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A Wolf in the Kitchen

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There’s not a print publisher out there who isn’t grappling with the question of how digital media can save their ailing business. Not the least is Condé Nast, which has publicly acknowledged that it needs to shift its business away from an overwhelming reliance on print advertising revenue.

At this critical juncture, the company is putting a lot of faith in Michael J. Wolf (pictured), a longtime media consultant with almost no experience in technology development.

After a 15-month stint running MTV Networks, Wolf started his own company, Activate, with tech blogger Anil Dash. He surfaced last summer as a partner with Condé Nast to launch Gourmet Live—not a cooking site, but a gaming app based on the late but beloved magazine. (Condé Nast folded Gourmet in 2009 on the advice, as it happens, of Wolf’s alma mater, McKinsey & Co.)

Consultants are an easy target of skeptics. They advise captains of industries but often have no management or entrepreneurial experience themselves. That’s especially true when it comes to Wolf. He may be a favorite of media CEOs, but among many media execs who’ve worked with him, he’s the subject of considerable scorn. While often described as well connected, others see him as a world-class name-dropper (his bio says that while at Columbia University, he was a friend of Barack Obama) who commands big fees for little substance. One former publishing client who paid McKinsey $2 million for a six-month engagement said Wolf appeared briefly and delegated most of the work to a subordinate. “He was very hands-off,” the ex-client said. “I felt it was a waste of time.”

Wolf’s one foray into running a major media company was short-lived. In 2005, longtime client MTV Networks hired him as president and COO of the $7 billion-a-year operation. There, people who worked with him said the buttoned-up consultant—who had his office paneled in marble and constantly name-dropped—didn’t go over well with the company’s cool, creative culture. He left in January 2007 after a little over a year. The company said at the time that the post was never intended to last longer than a year, but the short tenure was red meat to those who thought he wasn’t up to the job.

Nonetheless, he has a big fan in Chuck Townsend, CEO of Condé Nast.

Townsend wouldn’t come to the phone, but provided a statement: “We have a long-standing relationship with Michael dating back to his McKinsey days. His familiarity with Condé Nast, and our business development opportunities, is somewhat unique. One area we have asked that he provide strategy is in digital product and services development. The gaming space is of great interest to us, as is the full utilization of assets, active and inactive. His recommendation to explore the digital gaming space with Gourmet assets is one we liked, and we asked him and his partners to develop the Gourmet Live product for us, outside of the confines of our digital development bandwidth at Condé Nast. Michael and [Activate] did a terrific job . . . and the early results demonstrate that.”

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