A Wolf in the Kitchen

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.”

Condé Nast won’t share download numbers, except to say that users are spending an average of 100 minutes a month with the app.

In his years at Booz Allen Hamilton and McKinsey, Wolf helped old media companies restructure their operations. At Condé Nast, a notable project he advised on while at McKinsey was a cost-cutting exercise, moving the company’s back-office functions to Delaware.

When asked about his current role, Wolf, in typical consultant fashion, is quick to defer to the client. In response to an interview request, his PR rep insisted that the focus be on Activate, not Wolf, and that Dash join him on the call.

“Condé Nast, right around the time iPad was being released, recognized that in addition to all the development work they had done around Wired and The New Yorker, [they] should investigate a product more native to the device,” Wolf said. So what exactly did he do, if he brings none of that experience, to say nothing of food expertise, to the table? Wolf, who tends to keep answers vague, said: “We developed the strategy, and we pulled together a team of people. In some ways, this is like a heist film, in the Italian style.”

Condé Nast had been trying for a while to figure out how to revive the Gourmet brand.

Branded e-books, food tours and an e-commerce site powered by QVC were kicked around, but then Juliana Stock, a consumer marketer, suggested the idea of reimagining Gourmet for the iPad. She remains with the project as gm.

In a sense, Gourmet Live is a test case for Wolf’s book, The Entertainment Economy: How Mega-Media Forces Are Transforming Our Lives, where he makes a case that it’s the fun factor that’s driving the economy. Wolf said the idea is for Gourmet Live to become a model for startups elsewhere for the company.

“This was a skunkworks,” he said, using the term for a secret R&D project done outside conventional means. “This is really the evolution of where media companies need to go.”

None more so than Condé Nast, whose late entry to the digital game has cost it; for a long time, its Web sites were, at their core, a way to sell subscriptions to its print magazines. As a private company, it doesn’t release numbers, but it’s estimated that under 5 percent of its ad revenue is digital, less than half the industry average. Perhaps someone like Wolf, with his familiarity with that culture, makes him the best suited to prod it further digitally.

Dossier: Michael J. Wolf

Age: 49

Bio: 16 years consulting to media companies for Booz Allen Hamilton and McKinsey & Co.;
author of The Entertainment Economy: How Media Forces Are Transforming Our Lives;
president and COO, MTV Networks, 2005-2007; founded Activate in February 2010
Education: Attended Columbia University
Background: Father was an investment advisor; mother was TV producer/correspondent for Entertainment Tonight

Quote: “MySpace was like a big party, and then the party moved on.” (in The New York Times on the social net’s plans to lay off half its staff.)