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On the run with Rich Greenfield, the straw that stirs Media Twitter

The hashtagging, meme-sharing, emoji-writing analyst is the scourge of titans like Disney and the champion of New Media. What’s in it for him?

On the run with Rich Greenfield, the straw that stirs Media Twitter

Last Thursday, media analyst Rich Greenfield could have spent the first day of summer almost anywhere.

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His job—covering the confluence of entertainment, technology, and media for the Manhattan brokerage firm BTIG—certainly could have justified a trip to Cannes and the annual ad-world boondoggle. He could have just stayed home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, or cut out early for a long weekend to his second home in Westport, Connecticut, resting up for the drama to come in the fight for Fox between Disney and Comcast.

Instead, I find him sitting in a darkened green room in the Anaheim Convention Center, the site of VidCon, the annual online video confab, just minutes after he moderated a panel on digital disruption. Greenfield, 44, is older than the average VidCon attendee by approximately three decades, but he attends each year to schmooze with the tech companies that use the conference to roll out new products and to observe the audience of tweens and teens who turn out to fawn over digital video’s stars.

One of those fans is Greenfield’s 15-year-old daughter Micaela, who was sitting on a couch a few feet away, her eyes glued to a simulcast of a YouTube presentation taking place in a nearby conference room. About 20 minutes into the presentation, YouTube announced that it was adding an Instagram-like Stories features to the platform, causing a wave of excited murmurs to ripple through the room. Greenfield, mid-conversation, glanced over to his daughter, who was beaming. She gave her dad a knowing thumb’s up and mouthed the word “vertical” to connote that the new feature would allow vloggers to shoot videos the way most people hold their phones–a first for the platform. Greenfield nodded his head approvingly and shot up his own thumb. It was hard to tell who was more jazzed about the news.

On most days, Greenfield isn’t a geeky, middle-aged dad schlepping around VidCon with a bunch of selfie-stick-toting tweens and self-styled YouTube stars. He’s a blustery analyst who’s made a name for himself–on Wall Street; in business media, especially TV; and on Twitter–by taking controversial, and very vocal, stands on entertainment and tech companies. His prime target: legacy media companies that he sees as being exceedingly slow and flat-footed when it comes to adapting to the digital revolution that is transforming Hollywood and the rest of the media landscape.

Greenfield has been touting this epochal shift for years now, and the seismic events of the last few months–AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner; Comcast and Disney competing to buy 21st Century Fox; a potential re-merger of CBS and Viacom; Netflix being valued more than Disney–have only emboldened him to be noisier and more outrageous as he seeks to cement his status as the poster boy for the new world order. On the day that the Justice Department approved the AT&T/Time Warner deal, Greenfield donned his trademark t-shirt with #goodluck emblazoned on the front for all of his (many) media appearances. He created the #goodluckbundle hashtag last year on Twitter (he later streamlined it), in reference to the perilous state of the cable TV business as consumers choose fewer channels for less money or opt out entirely and only sign up for Netflix.

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As this reinvention of the telecom-media-tech landscape is only poised to continue–just as Greenfield, a self-proclaimed Media Futurist, augured–this is his moment. He’s willed himself to be The Most Interesting Man in Media, the straw that stirs Media Twitter, and the guy that Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood either loves to hate or hates to love. Even executives at companies that he’s tormented admit that there is something irresistible about him. Says one, who requested anonymity so as not to be on the wrong side of a Greenfield Twitter fight: “He’s alternately charming, hilarious and spot-on, but can also be annoying as hell, bombastic, and ridiculous.”

If this cultural moment has taught us anything, though, it’s that those are all the qualities you need to thrive in today’s world, especially if you’re in the media business. For all his pomp, Greenfield wants merely to be heard. Clearly, he’s learned something from his annual VidCon trips.

“There’s so much noise,” he tells me, without a hint of irony. “How do I get hundreds of people every day to read what I write? I’ve got to write something that’s interesting.”

#BattleDisney

Greenfield’s most barbed bon mots have to do with Disney, his favorite punching bag. Even as the company makes bold moves to lean more into digital by launching new OTT platforms, Greenfield remains its harshest critic. On more than one occasion, he has told me how no freshly minted engineer would ever “go to Bristol, Connecticut, to work at ESPN,” which Disney owns. “That’s the exciting thing you’re going to do with your degree from MIT or Stanford? No way. Your parents would kill you. Your friends would be embarrassed for you. You’re not gonna do it.”

