Paumgarten, Nick. 2010. “The Merchant.” The New Yorker, September 20, p. 79.