A Monthly Column on Culture

Anne Here's my take on business and the natural order. Synergy was all a big mistake. Nature is hardwired for antisynergy. Do coyotes collaborate with sheep? Do fish empower dragonflies in the pond?

Naturally, that brings AOL Time Warner to mind. I think of it as a new species of Frankenstein, constructed of parts that don't really belong together and with nothing but a logo for a head. At a dinner with a few senior AOL Time Warner executives this past summer, just before Bob Pittman left, I asked good-naturedly, What was the mission of the company? The best answer was, "Well, we have to be more aggressive about our marketing and ad-sales packages."

How lame is that? And how bad must it feel for those guys to go to work every day trying to operate their particular limb of this lumbering freak of a company? It was so lumbering that the company completely restructured at the end of the summer, officially abandoning synergy, which was the raison d'ĂȘtre for its first two years.

Both as a company insider and as a bystander, I've always felt that corporate synergy is patter that's designed to disguise a lack of practical vision for the agglomeration of disparate parts. Back when this current cycle of media-entertainment synergy hoo-ha got started (after Sumner Redstone acquired Paramount), I was obliged to sit on a high-level companywide marketing-synergy committee as Nickelodeon's "executive vice president, creative." To say that each division had a distinct culture is an understatement. Everyone at the table had a profoundly different way of thinking about their business. Was there any net value in trying to speak one language and move together? I didn't think so then. I don't see it now.

Kurt What's incredible to me is that most moguls still believe in size as the ultimate imperative. Their real faith is in the bullying market power that size gives them more than in the transformative, contagious popularity of new channels, new shows, new movies, new ideas. Even the biggest among them are worried that they're still not big enough. When I had dinner with Rupert Murdoch at the TED conference earlier this year, I was flabbergasted when he sincerely fretted that News Corp. wasn't big enough to compete effectively. But does any executive at any giant media company derive enough benefits from corporate size to justify the time he or she squanders trying to avoid stepping on corporate siblings' toes? Back in the early 1990s, I was a columnist for the pre-AOL Time magazine. Two top editors mortified themselves (and me) by suggesting that I delete from a column I'd written an unflattering comment about the media properties of our new corporate uncle, Ted Turner.

Anne You declined, and your editors nicely stood down.

Kurt Because the strange, extra-rational, non-market-driven traditions of journalism were not dead. And because Time, huge for a magazine, was by corporate standards a small, cohesive band. That's the scale at which useful synergy really can occur: Good work that adds up to a brand is produced by cohesive groups. Apropos of your primeval-biological-order argument, we humans originally existed in hunter-gatherer groups that numbered between 100 and 200 people. As my pal Jay Chiat famously said about his ad agency, "How big can we get before we get bad?"

Thinking about Jay, who was, among other things, a great architecture patron, makes me realize that what we're talking about here is the fundamental insight behind the so-called new urbanism: that suburban developments, like old-fashioned small towns, are most vibrant when people can walk around to do most of their errands.

Anne I'll take it further. One of the best things about working for myself is having the luxury to walk or take the subway to my appointments. I hear new words, see new styles, get my creative well filled. Part of the bigness malaise is that it exacerbates the isolation of managers in their climate-controlled world of meetings, BlackBerries, and Lincoln Town Cars. Executives are cut off from what it feels like in the world where their customers live.

Kurt Maybe entertainment executives should take a look at the new-urbanist principles -- not just the embrace of human scale, but also of sociability, of careful design, of the adherence to proven models while still allowing for calculated experimentation . . .

Anne Although when Disney tried to imitate the handcrafted "small is beautiful" thoughtfulness of Seaside, Florida, the result was Celebration, its slightly creepy "town" outside of Orlando.

Kurt The difference is that Seaside was the brainchild of a passionate, visionary entrepreneur and two passionate, visionary architects --

Anne Rather than another play for synergy by a giant media- entertainment company. Maybe the link between corporate scale and urban design is the notion of natural balance -- walkable companies and walkable suburbs mean that coyotes and dragonflies (in business and in nature) get to keep on doing their thing.

Anne Kreamer (akreamer@fastcompany.com) is a media entrepreneur and consultant in New York. Novelist and radio-show host Kurt Andersen is her column guest this month.

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