He earned the lasting enmity of the Disney faithful when he controversially encouraged investors to sell Disney stock in December 2015, just days before Star Wars: The Force Awakens, one of Disney’s biggest movies, was released. He has gone on to describe the company as the “biggest loser” in the war between legacy and digital media, prompting one former senior executive at a Fortune 500 company to say, “There’s a fine line between needling and being obnoxious.”

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Disney, though, has only elevated Greenfield’s status in its response to his criticism. It has not called on him during an earnings call since his sell recommendation, and last summer CEO Bob Iger blocked him on Twitter. This has only inspired Greenfield to step up his antics, such as sharing goofy images of himself “waiting” to be called on while superimposing Chewbacca’s face over his own.

Since his fateful call, though, Greenfield’s analysis has been borne out: The company’s stock has fallen from $120 a share in November of 2015 to $104, and the company is now facing headwinds not only within ESPN but also with its underperforming Star Wars franchise. In addition, there’s the loss of John Lasseter, the former Pixar and Disney Animation creative chief, to the #MeToo movement.

As the Disney-Comcast battle for Fox heated up this month, Greenfield seized the opportunity to drill down on his core belief that Disney is driving itself off a cliff in its attempt to ward off the threat of digital behemoths like Netflix, Amazon, and Apple.

His point is that Disney shouldn’t spend oodles of money buying content from Fox, but simply make it itself, the way Netflix does. He’s been vigorously arguing that Comcast should win Fox. Last week, when Disney upped its bid to $71.3 billion worth of cash and stock, making it look like it would be the one to prevail, he tweeted, “At what point does winning become losing?” Yesterday, when the government approved Disney’s Fox acquisition pending the sale of 22 regional sports networks, Greenfield tripled down, sharing a posterized image that read, “This Fight’s Not Over Yet.” (Naturally, he also added the hashtag #notoveryet.)

In person, Greenfield is slightly more measured than he is on social media and in front of cameras. He’s also more congenial; the kind of guy you’d want to gnash out ideas over beers and peanuts after work. “I’ve always said I think Comcast needs it more. Disney should be buying Activision. Or they should be buying Spotify or Twitter,” he says energetically (he says everything energetically). “There are so many better acquisitions for Disney than buying more legacy media. If their goal is to win and beat Netflix, this doesn’t seem like the acquisition I would be doing.”

“So, yeah. Disney could win.” He pauses. “But I think winning could be losing at some point.” Given that the price tag for Fox has already risen from $52 billion to $71 billion and now there are rumors that Comcast could drive the price up to $90 billion, you have to acknowledge that he has a point.

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#BecomingRichGreenfield

In a way, Greenfield is his own case study in the kind the disruption that he’s so obsessively proselytizing. Dressed in a pastel, plaid button down, navy blazer and jeans, he exudes the casual, country club vibe you’d expect to find in the staid, buttoned-down world of financial analysts.

That is where Greenfield certainly started: His first job out of school was at Goldman Sachs, where he rose to VP level as a media analyst. After getting laid off in 2003 in the wake of the Elliott Spitzer-ignited Wall Street corruption scandal that caused firms like Goldman to reorganize, he segued to the less prominent firms Fulcrum Global Partners and Pali Capital before joining BTIG in 2010.

At Fulcrum, Greenfield met Walt Piecyk, a like-minded, Wharton grad who was similarly chafing against the traditional job description of financial analyst. “We were striving for ways to be different,” Piecyk says. “We were constantly looking for ways that we could allow technology to help us.”

When the pair moved on to Pali together in 2006, they started their blog, abandoning writing dense, graph-laden PDF reports for their clients in favor of online posts that at times feel like they were ripped from a tabloid. One recent headline: #BattleFOX Turns Nasty and Unhinges from Reality as Disney Attacks Comcast.”

“People don’t want 40-page printed reports,” says Piecyk. “You would go into a client’s office and see them stacked up on the floor and not being read and it seemed like a waste of money and a waste of time.”

