But important particulars are unclear.
If you read the press surrounding his last days at Disney and the treatment that appears in DisneyWar, you could be forgiven the impression that Eisner was punching above his weight. You say to yourself, "Ok, not so smart."
But the interview in today’s Ad Age gives a different impression. Eisner is smart and penetrating. You can hear the snap of intelligence, the power of a mind that goes right at things. You say, "Ah, sighted!" (This intersection in the Venn diagram is underpopulated. "Real smart" plus "real worldly" is rare.)
Now the question is this: does Michael Eisner know the market place? More particularly, does he know the cultural aspects of the marketplace? Ad Age’s Claude Brodesser-Akner’s raises the question.
Ad Age: One of the ironies of spending two decades as the head of a big media conglomerate is that you’re paid to have your finger on the pulse of what’s cool and where popular culture is going, but the job almost makes you the most isolated person on the planet. How does a 65-year-old multimillionaire stay connected to what’s cool these days so that he knows he’s headed in the right direction?
Well, we’re all much more connected now by new media, so you’d have to be pretty much brain-dead not to be connected. I have the benefit of being in the baby-boom generation, which was always the largest part of the population. I never spent any time thinking about popular entertainment: I just lived it. And I don’t think about it now. You’re informed by the very nature of being alive. A good story is still a good story.
Eisner says he stays in touch with culture because:
1. he is part of the biggest cohort in our culture, boomers.
2. he lives his life, and this life is, as all lives are, soaked through by the media streams.
3.The growth of new media, and faster access to old media, gives him access to the information he needs.
Well, let’s have a look at each of these.
1. Yes, Mr. Eisner is a boomer. Does this mean he knows about culture. Well, I guess it means he knows about boomer culture. But are we not obliged to acknowledge that boomers are moving away from contemporary culture at speed. Symptoms? They don’t quite get The Simpsons, not to mention Family Guy or American Dad. In sum, being a boomer means a person is out of touch with contemporary culture. Chances are the counter culture of the 90s was a mystery. Chances the social networking and new media are a bit of a blur.
2. Yes, everyone’s life is soaked through with media content. But when I turn on the radio when driving to the store here in Connecticut, what I hear is Van Halen and Kenny Loggins. "Soaked through," yes. "In touch with," no. Now, as the former CEO of Disney, Eisner had a seat at a very interested window, to say nothing of access to the best consulting advice money can by. And this no doubt gives him a deeper knowledge than most of us. But, notice, he is not claiming this as his defense.
3. Fair enough, the new media give us extraordinary opportunities to stay in touch, from YouTube as the raw feed of contemporary culture, to the many critics and commentators who work these turbulent waters. Maybe he "hooked up" here in ways that make him knowledgeable and prescient.
So, one of Eisner’s arguments appear patently wrong (perhaps even self incriminatingly so), one of them appears unlikely, and only one appears possible. Frankly, we would expect an answer more robust.
What’s troubling is that line, "I don’t think about [culture] now. You’re informed by the very nature of being alive." As long as there were three networks, a handful of influential newspapers and magazines, with New York and Los Angeles the ports through which innovation had to pass to find its way to the mainsteam, this might work. But as we know too well, cultural innovation has exploded. If we want to stay in touch, we have to think about culture now.
Of course, it’s not clear that Eisner is very different from the average senior manager or CEO. Cultural competence is not being cultivated by the American corporation. But now that it’s (belatedly) clear that Eisner is one of the smart ones, one of the decision makers who will insist on depth and clarity, one of the captains of industry who owe their position to special stores of knowledge, well, we want a better answer to Brodesser-Akner’s question.
We only need to add a circle to the Venn diagram to see why. Real advantage will go to those who are real smart, real worldly, and well informed.
Brodesser-Akner, Claude. 2007. Eisner on Dentists, Topps and ‘Foolish" Writers Strike. Ad Age. November 12, 2007. here.
Stewart, James. 2005. Disney War. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Do I need to justify the question asked by Brodesser-Akner? Here goes.
Brodesser-Akner’s question is important for the following reasons:
1. culture supplies the foundations & architecture of consumer taste & preference
2. cultural trends help churn consumer taste & preference
3. cultural basics and trends both now change more, more often & less predictably
4. we have to know about culture to be Michael Eisner