First Mover Interview: Randall Rothenberg

Back at the IAB, the short-time Time Inc. exec ruminates on post-modern man.

Headshot of Adweek Staff

Adweek: Every issue we’re going to have a conversation with a media person who’s recently changed jobs—like you. But your new job is your old job. You ran the IAB, then Jack Griffin, briefly the Time Inc. CEO, hired you as the company’s Chief Digital Officer. Then less than six months later Jack was fired, and you left and came back to the IAB. Before that, you were the foremost journalist writing about advertising. Except you don’t do journalism anymore. No more objective truth—you’re an advocate. 

Randall Rothenberg: Not to quibble. What I am doing here is telling an objective truth about the transformation in our businesses: using digital disruption to further the goals of journalism, entertainment, and advertising enterprises.

AW: Are you a technology or media guy?

RR: Definitely not technology.

AW: At Time people saw you as a tech guy. Or did they just see an outsider?

RR: I was an outsider. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about this. Except—

AW: Except . . .  

RR: I’ve just always been astonished by how willfully ignorant most journalists are about the economic underpinnings of their business. It troubles me greatly that they haven’t bothered to learn how the advertising industry works.  

AW: If you can go back in the 15-16-year history of digital media and make a business adjustment, what would it be?

RR: I’d get rid of the dynamic serving of advertising. You want me to explain?  

AW: Indeed.  

RR: Direct response used to be expensive—you had to pay postage—but suddenly, if you could serve five ads on a page, in a medium where your incremental cost of content and distribution is practically zero, direct response becomes incredibly cheap. There’s nothing at all wrong with direct response advertising. But it’s a business that doesn’t care about content or context—it just cares about the yield curve.  

AW: This idea of the free-floating audience—a demographically defined audience of New York Times readers, for instance, made up of people who have effectively never read the Times. Who’s that good for?  

RR: The real question is, “Is man a modernist construct or a post-modernist construct?” Man in the modernist construct is a single, unitary, consistent being. Post-modern man consists of multiple cells. Reading the Times I’m a different person than when I’m watching what not to wear on Bravo.

AW: There is a creative approach that tries to acknowledge exactly that, our varied selves.

RR: True, true. The ads of the 1960s creative revolution were vaudevillian: Mama mia, that’s a some a spicy meatball. It’s a laugh line that’s delivered one way to get a laugh back. Beginning with Wieden + Kennedy in the ‘80s it’s much more post modern. Now, taking a leap forward with the layers of social interaction, you’re in a completely different territory than the classic copywriter and graphic designers.

AW: Any advice for the relaunch of Adweek?

RR: You have to celebrate the technologists. The concept of the creative team has changed. It’s no longer the copywriter and art director that Bernbach brought together. It’s the copywriter, the graphic designer and the creative technologist coming together. There needs to be a broader understanding of how teams and disciplines come together to generate greatness. Chronicle that and you’ll be doing something that nobody else is doing.

AW: We promised not to ask you about the Time contretemps, but did you at least get new furniture when you came back?

RR: I got this file cabinet where the door fell off.