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Greenfield himself makes the tabloid analogy, telling me that when someone once compared his reports to Page Six, he was delighted. “I love Page Six!” he chirps. “It actually gets read! My number one goal is that, when you see me in your inbox, you don’t click X. That’s my number one goal. Don’t delete me! Read me!”

Twitter was the next frontier. When the platform began taking off, Greenfield realized it was an even more effective, immediate way to draw attention. He joined in the summer of 2008 and in the decade since, he’s tweeted almost 25,000 times. (This includes his many retweets, particularly of anyone wise enough to quote or reference him.)

“News doesn’t break in your inbox, it breaks on Twitter,” says Piecyk. “And if we have a presence there and none of our peers do,  then that provides a strategic advantage in terms of our relationship, not only with clients, but with the relationships that we can build within the industry.”

Says Greenfield: “I think it’s very hard to write about this stuff if you’re not using it. If you don’t use Snapchat, how do you write about Snapchat? If you don’t tweet and you don’t use Twitter, how do you understand Twitter? I think we’re better Twitter analysts because we tweet.”

#Polarizing

Greenfield maintains that his worst offense is being “passionate.”

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His critics, however, suggest that he’s too much about the noise as opposed to substance. Eric Jackson, founder and president of EMJ Capital, whom Greenfield frequently spars with over Disney (Jackson is a stockholder), says that Greenfield is more of a media star than an analyst. “I use the word ‘analyst’ in quotes,” he says.

“Somebody on TV introduced him the other day as one of the most respected voices in media,” Jackson goes on. “I was kind of like, I’m not sure if you did a poll of a bunch of either executives at media firms or analysts or investors, whether they would say the same thing. People in the media always need two points of view, preferably in every story. They have his name and info in their contacts, so they say, I’m writing a story, I’m on deadline, I need to get a colorful quote. Rich is my guy.”

Media companies, at least the ones that Greenfield likes, see this as an attribute. “He’s just a machine self-promoter,” says one executive at a major media company. “Most companies use him as a mouthpiece if possible. If you can get him onboard with your strategy and what you’re trying to do, he’ll show up everywhere he possibly can to talk about it.”

Says Jon Steinberg, founder of the digital news network Cheddar, where Greenfield frequently appears, “At this point, it’s hard not to have him on. How could you not? The guy’s been right about all this stuff. He was the lone voice saying that it was all gonna happen and it was gonna happen fast.”

#BeCurious

When I ask Greenfield about all of this–performative hyperbole?–he tells me that everything he says and does boils down to coming up with a “theme.”

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“It’s building a thesis, right?” he says. “The theme is: There is a shift in video consumption away from linear TV towards other things. If I get the theme right, I’m going to figure out a couple of good stocks.”

As an anecdotal example, Greenfield talks about how he invited a bunch of people and their kids over for a Passover Seder dinner and to watch the Final Four basketball games three months ago. After the meal, all the adults went into the living room to watch the tourney on a giant, flat-screen TV. The kids disappeared into a room to play the video game Fortnite.

“To me, that was, like, a groundbreaking moment,” he says. “They came in and checked the scores and were like, ‘Yeah, we’ll see what happens later.’ ” On Instagram or Facebook. “They want to live in this interactive (world). They’re playing against other people, they’re playing against their friends.”

Filter out the bombast, and Greenfield is genuinely curious about the world he covers, a drive that has him setting up meetings between his clients and small startups long before the rest of the world has heard of them. After he was introduced to Evan Spiegel by former Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton, he met with Snapchat when the company had 20 people.

“That’s kind of who he is,” says Sam Wick, who’s now head of ventures at the United Talent Agency. “He came to Maker (Studios) really early. It was right when we closed our B round. I was working out of a conference room over a taco shop. If something is happening in the YouTube ecosystem, a new form of content, he asks, ‘What’s the most interesting company? It’s O.K. that they’re not in a high rise in Westwood, I’m going to embrace that. I’m going to take my clients there. That’s what real.'”

