Some Love, Some Jabs for Ken Auletta

Ken Auletta this week got the kid glove treatment from Charlie Rose, who quizzed him on the makeover of Lou Dobbs from corporate cheerleader to self-appointed mouthpiece of the American middle class. It was far different from the treatment Auletta got last week at a New Yorker breakfast sponsored by the Newhouse School and held at the Condé Nast building in Times Square.

In a flower-anointed room with just-so lighting holding the likes of New Yorker editor David Remnick, CBS digital’s Larry Kramer, the New York TimesStuart Elliott, Henry Schleiff, Jack Myers and other media luminaries, Auletta was the questioner of Martin Sorrell, the head of advertising megalith WPP. Sir Martin was all about “disintermediation” — how consumers are going around big media through everything from YouTube to MySpace. “You’re in dangerous territory when you start to say to consumers I know better what they should like or what they shouldn’t,” he said. He couldn’t resist joking to Auletta that he was going to “try to disintermediate you, too,” as their knees practically touched on the dias.

Sorrell presented what we thought was a cogent argument for why huge ad holding companies like WPP can’t maintain their leadership position indefinitely. He talked not only of the disintermediation, but also:

  • How small agencies are springing up without the legacy issues of the giants
  • People are set in their ways at media companies and to get anything new done one is battling a tremendous amount of inertia
  • The big media companies and ad agencies have a shorter-term orientation — maybe one year — and aren’t able to look, say, four years ahead, as required today.
  • The biggies face slower growth than the startups.

    We assembled that argument and put it to Sir Martin, and after calling us “Smarty Pants,” he basically said the answer was to get the right people in burgeoning markets like China, India, Russia and Brazil. And, he said, he was raising a lot of questions that make people uncomfortable because people in his industry will have to confront them. And roughly quoted Michael Eisner in predicting that some “five software engineers in a garage in Shanghai” will disrupt the world as we know it.


  • At a Media Breakfast, The ‘Wrong People’ Talking