Seeking Executive to Tame the Digital Future
THE want ad above is a goof, of course, but it roughly sums up the state of play among big media companies’ digital operations.
In the last few weeks, there has been a stampede of change involving the top Internet executives at big media companies. Most significant, Jonathan F. Miller, the chairman and chief executive of AOL, was replaced at that Time Warner division by Randy Falco, a 31-year veteran of NBC Universal; Ross Levinsohn, the wunderkind who helped Rupert Murdoch snag MySpace last year, left the News Corporation two weeks ago and is being replaced by a cousin, Peter Levinsohn, a Fox TV veteran; and Larry Kramer, who built and sold the site MarketWatch, left his job as digital overseer at CBS after the arrival of Quincy Smith, a former investment banker, as his boss.
MTV Networks, meanwhile, recently appointed Mika Salmi, the founder of Atom Entertainment, a Web media company that it acquired, as its latest digital honcho, and NBC Universal has been making all sorts of online moves under the auspices of Beth Comstock, who came from owner General Electric last year to head all things digital there.
Has an archetypal digital genius yet emerged amid all this movement? Not exactly. The screenwriter William Goldman famously said of Hollywood’s hit machinery that “nobody knows anything.” When it comes to the digital machinations of media companies, the new tag line may be that “nobody knows everything.”
In some instances, notably AOL and the News Corporation, the companies in question have decided that their businesses have reached a new phase that would benefit from a different set of skills — in AOL’s case, operations and a heavy focus on ad sales. Elsewhere, including CBS, the digital executives themselves have discovered that the action within a giant media company may not be as much fun as it first seemed.
Michael J. Speck, who runs the media practice at the executive recruiter Heidrick & Struggles, says that roughly three baskets of digital media overseers are in the market. The first is the well-versed old-media executive who both knows how to navigate corporate corridors and run a business but may not be the most Webby person on the squad. Mr. Falco, come on down! (Of course AOL is a bit of an outlier in this discussion because it is such a big business unto itself, let alone as part of Time Warner.)
The second basket contains the Web stars — people like Mr. Salmi and, in a way, Mr. Smith, who has a venture capital background. These stars know how to identify and build Web businesses early.
Then there is the less common “general corporate athlete” (someone like Ms. Comstock), who has a track record of getting things done in a complex company but is neither a seasoned operating executive nor a Web head.
In search of enlightenment, I spoke with three of these former Web gurus — Ross Levinsohn, Mr. Kramer and Jason Hirschhorn, who left Viacom earlier this year after serving as MTV Networks’ first chief digital officer.
Mr. Levinsohn said he was grateful to Mr. Murdoch and his deputy, Peter A. Chernin, for the opportunity, but added that they differed amicably on the next moves to make in the online world and that, ultimately, he was keen to part ways and do something more entrepreneurial.
In Peter Levinsohn, the company is getting an executive with arguably less operational experience than his cousin but someone who has a record of cutting deals to distribute Fox video products on digital services like Amazon, iTunes and AOL. Moreover, people close to the company said Mr. Murdoch would probably invest in whatever Ross Levinsohn did next, though Mr. Levinsohn declined to discuss his plans. “This is not a bad thing for me, or for them,” he said.
In Mr. Kramer’s case, he made a tidy fortune selling MarketWatch and said he had never meant to take a full-time job but had enjoyed “proselytizing” about digital media across CBS and improving its Web sites. The hiring of Mr. Smith, a former Allen & Company investment banker with deep connections in Silicon Valley, came as alarm bells went off throughout media companies when Google swallowed YouTube.
CBS’s emphasis shifted from building assets internally to identifying and becoming involved with the hottest next thing. “If I was 35, I would have stayed,” said Mr. Kramer, who is 56.
Mr. Hirschhorn, who is a couple of decades younger than Mr. Kramer, said he joined Viacom in 2000 after selling a Web design start-up to the company and had never known what it was like to work in a big corporation.
After a few years of working on various online businesses at MTV Networks, it was time for a change. For his part, he yearned to get involved in another start-up or young company. (He says he’s about to take just such a job.) Meanwhile, as is typical of what can happen in these roles, Viacom’s thinking about the position was also changing.
Geoffrey K. Sands, who heads the North American media consulting practice at McKinsey & Company, told me that the tension between old and new in the latest round of digital executive changes might be missing the bigger point.
“There’s a general tendency to focus too much on individuals and make too much of who’s in and who’s out,” Mr. Sands said. “You’re going to need people who are visionary and innovative about the opportunities created by digital media, but I would look less at the individuals and more at the teams they’re putting together.”
Indeed, if the challenges of competing with Internet giants and whiz kids in garages weren’t daunting enough, one of the biggest factors for success in these jobs is organizational: does the anointed guru have the juice to cross over existing divisions and to introduce newfangled businesses that may actually hurt before they help? At NBC, for example, the current lineup of digital and Internet projects — only some of which report wholly to Ms. Comstock — resembles a Tokyo subway map.
In a way, the tenure of a chief digital genius weirdly mirrors the fickle nature of the Web itself: hits can appear very quickly, but only a few stick around for the long haul.