“We try to meet companies as early as we possibly can,” Greenfield says. “Most of them go nowhere, obviously. But every once in a while there’s a Snapchat or a Spotify. I met Spotify at the Monaco Media Forum. We flew to a conference in Monaco to meet mostly European and Asian internet execs, and there was [CEO] Daniel Ek on a bus at 2 a.m. on the way back to the hotel, tapping me on the shoulder, going, ‘Are you the guy who put a sell on Warner Music?’ That was probably eight years ago.”

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At VidCon this year, Greenfield didn’t just network and people watch, but he also attended a workshop for Facebook video creators “just to understand” the platform.

All of it goes back to building on his theme. “In order to understand disruption, you have to see where it’s coming from,” he says. “So if I just sat and went to watch Disney, Fox, Discovery, Viacom and what they did and followed what they said, I wouldn’t realize what was going on in the rest of the world.” As Erika Nardini, CEO of Barstool Sports, attests, “Rich uses the tools that the companies he champions use. He doesn’t speak about the world that we live in in theory.”

#Love

The love Greenfield showers on companies like Netflix, Barstool Sports, and the Skimm—he’s a small investor in the startup—can at times feel a bit slavishly devoted to his theme that new media is #winning. His argument for Netflix is based on its impressive growth and scale, but overlooks the fact that no one has any idea how much of its content is actually being watched or whether simply throwing money at talent is a sustainable business model in the long run, especially as content licensing deals start to dry up. And whatever shape Disney’s stock is in, the studio is No. 1 at the box office by a very long shot and has established the model that the rest of Hollywood is desperately trying to mimic of taking popular “IP” properties like Marvel and Star Wars and spinning them out into ever-expanding, commercial entities. Not to mention that it has a lock on family-branded entertainment that companies like Netflix can only dream of.

Especially in Greenfield’s Twitter feed, this context can get lost. At VidCon, he Tweeted a series of gushing shout-outs to practically every presenter there. “WWE is crushing it at #vidcon2018.” Snapchat got three heart emojis for simply “courting influencers and creators.”

The real question, of course, is what do Greenfield’s investment clients think of his stock calls? “There’s nobody on the sell side on Wall Street that’s been anywhere near as correct as Rich has been over this whole period of time,” says Gordon Crawford, the influential investment fund manager who was a client of Greenfield’s before he retired. Greenfield himself says, “We have one goal: Help investors make money. It’s how I get compensated, is if I help investors make money. That’s it.”

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In addition to Disney, Greenfield has made several other prescient bets. He has been bullish on Twitter, even when the company was flailing, a call that brings him great pride. “Eighteen, 15 months ago, everyone thought we were nuts. Everyone said, Twitter’s dying, it’s dead. Users are falling, you’re crazy. This is just Trump. But we saw a core improvement in the product. When they went to the algorithm, it started to show me more things that I wanted. I’m like, This is going to lead to more people using it.”

There have also been miscalls, including Aereo, Pandora, and Zynga, which he touted early on only to see its stock fall from $12 a share to $3. “It was embarrassing,” Greenfield admits, but “we came out and the title of our report was We’re Sorry. We Screwed Up.”

With the sky falling as quickly and dramatically as he predicted, though, shouldn’t Greenfield exploit his celebrity into a bigger platform and become, say, a venture capitalist, like former famed analyst Mary Meeker? Or create his own digital media property, like Henry Blodget, who also first made his name on Wall Street? When I ask him this, he seems genuinely surprised. In lieu of a snappy comeback, he tells me, “If we keep being successful at what we do, there’ll be lots of opportunities.”

For now, it’s clear, he’s having the time of his life, watching the world reconfigure itself at breakneck speed, which is his de facto setting. On the flight to Los Angeles from New York for VidCon, Greenfield found out about Disney’s $71 billion bid for Fox. “I spent five hours on the plane trying to figure out what it meant, reading through it, trying to talk to people.” When he landed, he went straight to a lunch and then to a remote broadcast facility to do a CNBC hit. He was up at 5 am this morning to do another one for Squawk Box.

“The last month has been exhausting,” he says, smiling and not looking at all weary. “I’m exhausted.” He looks over at his daughter, who’s ready to move on to the next thing–a cocktail hour sponsored by YouTube. “It’s gonna be a long night, too.” He promises me that when he hits the VidCon parties, “The [#goodluck] T-shirt will be on.”

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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